An initiative that helps teachers buy a home is expanding to 15 Colorado districts

Carissa Travis is an early bird. She’s usually at school by 6 a.m., two hours before her second-graders arrive, because she does her best work when the hallways of Denver’s Steele Elementary are quiet. She spends seven hours on her feet teaching and then sometimes several more after school in training sessions or PTA meetings.

When she gets home from what can be a 12-hour day, Travis needs some space. It’s one reason the 29-year-old was eager to buy her own home. She also wanted to leave behind the revolving roommates and rising rent that caused her to move four times in five years.

But she found her teacher’s salary didn’t go far in a gentrifying city where the median home price is now more than a half-million dollars. It’s a familiar problem that’s especially acute in Colorado, which a recent study ranked dead last among states for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries. The average Denver teacher earned $57,753 last year, according to the district.

Just as Travis was ready to give up, she got an email about a novel program that helps teachers buy homes in the communities where they work. In June, she became the first Denver teacher to seal a deal through it when she closed on a remodeled one-bedroom condo just a five-minute drive from her school. Hers was not the highest offer, but the previous owners liked her story.

Carissa Travis teaches a lesson at Steele Elementary. (Courtesy Carissa Travis)

“They were excited to sell to a teacher,” Travis said.

The program that helped her is called Landed. Using philanthropic dollars, it pays for part of an educator’s down payment with the understanding that the educator will pay that amount back, plus a percentage of the increase in the home’s value.

The most common scenario is that the educator puts down 10 percent of the home price and Landed kicks in 10 percent to get to a down payment of 20 percent, said Paula Davis, a former teacher who helped bring the program to Colorado and is the company’s representative here. But the bar to qualify is lower: Educators have to put down just 5 percent and Landed will pick up the rest, up to $70,000 in Colorado.

Landed pays for its portion with more than $15 million in donations from foundations including the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, funded by Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan; and the Zoma Foundation, funded by Walmart heir Ben Walton and his wife Lucy Ana. (Chalkbeat also receives funding from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Waltons.)

Landed is not a non-profit but rather a mission-driven for-profit that reinvests the money teachers pay it back into the down payment fund, and makes its money by taking a fee from the realtors’ commissions. It was founded in San Francisco in 2015, and expanded to the Redondo Beach Unified School District near Los Angeles and Denver Public Schools earlier this year.

Last week, Landed grew its reach in Colorado even further by making its services available to employees of 14 additional school districts, including Aurora Public Schools, Jeffco Public Schools, Westminster Public Schools, and the Adams 14 district in Commerce City.

Employees – including teachers, principals, bus drivers, custodians, and others – must have worked for the district for at least two years, and must agree to stay for two more. Part of Landed’s mission is to help districts recruit and retain teachers, Davis said.

Educators who leave the profession voluntarily before then have up to a year to pay Landed back. Educators who fulfill the two-year commitment must pay Landed back when they refinance or sell their home, or earlier if they want.

The idea differs from most others aimed at helping Colorado teachers find affordable housing in that it focuses on buying rather than renting. Some small, rural districts own housing units that they rent to teachers on the cheap. The school district in pricey Aspen does the same. Denver briefly considered converting a vacant elementary school into teacher housing, but pushback from the neighborhood caused the district to shelve the idea.

Thus far, Landed has helped more than 90 educators with their down payment, Davis said. That includes the first three to buy homes in Denver: a longtime teacher with grown children who owned a house in Aurora but wanted to move closer to where she works in the Green Valley Ranch neighborhood, a young couple who bought their first home near Stapleton, and Travis, who bought a condo in Capitol Hill. The home prices ranged from mid-$200,000 to mid-$500,000, Davis said.

“What we hoped it would be is a tool that would empower people to do what they wanted to do,” Davis said. “It’s nice to see we’re meeting people where they are.”

For Travis, who is single and loves to travel, that meant buying a small place in good shape that she could lock up and leave over the summer with few worries. During her second weekend of house-hunting with the realtor Landed recommended, she found it in a fifth-floor one-bedroom with air conditioning, hardwood floors, and a view of the gold Capitol dome.

She began her sixth year at Steele Elementary a homeowner. The daughter and granddaughter of teachers, Travis said she enjoys having a job she feels is important, and she relishes getting to know each of her students and watching them grasp a new concept or learn a new skill. Despite the relatively low pay, she hopes to be in the profession for the long haul.

“The stress of modern teaching keeps increasing,” Travis said. “If some of the stress around pay and living situations could go down, it would make it a much more tenable profession.”