Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Teachers: On Living Where They Work

I just read most of this article about a family from Martha's Vineyard struggling to afford where they live. Things were so bad that, at the time the story was printed, they were "living in a tent with their two year old daughter." The mother just happened to be a teacher. It's not that the family was really the kind of poor that they couldn't afford to find somewhere to live - or even buy. They just couldn't afford it in Martha's Vineyard. Until, of course, they were lucky enough to score affordable housing - for $287,900! While I wouldn't exactly call that affordable, it was a price they were willing to pay. However, life can be interesting - and this is one of those cases. Families that don't even live in Martha's Vineyard are bringing the three proposed units of affordable housing to court - stalling anyone's chance of moving in.

Of course, that one anecdote has wider meaning. In fact, it's not really much of an anecdote at all. Affordability is a systemic problem for most of Massachusetts, not just those two, remote islands. However, it's almost ironic for teachers who work at wealthy or very good school systems: they aren't allowed to give their kids the same quality of education that they give to thousands of students over the course of their career.

Back in the 1980s, when my Dad first started working at the Lynnfield School System, they allowed teachers to send their kids to Lynnfield Schools. It was such a rare policy that, in the early 90s, they quickly reversed it. All my father's children were probably the last to go - and grand-fathered in, as the policy changed when my brother was there (Class of '92). Though my Dad lived in Lynn, infamous for its schools, he was able to send both my older brother and sister to the Lynnfield School System for the latter years of their K-12 education.

They're definitely smarter for it, too. My sister was able to take all sorts of honors and AP classes that wouldn't be available at Lynn and she even did exceptionally well in athletics, which would have been harder at a much larger school system. My brother, who was more into sports than education, ended up with respectable grades and reportedly lost the Cape Ann League's Football MVP because my Dad, a head football coach, abstained from voting that year. (He didn't think it would be right - even if my brother was being recruited by the BCs and Notre Dames of college football at the time.)

However, as the years went on and it was time to pick a school system for my much, much younger brother and sister, my Dad and Stepmother were facing a tougher choice. My older brother and sister only went to Lynnfield High School and Middle School - right around the corner from the high school. They sent them when Lynnfield was a different town - still prosperous, but with more of a mix. There were as many owners of landscaping companies and electricians as there were lawyers. Now, it's mostly just the lawyer-types.

For myriad reasons, my Step Mother really wanted to move to a system she felt would come close to Lynnfield schools. They were mostly looking at Swampscott, but all the school committee infighting and administration vs. teacher angst left a sour taste in her mouth - especially since I was at Swampscott High then and told her about all the stuff going on.

They saw a few houses in Lynnfield that they liked, just before housing prices really spiked, and jumped at one they found out was on the market before there was even a sign on the lawn. Because prices were finally what they were in the 80's, before the housing market crash, they could finally afford to move at all. Moving in Lynnfield, though, meant they had to really sacrifice: my Dad had to sell the house he grew up in, too.

So two nice houses for my Dad and Step Mother = a slightly nicer than average house in Lynnfield. However, almost no one is in the position my Dad was in back then, least of all his co-workers. Not many people were essentially given a second house they'd be able to sell, so they could get their kids the same education they gave everyday. Even the LHS principal lived in Peabody, literally a few houses down from Lynnfield, a decision they made because they couldn't quite afford something for a family of four in Lynnfield. Heck, as the son of a teacher, I probably wouldn't be living in Swampscott if not for the fact that my Dad played for the Buffalo Bills when they bought this modest house for $20,000 in the 1970s.

Massachusetts - and this entire country - has to do something for its teachers. It's a basic matter of fairness that people who spend their lives educating thousands of other people's kids ought to be able to give their children the same quality of education, be it in Swampscott and Lynnfield or Martha's Vineyard. I don't know what the answer to this problem is - though, ultimately, I'd wish it was "fix every school system so they're all very good," but that's not going to happen yet.

