The cost of living in any big city — let alone Washington, D.C. — has jumped so high that many teachers and other local government workers can no longer afford to live in the communities they serve.
Just 44 percent of D.C. Public Schools teachers reside in the District, and teachers at the city’s numerous charter schools tend to earn even lower salaries, making it a challenge for them to find housing in the city or close-in suburbs.
“I’ve had a lot of trouble finding a place that is affordable for me, especially if I want to live without roommates,” said Allison Sandusky, 30, a teacher at D.C. International School, who accepted her current charter school job three years ago and had to decide between shared housing or commuting into the city. Sandusky lives with two roommates in a house near the H Street NE corridor. “I looked at some places in Maryland and Virginia, but they are so far away.”
A new privately owned apartment building in the increasingly trendy — and pricey — Brookland neighborhood is intended to help address that problem, offering subsidized housing almost exclusively to city teachers, regardless of the school. The arrangement could be a model for attracting educators to urban school systems by offering an affordable way to live near the students they teach.
The apartment building will be part of a complex that will house two charter schools and 10 residential units on a five-acre site at the former St. Paul’s College in the 3000 block of Fourth Street NE. The nonprofit St. Paul on Fourth Street — managed by the Charter School Incubator Initiative, which works with city officials to help fledgling charter schools find suitable space — purchased the property in June for $14.7 million with loans from nonprofit lenders.
The large Y-shaped building, which originally served as study space and residential quarters for Paulist priests and seminarians attending Catholic University, will retain many of its original features from the early 20th century, including a large, airy chapel with stained-glass windows that will be transformed into a high school classroom.
Lee Montessori Public Charter School and Washington Leadership Academy will start in the newly renovated building next month. The 10 residential units — a mix of studio and one- and two-bedroom units — will be ready for move-in next year after $2.5 million in planned renovations. Nine of the residential units will be reserved for teachers; one of the units will be designated for a local law enforcement officer. The residential units will be in the same building as the schools, but they will be inaccessible to students and nonresidents.
Joseph Bruno, president of Building Hope, which issued a loan for the purchase, said that the charter schools and residents will pay rent and that St. Paul on Fourth Street will absorb any losses from the subsidies.
“Everything we do is to advance the charter school movement,” Bruno said.
Building Hope surveyed nearly 200 charter school teachers to gauge interest in living atop two charter schools, finding that 60 percent of respondents would be interested in the housing and that 61 percent have an annual income of $70,000 or less. All city teachers are eligible for the housing, not just those who teach at Lee Montessori and Washington Leadership Academy.
“We want to attract those high-quality teachers to D.C.,’’ said Tom Porter, Building Hope’s vice president of D.C. real estate operations.
Porter said Building Hope has not yet determined the rental rates for the units — the organization is waiting to see if it receives city financing for affordable housing — but the apartments probably would range between 20 and 40 percent below market rates. Rental rates will vary depending on an occupant’s income.
The residential units are aimed at young teachers without families who are on the low end of the teacher pay scale. Building Hope wants the residences to serve as an incentive for top young teachers who might otherwise be dissuaded from accepting jobs in the District because of the city’s high cost of living.
“It was hard to find places in D.C. in general because it’s so expensive,” said Jordan Budisantoso, who just moved to the District from Miami to develop the computer science program at Washington Leadership Academy. He’s renting a studio in Brookland that costs him more than twice what he paid in Florida. He is hoping to move into the subsidized teacher housing when it opens next year. “I wouldn’t be as effective of a teacher if I lived far away,” he said.
The two charter schools on the property are both growing and plan to hire more teachers. Lee Montessori, an elementary and preschool, opened in Northeast in 2014 and has added a grade level each year. Washington Leadership Academy, a high school co-founded by Seth Andrew, who started the Democracy Prep schools network, will open next month with a ninth grade and plans to add a grade a year.
Both schools are part of the Charter School Incubator Initiative. The building has enough space for the schools to grow to a total of 700 students, and they will be allowed to remain in the space as long as they are hitting their achievement and enrollment goals.
“If you could tell me I could live in a high-tech Hogwarts for a thousand dollars a month, I would do it in a heartbeat,” Budisantoso said.