Rising housing costs leave many teachers stranded, making too much to qualify for low-income housing but too little to afford higher rents. As a result, teachers are working second jobs to make ends meet, moving to more affordable areas, commuting long distances to work, or leaving the profession altogether.
School districts experiencing rising housing costs see the impact on teacher retention and recruitment. In Colorado, Ann Shimke reports, “Some superintendents say they start teacher-candidate interviews with heart-to-hearts about the reality of housing costs in their communities.”
Beyond the obvious fix of raising teacher salaries, something over which many districts have little control, some districts are looking for ways to build affordable housing for their teachers in Denver, San Francisco, Baltimore, and Milwaukee.
In Los Angeles, plans to build affordable housing for teachers ran afoul of federal income restrictions. Because the district used federal subsidies that restricted the housing units to those making 30 to 60 percent of area median income, even beginning teachers with Los Angeles Unified School District earned too much to live in the apartments — something the district learned only after they had signed the contracts and secured funding. Instead, school district employees who make less than teachers, including janitors and cafeteria workers, have filled the apartments.
Teacher housing in North Carolina
North Carolina may not top the lists of skyrocketing housing costs, but growth in housing prices in resort communities like Asheville and Nags Head combined with a shortage of housing in rural counties make affordable teacher housing a top priority for many districts.
Four districts in North Carolina are providing affordable teacher housing with the help of the State Employees Credit Union Foundation (SECUF): Hertford County, Hoke County, Dare County, and Asheville City-Buncombe County. All four have worked with SECUF to secure 15-year interest-free loans for the construction of apartment complexes for teachers. Most are on land donated by the county or already owned by the school district. Each apartment complex contains two-bedroom, two-bath apartments reserved for teachers at below market rent.
The idea to build affordable apartments for teachers in Hertford County originated in 2004. At the time, James Eure, senior vice president of the State Employees’ Credit Union who now manages Hertford Pointe, was president of the school system’s education foundation, Partners for Hertford County Public Schools Foundation.
In talking with the superintendent, Eure realized the teacher retention rate at the time was between 30 to 50 percent. They conducted a survey and found there were only about 20 apartments that someone on a teachers salary could actually afford. Many new teachers did not want the responsibility of living in a house.
As Eure described, “They would come and go, and it was hard to retain a teacher in Hertford County because unfortunately it was either low-income housing or senior housing apartments.”
Realizing affordable teacher apartments could help with teacher recruitment and retention, Eure spoke to the president of SECUF. A year later, SECUF agreed to provide a 15-year zero-interest loan of $2.2 million to build 24 two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartments in Ahoskie. Since opening in 2006, the apartments have remained full, and Eure is a fierce advocate for providing teacher housing.
“In the beginning it sounded good but I would never believe someone would choose a school system because they have a place to live but over the years I’ve been convinced,” Eure told me. Many of their beginning teachers come from out of state, so being able to provide housing for teachers do not know the area has been a huge draw for new teachers.
While he has loved managing the apartments the past 12 years, Eure is most excited for the day when the SECUF loan is paid off and the rent proceeds can help Hertford County schools: “After three years that mortgage will be paid off, and then Partners for Hertford County Public Schools Foundation will have approximately $150,000 a year to support students in Hertford County. That will be so exciting.”
Teacher housing in resort communities: Dare County and Asheville
After visiting the teacher apartments in Hertford County, school and community leaders in Dare County began talks with SECUF to build their own teacher apartment complex. Unlike in Hertford County where there was a lack of housing, in Dare County, there was a lack of affordable housing.
The easternmost county in North Carolina, Dare County is home to tourist and resort communities such as Nags Head on the Outer Banks, making much of the housing far too expensive for teachers. To maintain an adequate supply of teachers, Dare education leaders worked with SECUF to replicate the teacher apartments in Hertford County. They opened a 24-unit apartment complex in Kill Devil Hills in 2008, and then secured an additional loan to open 12 apartment units on Hatteras Island. Both are managed by the Dare Head Foundation.
While teachers make up the majority of the residents in the apartments, whenever there is an apartment they cannot fill with teachers, they open it up to members of the Coast Guard and National Park Service, both of whom struggle to find housing in the Outer Banks as well.
Dr. John Donlan, Director of Human Resources for Dare County Schools, said the apartments have proven to be a strong recruiting tool: “People see they could actually make a move there and there would be housing.” He added that the issue of affordable housing in Dare County is not unique to the education community — due to the resort prices, the whole community could use more affordable housing.
On the western side of the state, Asheville is also experiencing increasing housing costs due to tourism and growing numbers of people retiring in the area, making affordable housing for teachers hard to find. Asheville City Schools and Buncombe County Schools teamed up to submit a plan to SECUF for their own teacher apartment complex.
The Williams-Baldwin Teacher Campus opened this past May and provides 18 units for Buncombe County teachers and six units for Asheville City teachers at a below-market rent of $900 a month.
Former Asheville City Schools superintendent Dr. Pam Baldwin attributed the success of the project to the partnership with Buncombe County Schools and Eblen Charities, the managing partner.
For Baldwin, affordable housing is not just an issue for teachers but impacts the community as well. “When you work in a school district where affordability of housing is a concern, it not only impacts the ability of teachers to afford to live there and teach,” she said. “When your teachers do not live in the neighborhoods and communities in which they serve, there is a disconnect in partnerships and relationships you can build.”
Cynthia Lopez, director of human resources for Buncombe County Schools, believes, “It’s a worthwhile endeavor. Not only are you helping your teachers out now and helping them come to your district, you can make their pay go much further if they’re sharing a unit.” She also sees the value in the extra money going to the school district once they pay off their 15-year loan.
Is teacher housing just a bandaid?
Several other districts in North Carolina are looking into building their own teacher apartments, including Durham County and Bertie County. However, many teachers argue that instead of building affordable housing for them, the state should raise their pay so they can afford to choose where they live.
In our Reach NC Voices poll of teachers’ housing needs, many teachers said the need is not for more affordable housing options but rather higher pay. Several teachers stated opinions similar to this one: “If teachers were paid more we wouldn’t have to have this discussion at all.”
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