There are laws in Massachusetts that allow construction companies to bypass town bylaws and build more units than would otherwise be allowed if a percentage of them are affordable housing, but that causes some problems of its own (traffic, cramped housing, a break from what homes look like in the area, etc.). However, affordability is at the root of many problems surrounding a lack of town-to-town equality in education - something that effects millions more than just teachers in Massachusetts. In creating a better educational system across Massachusetts, our state's leaders must look at periphery - yet connected - causes, including affordable housing.


GGW said...

...."because my Dad, a head football coach, abstained from voting that year"

Wow. Dad's a class act!

Anonymous said...

Raise property taxes so that teachers,firemen,police,sewer workers, all get paid an average of the per capita income of the town they work in. Then they can afford to live where they work. While we're at it the Honey Farms workers in Sudbury should make more than the Honey Farms workers in Millville.

Peter Porcupine said...

Ryan - that zoning law is called 40-B. I've always disliked it because it calls for only 25% affordable units. So - for every affordable unit created, there are THREE unaffordable market rate ones, making towns get even further behind on the target to 10% affordable housing.

I am working with a friend on Martha's Vineyard to create worker housing legislation, and will let you know when it's ready!

Joe said...

Anon, if you raise property taxes, these employees would also have to pay the raised taxes as well. There would be a negligable increase in their salaries a significant increase of taxpayer burden.

I would much rather see zoning law reforms rather than a property tax increase.

Ryan Adams said...

I really am up for zoning law reforms, for affordable housing. However, they can't mean putting 32 units on a place meant for 3 or 4 - which is a lot of what I've been seeing lately (literally, our town stopped something like a 30-40 unit behemeth that was only going to be accessed by a very small street and quiet neighborhood... I think they ended up putting 4 or 5 houses down there).

GGW, he is a class act. I do feel a little bad for my brother though, because he was definitely the league's best player. He was actually the top ranked Tight End in the North East during his Jr. Year of High School (the fact that he was a Jr. definitely stole a few votes from him)... he was the type of player that no one had an answer to, owing both to his aggressive play and the fact that he's 6'6". He ended up getting very serious health problems that started in his early Sr. year and kept him in the hospital for more than 6 months, so he never ended up being able to win it during his senior year either.

Anonymous said...

If you do it through zoning you'll create little cities within cities. Eventually they'll be a little "ghetto" where the "servants" live and then I suppose we could restrict their travel to and from their house/work, maybe working hours only. So they don't wander into other parts of town.

Anonymous said...

Ryan, let me give you a quick course in town/zoning economics. It's obvious that Peter Pumpernickel, the Republican Apparatchick from the Cape (who, according to her posts on BlueMassGroup, apparently believes that cable subscribers should be taxed so that she should be able to get her town meeting proceedings for free--which is odd for a Republican--"free?"), isn't going to do it.

So I will explain it all to you.

One, let's understand something. Zoning serves a number of purposes. One of them is to keep the riff-raff out. If a town by its zoning requires sufficiently large plots of land that the population density is sufficiently reduced, the riff-raff can't afford to buy in the town. Pure and simple.

One of them also is to allow the riff-raff in, but only in certain designated areas. We'll allow the riff-raff in over her, but not over there. So we have done our duty to the commonweal by allowing the riff-raff--well, you know how it goes.

Actually, zoning does serve a number of what some might consider to be legitimate purposes. It allows a town to plan for services such as water supply and sewage disposal. It can also allow a town to plan for garbage disposal. And it can also allow a town to plan for public schools. Of course, if buyers, renters, or the like, did not have to rely on towns for these services, the issue might be different, but the sad fact, that Republican apparatchicks want to ignore, is the fact that they do. So, in the absence of zoning, the developers would build properties and rely on the existing taxpayers of the towns to foot the bill to pay for the increased services required to service the new residents.

Just yesterday, as we were driving back to our hovel in Wellesley, I was contemplating the idea of merging our property (we'll be vacating the place shortly, um Gottes willen), and our neighbors on both sides. The entire land would be 30K sq feet. Without zoning, we'd build at least a 30 story appartment building on top, at least sixy units, and see how the town screams at the services that it would have to provide. Would we care? Not really. We'd have our money. We're perfect conservatives. /sarcasm.

There's more, but it's getting late.


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