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More Colorado School Districts Turn To Subsidized Housing To Retain Teachers

Ann Marie Awad
A town home on the Aspen School District's Westranch property. Homes like this are rented out to teachers at below market value -- a move the district says helps retain teachers in an increasingly expensive housing market.

Trust an architect to hop on board a flat bed trailer and paint a vivid picture of a sustainable -- if not snug -- future house.

Standing atop the donated trailer behind Glenwood Springs High School, Steve Eaton points out where there will be a grilling station, french doors and a loft bedroom -- all to be built by his students this fall.

Eaton teaches design build at Glenwood High. Think of it as shop 2.0, where students no longer just make jewelry boxes and bookshelves, but learn how to work with concrete, plumbing, and all the other components that would make a tiny house tick.

It may seem like asking students to build a tiny house is just the next frontier of the minimalist housing fad of the moment. But Eaton has plans for this house.

“We’re teaching the kids about how to build a house, because everything that we’re doing is basically the same as you would be doing for a real house, it’s just a little bit smaller in scale,” he says. “And then as an added bonus, we’ve got this end product that hopefully people are going to be proud of, that can help alleviate the problems that teachers are having.”

That’s right -- Eaton is asking students to build houses for teachers.

Credit Ann Marie Awad / KUNC
Steve Eaton helps a student finish making a concrete iPhone holder -- his final project for Eaton's design build class this semester.

The Roaring Fork Valley -- a picture postcard of Colorado mountain majesty -- has struggled with affordable housing for some time. In recent years, median home prices have begun to teeter towards the higher end of half a million. The crunch is felt acutely by teachers and school employees, who resort to all sorts of ad hoc situations to live in the community they serve.

When Eaton first moved to Glenwood Springs, he lived in a basement for $1100 a month. Starting salaries at Glenwood Springs High are around $36,050 annually, depending on experience.

“I got my first take home check and I just didn’t think there was going to be a way that I could make that happen,” he says. He later moved in with a retired teacher who he says gave him a much better deal.

When the tiny house project hits its stride, Eaton hopes to build one tiny house a year using mostly donated materials. The more donations he gets, the lower the cost to a teacher who may want to purchase one.

Meanwhile, Paul Freeman, the principal of Glenwood Springs High, says he’s absolutely supportive of the program.

“Anybody who comes into the district is always going to have to face the fact that we’re about 125 percent of the national cost of living,” Freeman says. Local voters faced the facts in 2015, when they approved a $15 million bond sale to finance 55 units of housing for teachers.

“Basalt will have 17 homes to move into in August. Carbondale will have 20 homes the following year, 2018. Glenwood Springs will have 6 units ready in August 2017 and another 12 units in the fall,” Freeman says.

Roaring Fork looked at other examples of district-run housing for teachers, including the nearby Aspen School District, which has been offering subsidized housing for teachers for nearly 15 years.

When John Maloy joined Aspen School District as the superintendent about a decade ago, he assumed another unspoken title: landlord.

“It’s an added burden when we’re thinking about dealing with the education of children and their social emotional well being, a piece of us are having to focus our resources and time and energy on working around the whole housing challenge,” he says.

Maloy says offering housing to teachers is just a new reality of the profession in areas like Aspen. But it’s not just resort communities grappling with these new realities. At least three rural school districts on Colorado’s eastern plains -- Woodlin, Karval and Deer Trail -- rent property at below market rates to teachers or school employees. Custer County and Salida public schools have teacher housing projects in the works. Denver Public Schools is the state’s largest school district, located in one of America’s least affordable cities for teachers, and is considering an affordable housing initiative of its own.

Credit Ann Marie Awad / KUNC
An apartment building owned by Aspen School District in nearby Snowmass Village, where the median home price tops $1 million.

But one of the obstacles of offering affordable housing is keeping up with the demand. Maloy says about 18 percent of the district’s more than 200 teachers live in district-owned housing, -- which only amounts to 43 units. The district says the housing is meant to be a transitionary measure, a way for teachers to sock away money for a while and move onto something more permanent. They institute five year limits, which Maloy says are flexible, on a case-by-case basis.

Kim Knol -- a teacher with the district’s Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education Program -- is on year four.

“I believe that they would encourage us to be in a unit for five years, then hopefully be able to move out into something else, move on so other employees could have the opportunity as well,” she says, acknowledging that even after five years of renting at below-market rates, homeownership in affluent Aspen is still thoroughly out of reach.

“I’m looking at other rental opportunities, and possibly go to a roommate situation, but I’m always looking,” she says.

The Roaring Fork housing program also has a five year occupancy limit.

But Steve Eaton at Glenwood Springs High School says affordable rentals are simply a band-aid. He wants to make it possible for teachers to own homes -- albeit tiny ones.

“You’re not getting anything out of it other than a place to live, you know,” he says. “I really saw the advantage of this program and this project as giving something to a teacher that they could actually own, that could actually be theirs instead of just a rental.”

Credit Ann Marie Awad / KUNC
Steve Eaton's design build workshop at Glenwood Springs High School.

At the rate of one tiny home a year, one could accuse Eaton of tilting at windmills. But when you consider the fact that a 2016 report from the National Housing Conference found homeownership to be near impossible for school employees in most of Colorado’s cities, you may root for him to make a dent, if even just a tiny one.

“In a perfect world we’d pick a different project,” Eaton says. “But given the circumstances, I think it’s a pretty good one moving forward.”

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