Tiny Houses, Narrow Visions
Examining American inequality through the problem of teacher housing
This past December, the Vail School District, in the suburbs of Tucson, Arizona, stumbled briefly into the national spotlight when it announced a plan to build tiny homes for teachers who couldn’t otherwise afford to live in the district. Starting salaries for Arizona teachers are $36,000 a year, while the median income in the district is $83,000, and the median home price is $260,000. In addition, according to the Arizona Daily Star, there is not one single apartment complex in the 425-square-mile district. Teacher salaries have declined in Arizona since 2001, and nearly three quarters of Arizona school districts report teacher shortages. Under these conditions, Vail’s administrators believe offering the tiny homes will help them attract and retain teachers. They also cite the hope of “integrating” their teachers “into the Vail community.”
The practice of school districts providing housing for teachers is not new. Rural schools, in particular, have been doing so since the nineteenth century to attract and retain teachers, sometimes with federal funding; as the Star noted, rural districts further outside of Tucson continue to do so. More recently, districts in overheated urban housing markets — particularly those in the San Francisco Bay area — have begun building affordable housing for teachers who are being priced out, or worse.
Vail’s plan won notice primarily for its chutzpah. The superintendent described the proposed 300-square foot residences, mounted on flatbed trucks, as “tiny luxury homes” and a “cheap and hip” option for teachers. One local resident promptly replied, in a letter to the editor, that the plan amounted to a “tiny, cool, professional ghetto.” Joe Thomas, the president of the Arizona Education Association, called the plan “tiny homes for tiny salaries” and described it as “somewhat insulting” to Vail’s teachers. In the end, however, Thomas came to the same conclusion as the Star. Faced with a recalcitrant state legislature bent on educational austerity, the district might as well go ahead and build the tiny houses.
The Vail story faded quickly from the national spotlight, but it raised a question that appears in the news with some regularity. The question serves as the title of a deeply-researched piece by Rachel M. Cohen for the American Prospect two years back: “Can Affordable Housing Help Retain Teachers?” As Cohen’s article reveals, this question generates several others. Who does the work of education? How are they compensated? What relationship should these educators have to the communities they serve? Put broadly, what does the making of the teaching corps, and its housing inside or outside of certain school districts, reveal about the role of schooling in the making and re-making of spatialized inequality in the United States today?
While journalists look for answers to these questions in the present, a cohort of educational historians have reshaped their field with new studies of the role of schools in “making the unequal metropolis.” Their work has demonstrated that segregation and inequality in public schooling are not only the product of housing patterns, but play a constitutive role in producing and reproducing these patterns. These historians have demolished the myth of de facto segregation by showing how governmental decisions about schools — from the way districts and school zones are drawn to how teachers and students are sorted within them — shape putatively “private” housing markets, as well as metropolitan space more broadly.
This new history offers a new set of analytic tools that help make sense of schemes to house teachers and what these schemes tell us about the continuing relationship between education and real estate in the making of American inequality. As Andrew Highsmith and Ansley T. Erickson write in their examination of school segregation in Flint, Michigan (which Highsmith expands upon in his 2014 book, Demolition Means Progress), the same educational officials who “employed a variety of city-splitting techniques” to segregate Flint’s schools “often did so in the name of community building.” In other words, school segregation is not simply about keeping out “them,” but defining an “us.” And as Erickson details in her 2016 book, Making the Unequal Metropolis, decisions about schooling shape narratives about spaces and people, narratives that are then deployed in decisions about the building and zoning of schools, as well as what goes on inside them. Examining these narratives — spoken and implied — helps reveal and untangle the mutual constitution of inequalities in schooling and housing.
To start, how is Vail constituted as a district, as an “us”? The “VSD” has grown precipitously in the last three decades, serving 1,000 students in 1990 and over 12,000 today. As explained on the district’s webpage, population growth has been driven by significant state and federal investment in the local economy, in the form of the University of Arizona’s Tech Parks Arizona (anchored by IBM and Raytheon) and the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. As a result, the VSD is whiter and wealthier than its surrounding metropolitan area, with only 16% of residents identifying as Hispanic or Latino in a county (Pima) that is approximately 36% Hispanic. Vail’s schools score extremely well on state tests, and feature prominently on home-buying sites for the region (a phenomenon that historian Jack Schneider has critiqued for furthering segregation). In many ways, this is a classic suburban story, producing ample wealth and public resources for those who can afford the district’s rising home prices. On its “about” page, the district describes itself as the “top performing school district in Arizona” and offers the motto “where education is a community effort,” with 1,900 employees who are the “heart and soul of this District.” However, it appears many of those employees cannot actually afford to live in the Vail community.
What can or should be done about the resulting teacher shortage, and who is responsible for it? The district and the press have largely pointed the finger at the state, and the Arizona legislature certainly deserves blame. A 2015 study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities revealed that Arizona led the nation in cuts to K-12 education between 2008 and 2015.
However, the residents of the Vail School District have made at least two distinct local decisions, as well, in constituting this exclusive community. First, the VSD pays teachers an average of $41,000 a year: better than the state average, but not enough to live in the district as constituted. Second, as mentioned previously, there is not a single apartment in the district. Restricting multifamily development is a matter of local zoning law, one with a long, segregationist history. It seems almost too obvious to say, but if the people of Vail want educators to live in the district, they would do well to a) pay them more, and b) encourage participating municipalities to zone and build affordable housing. This, however, would mean fundamentally re-constituting the “us” that is Vail, and so another option presents itself: carving out a small niche for teachers, a place to fit them into this consciously-constructed community.
