Housing voucher program eyed for teachers

Legislation working its way through the state Senate aims to improve teacher retention and recruitment by creating a housing voucher program for full-time teachers employed by the state Department of Education or at public charter schools.

Senate Bill 12 and Senate Bill 114 would authorize the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp. to implement the housing program.

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As drafted in SB 114, the program would provide vouchers to full-time teachers employed by the DOE who teach in a “hard-to-fill” school, a designation to be determined by the department, and whose household income does not exceed 80 percent of the area median income.

The vouchers, which are not to exceed $500 per month, would be provided on a first-come, first-served basis and may be used for rent, mortgage payment for the teacher’s primary residence or down payment on a residential property, provided it will be the teacher’s primary residence and the teacher does not own, operate or control any other residential properties.

“Personally, I felt that we need to do as much as we can to make sure our teachers live in our community and teach at our schools,” said Big Island Sen. Dru Kanuha, a co-sponsor of both bills.

The bills are just one of many steps the Legislature is trying to take in an attempt to “overcome the teacher shortage,” he said.

Neither bill currently includes an appropriation amount.

SB 12 and SB 114 passed second readings last week and were referred to the Senate Ways and Means committee.

Ways and Means recommended both bills be passed with amendments.

“Housing subsidy vouchers can be a tool to increase the department’s teacher retention, especially in hard-to-fill geographic areas,” said DOE Superintendent Christina Kishimoto in written testimony submitted before committee hearings on both bills. “According to a 2016 report by the Learning Policy Institute, housing incentives was one factor for teachers who left the profession in their consideration in returning to the field of education. The financial assistance provided through the voucher program may help to ease some of the financial burden, magnified by high cost of living in Hawaii.”

DOE spokeswoman Lindsay Chambers said a housing voucher program for eligible teachers could be a helpful recruitment and retention tool to attract and retain quality educators.

“At the same time, we recognize that affordable housing needs (to) span professions, not just in education, due to Hawaii’s high cost of living,” she said.

While the “hard-to-fill” requirement is not currently defined in the bill, Chambers said the DOE uses similar terminology to award differential pay to licensed teachers working in schools that are difficult to staff.

As defined in the current Hawaii State Teachers Association contract, those are schools located in the Hana, Keaau, Lanai, Molokai, Ka‘u, Nanakuli, Pahoa and Waianae complexes.

In submitted testimony, HSTA President Corey Rosenlee also urged support of the measures and said Hawaii continues to suffer from a shortage of qualified teachers, especially in the state’s hard-to-fill schools.

A housing voucher program would assist teachers “in attaining sustainable and stable residency while staving off crushing debt burdens,” he said. “It would also make the teaching profession more attractive by increasing educators’ purchasing power through the subsidization of rent and mortgages in the state with the nation’s highest housing costs.”

Craig Hirai, executive director of the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp., said in his submitted testimony that the corporation does not have the appropriate staff and expertise to administer a housing voucher program of this nature.

Based on the number of classroom teachers and vacancies, HHFDC would require a minimum of 22.5 full-time equivalent positions and the related funds to staff the proposed voucher program, in addition to the appropriations needed for the vouchers themselves.

A third bill before the Legislature, House Bill 726, would allow for a state income tax credit up to $500 for pre-kindergarten to 12th-grade teachers, special education teachers, principals, school librarians, aides and counselors employed at least 900 hours a school year to help offset personal expenditures for supplementary school and classroom supplies.

According to the bill, in a survey conducted by the HSTA, 47 percent of those who responded claimed spending between $250 and $500 a year on classroom supplies.

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HB 726 passed second reading Feb. 15 and was referred to the House Finance Committee.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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