Teachers are being priced out of housing. But districts across the country are finding solutions

Among them: building their own affordable teacher housing complexes and potentially repurposing former school buildings as residences.

Here’s how the Jefferson Union High School District shrank teacher turnover to nearly zero: It built 100 units of its own teacher housing. The district, which is just south of San Francisco, opened its 122-unit employee housing complex in May. Nearly all 122 units have already been leased to teachers, bus drivers and other employees, who are paying rents under 60% of local market rates, says Tina Van Raaphorst, the deputy superintendent for business services.

The complex was built on the former parking lot of a closed high school. The district launched the project with its own funds but was only able to hit its rent-reduction goal with the approval of a $33 million bond measure by voters. “We are very fortunate to have a very supportive voting base,” Van Raaphorst says. “What also helped was that we collaborated with our union leadership—parents and the community really listen to teachers.”

The school board decided to take action several years ago to tackle the district’s annual 25% turnover rate. After about two years of construction, Jefferson Union started the 2022-23 school year with all of its teaching positions filled.

Housing outpaces raises

A handful of districts across the country are zeroing in on the housing problem in efforts to stem teacher turnover in regions where the cost of living has become prohibitive for educators and other school personnel. Eagle County, Colorado, about two hours west of Denver in the Rocky Mountains, is home to Vail, one of North America’s biggest ski resorts. Teachers face high housing costs and limited options, says Matthew Miano, Eagle County School District’s chief communications officer. “Rental rates asked by landlords can far outpace urban areas with greater inventory,” says Miano, noting that his district is working on several fronts to solve the problem. 

Eagle County school leaders have worked with Habitat for Humanity for several years to build employee housing on district-owned land. Ground was just broken on a 37-unit apartment complex that will be reserved for district employees. And Superintendent Philip Qualman recently sent a letter to county homeowners asking them to consider renting out space to teachers and other district staff.

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Ultimately, the district hopes to create 120 new homes within the next 10 years. “Recruitment and retention will be an issue that will plague the state for years to come due to a broken funding model for education,” Miano says. “Until schools across Colorado can be funded equitably and adequately, all schools except those with the greatest funding will see struggles.”

Housing prices in Colorado have risen by 20% in the last few years, a rate that has in most cases outpaced the raises teachers have received, according to the “Affording the American Dream” report by the Keystone Policy Center. The state is experiencing an annual teacher turnover of around 15%, while about the same number of teaching positions are filled with long-term substitutes and other temporary measures, the report found.

In the Denver area, the teachers union in Jeffco Public Schools is urging district leaders to create educator housing in more than a dozen elementary schools that may soon be closed, CBS Colorado reported. In Texas, leaders at Austin ISD may add a $50 million teacher housing bond to the November ballot and raise several hundred million dollars more to fund the construction of a potential 500 to 1,000 housing units, according to Community Impact, a local news website. The district’s teacher turnover rate has hit 20%, the website reported.

True stories of teacher housing

Back in the San Francisco Bay area, Van Raaphorst says it was important for administrators to drop into staff meetings to get employees on board with the housing effort. “We talked about how this will benefit the whole district even if you are secure in your housing,” she says. “The more stability there is for your colleagues, the less turnover there is, which is better for kids.”

Jefferson Union High School District's 122-unit employee housing complex south of San Francisco. (Jefferson Union High School District )
Jefferson Union High School District’s 122-unit employee housing complex south of San Francisco. (Jefferson Union High School District )

One of the district’s IT staffers moved into the complex after having lived in a house in San Francisco with eight to nine roommates. Another tenant, a teacher from the Philippines, was finally able to bring her children to the U.S. after having lived in the district without them for several years. Another teacher moved in after leaving the district for a few years to seek a cheaper cost of living in Florida, Van Raaphorst says.

Down the road, the district envisions building market-rate apartments elsewhere on the property to raise more revenues. “It’s worth the investment for the school and it’s a lot of work to get off the ground, and board support is critical,” she says. 

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Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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