What narratives emerge from this carving out, the proposed development of tiny houses? First, who will live in the lap of tiny luxury? The Star says the tiny homes “are popular with millennials, hipsters and others looking for a simplified, minimized or ascetic lifestyle.” The superintendent notes that while he hopes to eventually sell them to teachers, they don’t house families comfortably. In other words, these teachers are imagined as young, hip ascetics: neither concerned with accumulation nor planning to have or start families during their tenure.
The district also hopes for a measure of what they term “integration”: the incorporation of teachers into the surrounding social world. As Joe Thomas of the AEA put it, “You’re supposed to see important people from the community actually in the community.” But how will these teachers, living in the only such development of its kind in the district, perched on flatbed trucks, be seen? What will students make of the tiny houses, and what will their parents say about them? Moreover, how much “integration” will be achieved in the years before these teachers start families and are forced to seek housing elsewhere? Proximity can create possibilities for community, but it can also highlight disparities.
Finally, the proposed houses, located on publicly-owned school-district property, would house between 20 and 24 teachers, in a district with 1,900 employees. This is not a serious solution to the problem but a symbolic one. Moreover, the decision to use this property in this way begs several questions. Why not build more affordable housing, on this site and at others? Why not make it permanent? Why not make it accessible to everyone? If public lands can be deployed in this way for teachers, why not also for students and families who could benefit from access to the top school district in the state? Education, the VSD proclaims, is a “community” effort. The VSD is also a powerful mechanism for constituting that community, and for reconstituting it — without reshaping it — when problems such as priced-out teachers threaten to undermine the narrative of community.
The Vail plan is an easy target, but it is worth applying these analytics more broadly. Schemes to house teachers fall, more or less, into two camps: 1) efforts to house teachers in districts they can afford, but might otherwise avoid, and 2) efforts to house teachers in districts like Vail, where they might like to teach but cannot afford to live. In each case, we can ask both how communities are constituted (and teachers’ places within them), and how teachers are imagined, described, and recruited.
Ongoing efforts to house teachers in expensive metropolitan areas are sometimes part of broader schemes to develop affordable housing and recruit public servants locally, but they are most often stopgap measures to avoid taking two kinds of serious action: paying teachers more, or building affordable housing (this, of course, is the case in Vail). In many major cities, teacher housing is also offered as part of a resolution to struggles between districts and teacher unions. These plans seem appealing in the face of tight budgets, but rather than let themselves be housed in “professional ghettos,” organized teachers would do well to stand alongside students and parents (who are also being priced out) and demand a public response to rising rents and displacement. While it is understandable that politicians looking for immediate solutions propose them (often in lieu of contract gains), and that embattled teachers and their unions are eager for any benefits they can win, rejecting the “company town” model in favor of a reconstituted, and more inclusive, “us” would offer a far more lasting solution. The same questions that arise in Vail can be asked anywhere: if public land can be developed affordably to house teachers, why can’t it be developed affordably to house the rest of the public?
The practice of housing teachers in affordable but potentially unappealing areas was once a primarily rural phenomenon, but has found its way into the urban core since the 1960s. Today, the most high-profile example is in Newark, New Jersey, where a “Teacher’s Village” has sprung up as an anchor of downtown redevelopment. Here, too, we can and should ask both about the bounding of the community and the making of the teaching corps. First, why is it that no teachers would live in the perfectly “affordable” housing near Newark schools, and what does their unwillingness to move in communicate to students and parents about their communities?
Second, who is imagined as a teacher in the building of “Teacher’s Village?” Cohen quotes one longtime Newark teacher saying the project “is clearly designed for white, young professional types, at a time when we desperately need more housing for poor people of color.” Much as in the case of Vail, the teaching corps is imagined narrowly: young, white, hip, and eager to serve in exchange for “cool” perks, but not “integrated” into the local community, raising families, or planning to stay very long. As in Vail, teachers are incorporated into the social-spatial fabric of the district in ways that are carefully curated to support pre-existing definitions of, and narratives about, segregated places and communities.
In addition to joining fights for equitable access to housing, teachers, their unions, and administrators in situations like Newark’s would do well to expand their definitions of who can or should be an educator. “Grow Your Own” programs that recruit educators locally have expanded somewhat in recent years, and New America Foundation has recently released a spate of reports that suggest teacher shortages and community linkages could be addressed by training multilingual paraprofessional educators into teachers (my own historical work looks at similar programs in an earlier era). Such programs are not panaceas, but they offer an important corrective to the narrow visions perpetuated by extant teacher housing schemes.
The American educational landscape remains almost impossibly fragmented, a jumble of overlapping jurisdictions and imperatives. However, when we study the interconnected relationship between schooling and housing, when we understand segregation not just as splitting but joining, and when we ask how decisions about resources and spaces create narratives about education, certain features of this landscape come into focus. Tiny houses, however luxurious, have little to offer those who wish to see this landscape remade in the service of equality.
Nick Juravich is the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in Women’s History at the New-York Historical Society.