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When potential teachers are considering a position, they often want to know what’s available for affordable housing. “If I don’t have an answer for that, I lose that applicant,” one school district superintendent says.
Just about everyone who reflects on their younger years can point to a teacher who had a significant impact on their life. From art teachers to football coaches to paraprofessionals, educators change the lives of hundreds of students each year. But gratitude and appreciation don’t pay the bills.
Teachers often do not earn enough to cover housing costs. It’s a challenge exacerbating an already dire teacher shortage in many communities, pushing some school districts to dive right into the housing industry.
Take Eagle County, Colorado, where the Rocky Mountains cradle small towns home to just over 55,000 people. Skiers flock to the area to hit Vail Ski Resort, and the county’s most populous municipality, Edwards, has just over 11,000 people, making it an idyllic retreat for those looking for a break from city life. But natural attractions are a double-edged sword.
Housing costs have risen dramatically over the last several years as people move to the area or purchase second homes there, said Eagle County School District Superintendent Philip Qualman. In 2022, the average townhome or condo in Eagle County was listed at $1.2 million while many educators made about $50,000 annually, a salary that makes even renting difficult.
Qualman has held leadership positions in the district for 15 years, and in that time has interviewed many potential employees. In every single interview, he said, the candidate asks what the area has for affordable housing.
“If I don’t have an answer for that, I lose that applicant,” Qualman said.
Eagle County is far from alone. A report from the National Education Association suggests that housing assistance, including down payment assistance programs or reduced rent, is a powerful tool for attracting and retaining employees as housing costs continue to outpace salaries.
Rent for a one-bedroom home in 69 major metropolitan areas has increased 22% since 2017, according to a National Council on Teacher Quality report published in May. Teacher salaries, meanwhile, rose only 15%. Housing in 15 of the cities analyzed is unaffordable for new teachers with bachelor’s degrees.
Rent increases outpaced salary increases in 53 cities included in the study. In the most extreme case, housing costs within the Sacramento City Unified School District in California increased 50%, while teacher salaries rose only 9%.
Over the last few years, the Eagle County School District launched a handful of initiatives to make housing more accessible to teachers including directly asking community members to make vacant rooms and accessory dwelling units available to teachers. Besides opening up some 200 units for teachers, Qualman said, the effort helped the broader community understand the challenges the district was facing. The school district has also worked with property owners to secure master leases that give employees priority for units and has so far gained 27 units through such agreements, with another 13 expected to be obtained within the next year. The district deducts the cost of rent from paychecks, and the property owner knows the tenants are all vetted by the school district.
A Colorado law allows developers of large housing developments to transfer land to school districts in lieu of school impact fees, Qualman said. That’s how Eagle County School District came to own several parcels of land, including 30 acres next to a county high school. In 2022, the district began building 37 units there, a mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom homes.
Normally, the community would need to approve a bond to fund such an initiative, Qualman said. But rather than issue a bonds, which would raise property taxes, making the initiative difficult to pass, the school district opted for a certificate of participation, a financial tool that allows the district to pay for the project and repay the loan using lease revenue.
To keep the units affordable, the district didn’t work with a traditional developer that seeks to make a profit. Instead, it hired an owner’s representative to oversee construction in a relationship akin to working directly with a general contractor. One-bedroom units are rented at a fixed rate of 30% of a teacher’s base salary, which comes out to about $1,250 a month for a new teacher—a bargain compared to the $2,000 market rate rent typical for the area. Ten units are currently filled, and the other 17 should come online within the next few months, Qualman said.
The district is now partnering with Habitat for Humanity to build affordable homes on district-owned land, most of which will go to district employees.
“All that effort over the last five years I think built up a lot of confidence in our community that we know what we're doing around this,” Qualman said. In November, voters approved a $100 million bond that will fund projects including a preschool and more affordable housing.
Qualman acknowledged that Eagle County had a leg up since developers have been giving land to the district for years. But other districts are getting creative too, and not just those in rural areas with vacant parcels.
The Austin Independent School District in Texas is repurposing land that is currently the site of an alternative learning center the district runs. The 125,000 square foot building is underutilized, according to the district’s Director of Real Estate Jeremy Striffler. The number of students enrolled in the center fluctuates throughout the year, typically between 30 and 180—not enough to warrant such a massive facility, he said.
The project’s preliminary plan is to break ground next year and build 519 units, at least half of which will be reserved for families earning at most 80% of the area median income, Striffler said. A smaller, more modern alternative learning center will be built to replace the current facility. The district has about 10,000 employees, and while their applications get priority, not everyone may be interested in occupying the units. If that’s the case, those apartments will be available to families in the district, Stiffler said. In the meantime, the district is looking at other ways to house teachers and is partnering with the Austin Apartment Association to offer teachers reduced rent deposits or waived application fees.
“We have yet to be able to crack the code of how to keep wages increasing at the same rate as housing and the cost of living,” Striffler said, adding that many teachers and staff don’t qualify for affordable housing through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, but they also don’t earn enough to cover market-rate rent.
“What isn't being built right now in Austin is workforce housing, so that's where we're really trying to step in and offer that option for staff,” Striffler said.
While school districts work to find housing solutions for employees, they shouldn’t be alone in their efforts to house teachers, said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
The AFT helped build teacher housing in West Virginia with help from a state tax credit, hoping to provide a model for other rural communities in need of more housing. But it’s going to take a much larger effort to house the country’s teachers. In addition to higher pay for educators, “there needs to be real government intervention to help in this—not just tax credits,” Weingarten said.
Construction costs are one of the biggest challenges to building housing, and those expenses are ultimately passed on to tenants, she said. Until there’s a better way for developers, whether that’s school districts or private sector builders, to cover those initial investments, it’s not going to get any easier to house educators.
“There has to be another federal commitment to affordable housing and to workforce housing,” she said. “Because at the end of the day … in order for there to be more housing, there needs to be a way for people to be able to afford the cost of building that housing.”
In the meantime, Striffler said he’s glad to see increasing attention on the disconnect between teacher salaries and housing costs in the areas they serve.
“This problem is not unique to [Austin], and we're seeing this across the country,” he said. “And we're hopeful that we will start to see an increase in … workforce housing—which really is just attainable housing.”