Housing woes

To hire and keep good teachers as housing costs rise, Colorado school districts take on new role: landlord

PHOTO: Mark Payler
Ray Perez, a sophomore at Custer County High School, works with instructor Bruce May on a project that will convert a former preschool building into teacher housing.

As Colorado’s housing costs skyrocket, a growing number of school districts, local leaders and lawmakers are taking steps to make housing more affordable for teachers and staff.

For years, resort communities such as Aspen and rural districts such as Woodlin on the Eastern Plains have leased housing to employees at below-market rates. More recently, subsidized housing for educators has cropped up in pricey urban areas such as San Francisco, Boston and Baltimore.

But lately, Colorado districts big and small are looking at building their own housing or collaborating with external partners to do so. Such projects are underway now in three rural districts, and Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest district, is exploring the idea.

Driving these plans are fears that recruiting and retaining good teachers will shift from hard to impossible as housing costs rise. Compounding the problem is Colorado’s perennial school funding squeeze and the lagging teacher salaries that go with it.

“This year when it comes to hiring season, I will probably struggle to replace four to six teachers because of housing,” said David Blackburn, superintendent of the Salida school district in central Colorado. “It’s in the middle of every conversation about quality staff.”

In Denver, where an influx of new residents and a wave of gentrification have pushed up housing prices across the metro area, district officials say they’re in the earliest stages of figuring out how the district could help employees with housing.

Currently, the Denver-based Donnell-Kay Foundation is compiling information for the district about models of subsidized teacher housing used across the country. Some have been spearheaded by school districts and others by real estate developers with little involvement from districts. (Chalkbeat is a grantee of the Donnell-Kay Foundation.)

Allen Balczarek, who works on special projects for Denver Public Schools, said specific recommendations could go before the school board or district leadership team in 2017.

He said the lack of affordable housing for teachers isn’t yet a crisis in Denver, but called it a very serious issue.

City officials say growing concerns about affordability spurred a new ordinance to raise $150 million over 10 years to create and preserve affordable housing for a wide range of Denver residents, from homeless individuals to families earning $64,000 to $96,000 a year.

Federal tax credits have already helped create affordable housing around the city, though many teachers make too much to qualify.

“There’s some we can help, but there’s probably many we can’t because of their income,” said Brent Snyder, manager of the company that developed and owns the new WeltonPark apartment complex in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood.

Most of the 223 units, which start around $840 a month, are restricted to tenants earning up to 60 percent of the area’s median income — around $34,000 a year if they’re single.

There’s a huge need for housing for middle-income Denver residents — those making more than 60 percent of the area median income, said Snyder.

Jim Wilson, a Republican state representative from Salida, said he plans to introduce a bill during the 2017 session that would give tax credits to employers that offer employee housing. While that wouldn’t directly help school districts or other public entities that don’t pay taxes, he said he’d like to find a way to do that.

Affordable housing is a statewide issue, he said. “It’s going to be a big topic of conversation at the statehouse this year.”

Roommates and rising rents

While there’s limited data showing that housing costs directly impact teacher recruitment and retention, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that it’s a factor.

First-year Jefferson County teacher Krista Degerness, 34, said she had no problem finding a job after earning her master’s degree in special education last spring. But paying the bills has been trickier. She moved in with her sister to cut costs, paying $700 of the $1,700 rent for their Centennial townhouse. She earns $42,000 a year.

Degerness loves her job, but says, “The money is very hard.”

Alex Saldivar faced similar challenges when he moved from Indianapolis to Denver for a teaching job with DPS in 2015. He and his girlfriend paid $1,250 a month for their one-bedroom apartment, leaving when the rent increased to $1,450 the following year.

“That frankly is untenable,” he said. “They essentially pushed us out.”

Saldivar left his teaching job after a year and now works for a nonprofit organization in Denver.

Some superintendents say they start teacher candidate interviews with heart-to-hearts about the reality of housing costs in their communities. They don’t want candidates, especially those from out-of-state, jumping in with visions of majestic mountain peaks, and not the dollar signs that go with them.

Custer County superintendent Mark Payler said when he surveyed the southern Colorado district’s newer teachers recently, most said they planned to stay for only two to three years. One factor, he said, is the difficulty of securing decent housing on a starting salary of $29,500.

In Denver, a recent exit survey taken by teachers sheds some light on the subject. Of 219 teachers who left the district after the 2015-16 school year, 23 said Denver’s high cost of living was a big factor in their decision. Nearly 50 cited moving as a key reason for leaving, though there is likely overlap because respondents could cite multiple reasons.

