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The CPS Residency Requirement Could Get Pricey for Chicago

Forcing teachers and other public workers to live here helps the city keep its middle class — but only if it pays them like it.

CTU members Karen Sanchez, Lia Berezka, and Hannah Ermer at a rally ahead of a potential teachers strike on September 24, 2019 in Chicago.   Photo: Scott Heins/Getty

Karen Moody, a Chicago Public Schools teacher and single mother, was priced out of two apartments in Lake View before finding the $1,300-a-month one-bedroom that she now shares with her daughter. Karen sleeps in the living room; her daughter, a sophomore at Lake View High School, sleeps in the bedroom. It’s what she can afford on her $58,000-a-year salary as a “cadre” teacher — a full-time substitute.

“Two girls alone, we want to be somewhere safe,” says Moody, who has lived in Lake View for most of her adult life. “We love our community; it’s where my daughter was born and has spent her whole life.”

Like all city employees, CPS teachers are required to live in Chicago-proper. But Chicago is becoming a more and more expensive place to live, as a result of what urbanists call a “demographic inversion,” in which a once-affordable inner city attracts wealthy residents, while the working class are forced into outlying neighborhoods or suburbs. Chicago’s median household income grew 11 percent between 2014 and 2018, from $51,695 to $57,238.

Along the way, the city’s well-to-do newcomers bid up housing costs. According to RentCafe, the average rent in the city increased by six percent over the past year.

Economically and demographically, Chicago is less of a middle-class city than it used to be. But it still needs workers for middle-class jobs — teaching, putting out fires, sweeping the streets. If those workers can no longer afford a comfortable place in the city, will they still want to work here?

Over the course of their last contract, from 2012 to 2019, CPS teachers got a 7.3 percent raise for cost of living expenses, says CTU communications director Chris Geovanis. Since July 2012, the Consumer Price Index for the entire Chicago area has gone up by 10 percent. And, says Geovanis, “we believe that this does not reflect more rapidly escalating costs in Chicago proper, where all of our members must live.”

The starting salary for a CPS teacher is $54,000. “You tell me how someone carrying $100,000 in student debt and making $54,000 is going to find a way to fold in a house note on that, when you have to save $40,000 for a downpayment,” says Geovanis.

Teachers aides, meanwhile, start at $30,000 — not enough to rent a two-bedroom apartment nearly anywhere in Chicago.

Most school districts don’t have residency requirements for teachers. New York doesn’t. Philadelphia used to, but axed it. New Trier certainly doesn’t; how many grade school teachers can afford to live in Wilmette?

Chicago’s residency requirement is not universally popular among teachers, but it’s also not something they’ve asked their union to challenge in the next contract. That’s because there’s a consensus that teachers who live in Chicago are personally invested in the city and neighborhood where they teach.

The residency rule, which was adopted 100 years ago, has also been credited with preventing the white flight that emptied out so many other cities in the ’60s and ’70s, and with preserving Chicago’s middle class.

“If you go to Cleveland, if you go to Detroit, if you go to New York, if you go to Philadelphia — talk to all those mayors. They’ll tell you they lost all their middle class,” Mayor Richard M. Daley once said while defending the rule.

That’s a good argument for a residency requirement. But as the city’s average income increases, so does number it takes to be middle class here. If Chicago wants to retain its public employees, it’ll need to keep up with their salary requirements.

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