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Teachers' Union Presidents On Affordable Housing Proposals: 'Who Wants To Live Where They Work?'

C.M. Guerrero
Miami Herald
Phillis Wheatley Elementary School may get an affordable-housing apartment complex next door as part of a county plan to let teachers live on school property. Miami-Dade's teachers' union president balked at the plan.

It’s a growing problem in South Florida: teachers can’t afford to live in the communities where they work.

So county governments and school boards in Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties have discussed the idea of building affordable housing on school campuses.

It hasn’t gone over very well with teachers.

“I mean, who wants to live where they work?” said Karla Hernandez-Mats, president of the United Teachers of Dade.

Their proposed solution: pay teachers more so they can afford South Florida rents or mortgages.

We talked with Hernandez-Mats and her peers — Broward Teachers Union President Anna Fusco and United Teachers of Monroe President Holly Hummell-Gorman — about local challenges they’re confronting as well as the state of teachers’ unions in Florida. Fifty years ago Florida teachers launched the first statewide walkout in the country’s history but now they’re facing a new law that could threaten their long-term survival. The interview will be featured on "The Sunshine Economy" on Monday, May 28.  

Here’s an excerpt of WLRN’s conversation with the teachers’ unions presidents. It begins with Hummell-Gorman explaining how Hurricane Irma further limited housing availability in the Florida Keys:

WLRN: Let’s start with Holly. The Keys are unique in that the district is considered rural and yet housing affordability is arguably an even bigger concern there than in the urban districts to the north of you — especially since Hurricane Irma destroyed some housing on the islands. Where do we go from here?

HUMMELL-GORMAN: Thousands of people lost their homes. We had people who just couldn't rebuild. They just had to get up and leave. You know, we've lost teachers and students.

I served on a committee — and it's in the school board's hands now — but there's a piece of property up at Sugarloaf School that they are considering possibly putting some affordable housing [on]. And that would be for our employees only, should they choose to live there.

WLRN: Holly, for those of us who don't know the Keys well, where is Sugarloaf?

HUMMELL-GORMAN: It's at about mile marker 19. So, 19 miles from Key West.

WLRN: OK, well, Karla and Anna: There's been some talk in Dade and Broward as well about how to address affordable housing concerns — one of the ideas being creating on-campus housing for teachers. I'd love to hear either of your thoughts on that.

FUSCO: You want to go first, Karla, since your district is the one that came up with that crazy idea?

HERNANDEZ-MATS: Sure. I mean, it makes it really hard for us to recruit and retain teachers, because they know they cannot afford, you know, to live here and have families here. And, so one of the ideas that was recently proffered — which unfortunately they had no conversation with the union to try to see how it was that teachers would react and how we would feel. And now they've seen the backlash of, you know, what teachers feel about that.

WLRN: What is the backlash?

HERNANDEZ-MATS: “So, I mean, they've got a lot of people that have been responding to this very negatively. I mean, who wants to live where they work? You know, they have made a proposal of having low-income housing on the property, on the school site.

First of all, it's only 300 units. We have over 20,000 teachers. So this is not fixing anything, right? This is very minimal. And they're going to give priority to teachers, but it doesn't mean that it's only for educators. This is going to be for the community. And our teachers are very discouraged by it, because they see it as a way to excuse the fact that we aren’t adequately paid.

Their students and their families are going to be in the same building. So, at 7 at night, does that mean I'm going to get a knock on the door saying, “Hey, I know you teach right here at this school. I can't figure out how to do this homework assignment. Can you help me with it?” Or, you know, with everything that's going on with our state Legislature and how they make these crazy laws about arming school staff — at some point, are they going to say, “Well, since the teacher lives on campus, why don't we also make them the guard at night?”

WLRN: So, Anna, you called that idea crazy. Can you explain why?

FUSCO: Absolutely. … It's ludicrous. I say, it's an easy fix. Pay people what they deserve and what they've earned, and keep up with the times, which is not much to ask for.

HERNANDEZ-MATS: That way they can live where they want to live.

FUSCO: I can't say that I don't have respect for people trying that. At least they tried.

WLRN: Yeah, it sounds like it was well-intentioned, but maybe they didn't expect the reaction that they got?

FUSCO: Well, they should've, because, you know what? I do believe that one of my board members actually made that asinine comment last school year — that, you know, let's let's build some housing around the schools. … And what Karla said: They don't ever come to the people that it actually affects. You heard her: 20,000 teachers. We have 15,000 teachers.

So you want to build for 300. So, who are the 300 that are going to get chosen? Then that's going to be pitting [people against each other] there. They're going to say, it's a lottery. Then they're going to say, it's their friends. It all turns into a really cluster-mess.

For more of this conversation, tune in to WLRN at 9 a.m. or 7 p.m. Monday, May 28, for “The Sunshine Economy.” 

Jessica Bakeman is Director of Enterprise Journalism at WLRN News, and she is the former senior news editor and education reporter. Her 2021 project "Class of COVID-19" won a national Edward R. Murrow Award.
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