Additional evidence comes from a September report from the National Housing Conference and the Center for Housing Policy that examined housing affordability for school employees in the nation’s biggest cities. Denver was among 24 cities where buying a house was unaffordable for teachers as well as lower-paid workers.

The “Paycheck to Paycheck” report also found that renting an apartment in Denver requires an annual salary of at least $49,000. While the district’s average teacher salary is around $54,000 with an average of $5,800 in additional stipends and incentives, the base salary for a beginning Denver teacher with a bachelor’s degree is about $40,000.

Emulating rural districts

The concept of providing subsidized teacher housing has a long history in some Colorado districts.

Take tiny Woodlin on the Eastern Plains. The district owns 14 housing units, including trailers, houses, and apartments, most built around 1960 right on the school campus. Most employees pay rent of $70-$105 per month and the district covers water and propane.

Other rural districts, such as Karval and Deer Trail, offer employees similar deals. Then there’s Aspen, which has 43 units of subsidized housing going for $850-$1,500 a month. Market rate rents easily surpass $2,000 a month there, said Superintendent John Maloy.

In the last 18 months, three other Colorado districts have launched projects to build employee housing — often with significant support from local civic leaders, banks and the business community.

Custer County is converting a vacant district-owned building — formerly a preschool — to four apartments with the help of community volunteers and high school students in the district’s building trades class. The one-bedroom units will be ready next July, with rent at $550 a month.

Salida Schools embarked on a similar project this fall, breaking ground for 10 new housing units in the nearby town of Poncha Springs. They’ll eventually be sold to district employees at below-market rates. Like in Custer County, building trades students are helping with construction.

Roaring Fork has the largest project underway, with plans to build a total of 60 new subsidized apartments in three locations using $15 million from the district’s 2015 bond issue. Those units will become available in 2018.

Superintendent Rob Stein said district officials initially shied away from including money for staff housing in the bond issue. They didn’t think the public would support it. But when two local educators, a beloved principal and his wife, a teacher, departed because they couldn’t afford a house in the area, things changed.

“That single story may very well have allowed us to move forward with going to voters for a bond,” Stein said.

In turn, such projects may soon spread to the Front Range — and some observers say not just Denver.

“I think the mountain towns … are the harbingers of what’s to come,” said Tony Lewis, executive director of the Donnell-Kay Foundation. “I think you’re gonna see it in Cherry Creek, Aurora and Boulder.”

School districts as developers and landlords

Leaders in districts that already offer subsidized housing say it makes a big difference — serving as extra enticement to prospective teachers and making it easier for veteran teachers to stay.

“I’ve suddenly got a new tool I can go to market with when I’m looking for new teachers,” said Payler, Custer County’s superintendent.

But it also brings up lots of questions: Which employees get first dibs on the housing? Can some units be set aside for hard-to-fill positions? Will employees be allowed to stay in the units indefinitely? What happens if too few district staff need the housing?

For districts that have wrestled with these questions, the answers have evolved. For example, in 2015, the Aspen district established a five-year time limit for employees renting its subsidized units, in the hopes of making it a stepping stone as opposed to a permanent solution.

Beyond eligibility criteria, there’s also the fact that school districts with subsidized housing double as landlords, either hiring property management companies to handle leasing and maintenance or doing it themselves.

Rose Cronk, superintendent in the Woodlin district for more than a decade, said of the district-owned housing, “Sometimes I’m the one over there cleaning rainwater out of the bottom of the basement.”

In some districts now considering subsidized housing, administrators worry such projects could distract from their educational goals.

Balczarek said one of the key questions for Denver is, “How do we get into this without drifting too far from our mission?”

One possibility, he said, is to work with an external partner — maybe the city’s housing authority or a nonprofit group — to develop and manage housing on district property.

Even with the many complications involved in financing and managing subsidized housing, some district leaders note that, unlike that state’s intractable school funding system, it’s a problem that can be addressed locally.

“It’s another creative solution to the fiscal crisis schools are facing” Stein said.

money money money

New York City teachers get news they’ve been waiting for: how much money they’ll receive for classroom supplies

New York City teachers will each get $250 this year to spend on classroom supplies — more than they’ve ever gotten through the city’s reimbursement program before.

The city’s 2017-18 budget dramatically ramped up spending for the Teacher’s Choice program, a 30-year-old collaboration between the City Council and the United Federation of Teachers. More than $20 million will go the program this year.

