Eli Melchor-Heinlen, a 34-year-old mother with a master's degree and a teaching job in a D.C. suburb, woke up one recent morning to find her body covered with bedbug bites.
The vermin came with the house, a $180,000 fixer-upper on the edge of a good neighborhood in Baltimore. It was as much house as she could afford.
Melchor-Heinlen teaches second grade at Crofton Woods Elementary School in Anne Arundel County, where starting pay is the lowest in the Washington suburbs. With her advanced degree and five years' experience, she earns $42,024. She cannot afford to rent, let alone own, in Crofton, a once-affordable suburb where the median home price soared 20 percent to $239,950 last year.
"I don't go on vacations. I don't go out to eat. I don't buy new clothes," she said. "Part of me says, okay, maybe I just expect too much out of life."
Teachers around the District and its suburbs increasingly feel priced out of the communities where they teach.
Just a few years ago, before the real estate boom swept through places like Anne Arundel, teachers, police and others in the middle class could usually afford to own homes in the cities or counties where they worked. Today, many teachers such as Melchor-Heinlen live in exile, driving home to some run-down section of Baltimore or to an ever-more-distant area. Like the hired help of earlier generations, they cannot live where they work.
Starting pay for a first-year teacher with a bachelor's degree in the Washington region ranges from a low of $34,691 in Anne Arundel to a high of $39,457 in Montgomery, according to 2004-05 salary schedules provided by the statewide teachers unions. Starting pay will reach $40,000 next year in at least three Washington area school systems: Arlington, Fairfax and Montgomery.
But salaries haven't nearly kept pace with home prices, which climbed 18 percent last year alone in the Washington region, according to a Washington Post analysis.
"It's become an incredibly expensive place to live," said Mark Glaser, president of the teachers union in Fairfax, where the median home price tops $400,000. "And my joke is, a teacher in Fairfax County has to marry at least three other teachers."
A tiny handful of teachers, chiefly in the New York region, have broken the six-figure barrier that once meant entry to the upper class. Median teacher pay in Scarsdale, "essentially the Montgomery of New York," is now $98,130, according to Carl Korn, spokesman for New York State United Teachers. But even there, class barriers remain.
"Let me put it this way," Korn said. "You can't touch a house in Scarsdale for less than a million."
The highest base salary in the Washington region is $88,108, for a Montgomery teacher with a master's degree, 60 additional course hours of training and 25 years of experience. The top base salary in Anne Arundel is $72,083.
Anne Arundel school Superintendent Eric J. Smith announced last month that the system would begin an analysis of what it would take to make the county's salary structure competitive with the rest of the region. Salary disparities complicate the effort to recruit and retain good teachers; the county is losing 800 of its 5,600 teachers this year because of resignations and retirements.
Melchor-Heinlen was renting a two-bedroom apartment in Catonsville, a Baltimore suburb, but she wanted a house with a yard for Ezra, her 3-year-old son, whose custody she shares with her ex-husband. Nothing in Catonsville fit her budget. "There's three houses for sale on the street I lived on," she said. "I couldn't afford them [now]. I could afford them before."
She looked for months and finally settled on a house in the Westgate neighborhood of Baltimore. It was a house nearing foreclosure, a rat trap, a dump, a dwelling cloaked in "seven years of filth, roaches, bedbugs, mice, and a healthy rat population outside," Melchor-Heinlen recalled.
Even that house cost $180,000, which was $20,000 over the top of her price range. She'll eventually look for a roommate.
"I could not afford a house on my own," she said. "I could only afford one with my parents putting in a hefty chunk of change into it, which is mildly embarrassing when you are in your thirties."
Her parents, both retired educators, came from Dundee, Mich., late last month to help Melchor-Heinlen move in. Together, they wiped mouse droppings from the kitchen shelves, scraped layers of grease from the floor, painted over graffiti spray-painted on the basement walls and repainted the interior of the 1930s Dutch Colonial.
"When I first walked in, it was . . . dismaying, I guess," said Dorothy Heinlen, Eli's mother.
Melchor-Heinlen's original plan was to share the house with Jennifer Fenimore, the music teacher at Crofton Woods. Fenimore eventually decided she wanted to find her own home.
Fenimore, 30, is a fourth-year teacher with a bachelor's degree. She earns $36,584, considerably less than Melchor-Heinlen.
She is moving out of her one-bedroom Annapolis apartment this month because the rent, $998 a month, is going up $30.
"It's that tight," she said.
Fenimore also wants to buy a house, but she can afford even less home than Melchor-Heinlen. She wants a monthly mortgage payment that is no higher than $900.
"What that means, up in Baltimore, is any of the crack districts, any of the undesirable neighborhoods," said Fenimore, sipping a latte at a bookstore near the apartment she can no longer afford. Instead, she will spend the summer with the family of a girl she taught at chorus camp last year, living rent-free in exchange for painting the house.
"That's going to help me pay for earnest money, home inspection and possibly carpets," she said, planning for her eventual home purchase.
Fenimore works two other jobs when she's not teaching at Crofton Woods. She travels around the county to teach voice and piano in students' homes. She also tutors children in math and reading at a Huntington Learning Center in Edgewater.
"If I didn't do that, there's no way I could make ends meet," she said.
Born and raised in Alberta, Canada, Fenimore worked in the music business in Nashville and waitressed at a pancake restaurant before retraining as a teacher in her mid-twenties.
Her parents, still in Nashville, are close to retirement, and Fenimore won't ask them for financial help: "I wasn't raised that way."
And yet, she can barely keep up her current pace.
"I'm not 25 years old anymore," she said, between sips of the coffee drink. "I do get tired. I'm becoming more dependent on the caffeine."
Fenimore will spend the summer looking for townhouses around Fort Meade, a community still within her price range, for now. "In Howard County, I can't afford anything," she said. "In Calvert County, I can afford a double-wide trailer."