On Thursday, the union texted its members with details about how the city’s budget will translate to their wallets. General education teachers will each get $250, reimbursable against expenses. (Educators who work in other areas get slightly less; teachers tell the union they spend far more.)

Money given to New York City teachers for classroom supplies, measured in dozens of tissue boxes.

The increase means that Teacher’s Choice has more than recovered from the recent recession. In 2007, teachers were getting $220 a year, but that number fell until the union and Council zeroed out the program in 2011 as part of a budget deal aimed at avoiding teacher layoffs. (Some teachers turned to crowdsourcing to buy classroom supplies.) As the city’s financial picture has improved, and as the union lobbied heavily for the program, the amount inched upwards annually.

“With this increase in funding for Teacher’s Choice, the City Council has sent us a clear message that they believe in our educators and support the work they are doing,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said in a statement. “At a time where we see public education under attack on a national level, Council members came through for our teachers and our students.”

student says

Here’s what New York City students told top state officials about school segregation

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students discussed attending racially isolated schools at the Board of Regents meeting.

New York state’s top policymakers are wading into a heated debate about how to integrate the state’s schools. But before they pick a course of action, they wanted to hear from their main constituents: students.

At last week’s Board of Regents meeting, policymakers invited students from Epic Theatre Ensemble, who performed a short play, and from IntegrateNYC4Me, a youth activist group, to explain what it’s like to attend racially isolated schools. New York’s drive to integrate schools is, in part, a response to a widely reported study that named the state’s schools — including those in New York City — as the most segregated in the country.

The Board of Regents has expressed interest in using the federal Every Student Succeeds Act to address this issue and released a draft diversity statement in June.

Here’s what graduating seniors told the Board about what it’s like to attend school in a segregated school system. These stories have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

“I have never, ever had a white classmate.”

Throughout my years of schooling and going to school, I have never, ever had a white classmate. It’s something that now that I’m getting ready to go to college, it’s something to really think about, and I don’t think that we’re moving in the right direction. I went to the accepted student day at my college — I’m going to SUNY Purchase. I went there, and I’m being introduced into this whole new world that I never was exposed to.

It’s really a problem. I know I’m not the only one because I have family members and I spoke to some of my brothers and I’m like, “I have never encountered a white classmate in my whole life.” Just to show you how important [it is] to integrate the schools. Just so future kids don’t have to deal with that.

It wasn’t in my power for me to be able to have different classmates. I think in our school, we had one Asian girl, freshman year. She was there for literally like two days and she left so I have been limited in my school years to just African-Americans and Latinos.

So now that I’m getting ready to step out there, this is something I’ve never had to deal with. So the issue is something that’s really deep and near to my heart and now that I’m going to college I have to, you know, adapt. I’m sure it’s a whole different ball game.

— Dantae Duwhite, 18, attended the Urban Assembly School for the Performing Arts, going to SUNY Purchase in the fall

***

“I saw how much of a community that school had.”

I first became involved in IntegrateNYC4me my junior year when we were having a school exchange between my school in Brooklyn [Leon M. Goldstein] and Bronx Academy of Letters.

When I went into the [school] exchange, I was really excited to see how different the other school would be. But when I got there, I saw how much of a community that school had and personally, I didn’t feel that in my school. My school is majority white and it’s just very segregated within the school, so [I liked] coming into [a different] school and seeing how much community they had and how friendly they are. They just say hi to each other in the hallways and everybody knows each other and even us. We went in and we’re like strangers and they were so welcoming to us and I know they didn’t have the same experience at our school. That really interested me and that’s how I got into the work.

If it weren’t so segregated, it could be so easy for all of us to have a welcoming community like the Bronx Letters students did.

— Julisa Perez, 18, attended Leon M. Goldstein, a screened high school in Brooklyn and will attend Brooklyn college in the fall

***

“They’re expected to take the same Regents, yet they’re not given the same lab equipment.” 

I also went on the exchange my junior and senior year. The first time I did it was my junior year and when I went to Bronx Letters, the first thing I noticed was how resources were allocated unfairly between our schools.

Because, at my school, we have three lab rooms:, a science lab, a chemistry lab and a physics lab. And at Bronx Letters, they never even had a lab room, they just had lab equipment. And I think it’s important to see that all New York City students are expected to meet the same state requirements. They’re expected to take the same Regents, yet they’re not given the same lab equipment and they’re not given the same resources. So I think it’s unfair to expect the same of students when they’re not given equitable resources. That is what I took away from it.

— Aneth Naranjo, 18, attended Leon M. Goldstein, will attend John Jay College of Criminal Justice in the fall