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Aspen's Tiny Homes For Teachers Illustrate How Americans Are Getting Boxed In By Real-Estate Prices

Aspen's Tiny Homes For Teachers Illustrate How Americans Are Getting Boxed In By Real-Estate Prices

John Fisher steps into the shell of a small structure that his students have steadily been building into a future home for one of their teachers. The teenagers that walk the halls of his school, Aspen High, include the scions of America’s most storied business dynasties. Descendants of the families that built Hilton hotels and Walmart have attended this unique institution, with its parking lot that connects to a chairlift climbing the nearby slopes.

But the home these students are building would make a tight fit for corporate royalty. Mr. Fisher, the high school’s woodworking teacher, laughs when he describes its key feature: “Efficiency,” he says. “Obviously, it won’t be much to operate. Going to be cozy.”

The bedroom is a loft whose ceiling is little more than a metre high. On the main floor, a few strides is all it takes to move from the kitchen, to the living area, to the bathroom. “I guess the best way to describe it will be – unique,” Mr. Fisher says.

But in a country grappling with the cost of housing, what is taking shape in Aspen, Col. is no outlier. For decades, employers in the U.S. have provided housing for some of their lowest-paid employees, such as temporary foreign workers brought in as agricultural labour.

As real estate prices have escalated, however, cities across the United States have begun to look at providing housing for teachers, too – an acknowledgment that home ownership is moving beyond the reach of a profession that employs millions of Americans.

In California, a law that went into effect this January makes it easier for school districts to use their own land to build housing for teachers and other staff members. San Francisco is adding hundreds of homes for teachers, which will be offered at below-market rental rates.

The school district in Austin, Texas is working with a developer to add 500 housing units for teachers. In Atlanta, ground will be broken early this year on a “teachers village” with nearly 200 units. In Miami, a new school has teacher units built in. Even Indianapolis has added teacher housing.

U.S. teachers have long struggled with low salaries. Last year, the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest union, surveyed its members and found that half report difficulty dealing with housing costs. “The erosion of the middle class is definitely happening – and the education profession is one where you can see it pretty dominantly,” said association president Amie Baca-Oehlert. Her union has advocated for better wages as the best solution.

But in Colorado and many other places, home prices have escalated far beyond salary increases. The Common Sense Institute, a free-enterprise research organization based in the state, has developed a Homebuyer Misery Index that ranks the state second in deterioration of housing affordability since 2009.

“Many of our educators report having to work two to three jobs just to make ends meet. We have educators who report to us that their own children qualify for free and reduced lunch,” Ms. Baca-Oehlert said.

In few places has affordability become more urgent than in Aspen, the snowy playground of the rich whose stratospheric real estate market has become the preserve of Hollywood stars and billionaires. Rolls-Royces and ski-rack-equipped Land Rovers ply the streets.

For school districts grappling with how to maintain sufficient staff, “we are kind of at the forefront,” said Christa Gieszl, president of the Aspen school board.

The Aspen School District has for many years provided some teacher housing. But it is in the midst of a major expansion. In 2020, local taxpayers approved a US$114-million bond to fund school upgrades and new staff housing, enough to provide homes – a mix of different sizes, in houses and apartments – for roughly a third of district employees. The district is now preparing to put forward another bond to build even more.

“We’re projecting that in 10 to 15 years, we’ll need pretty darn close to 100-per-cent housing” for staff, said David Baugh, the district superintendent. Mr. Baugh, a former fifth-grade teacher, now spends nearly a third of his time securing homes his staff can afford.

“It’s mission critical,” he said. “If we can’t figure out housing, we won’t be able to figure out schooling. That’s how important it is.” In fact, he added, “it’s the number one challenge facing just about every superintendent in Colorado, whether you’re in a ski town, or downtown Denver or rural Colorado.”

He lives in district-supplied housing himself. For people of typical economic means in Aspen, “home ownership is just a distant dream – a distant memory of a dream,” he said.

Aspen’s education administrators are trying to keep teachers’ housing rent to about 20 per cent of their salaries. The district possesses advantages that teachers themselves don’t have: the ability to raise money from local taxpayers to buy homes; an exemption from property tax; and the ability to issue charitable tax receipts to landowners who sell at below-market rates, effectively shifting the burden of payment to other levels of government.

It also has the hammer-swinging students, who are now helping to build the tiny home, which cost the district $65,000. Another home is expected to begin construction this spring. The district hopes to build one a year. The tight quarters could serve as first-year accommodations for new hires, who could then move into other housing.

“We don’t see that as an end-game solution. We see it as a point of entry, any port in the storm,” Mr. Baugh said.

Three other nearby school districts have also begun tiny home projects, backed by an outside funding group. For the Aspen students, it has been an educational opportunity far beyond the cutting boards, skis and Adirondack chairs they might otherwise make.

“I had no idea how to read a blueprint before or any of that – but I built all the framing for the house,” said Eli Kissel, a grade 12 student who has been a leader in the tiny home construction. Students will wire and plumb the house, too. For Mr. Kissel, the gains in construction knowledge have come alongside a broader realization of the pressures on those not in the moneyed classes.

He works as a server at a local restaurant, where co-workers have described their difficulties in finding places to live. Accommodations like the tiny home are “kind of meeting that need,” he said. But he still finds its cramped quarters difficult to contemplate as a home. “It’s kind of crazy. I couldn’t imagine a teacher living in it full-time,” he said.

Others have balked at Aspen’s teacher housing for different reasons. When Kim Zimmer moved into district housing in a rural area a 25-minute drive from the high school, a neighbour chained one of the access roads, saying it was a private drive. “These people tried to push us out, thinking, ‘Oh these are teachers. They’re not our kind,’” she said.

With time, though, the neighbours have become more welcoming. The chain has long since disappeared and teachers have taken notice of local taxpayers agreeing to the multi-million-dollar bond to secure additional housing. “I feel very supported by our community,” Ms. Zimmer said. “Plus, I love living here.”

Still, not even the district sees the housing it provides as a panacea. Teachers must leave within a month of the completion of their employment. “You have to let somebody go and you’re taking their housing away, too. That’s really quite destructive,” Ms. Gieszl said.

And under current policy teachers can only live in district housing for up to five years.

These things are a central consideration for English teacher Diana Dame. She lived with her husband in a two-bedroom condo operated by the Aspen school district until complications from epilepsy forced her to withdraw from teaching. “When I put notice in, we had 30 days to leave,” she said. “That was really difficult to navigate. I ended up having to move back in with family in Georgia.”

The couple now live closer to Denver and are deep in discussion about where to go next. They would like to buy a house. “We’ve looked around the country,” she said, citing tough affordability math in Georgia, New York, Illinois, Colorado and Maine. “It’s kind of a dismal landscape, to be honest with you.”

Aspen, though, is never far from her mind. Returning would mean giving up some stability. In return, the family would be in a place whose outdoor beauty is augmented by the intellectual ferment of events like the Aspen Ideas Festival, which gifts tickets to teachers.

With district-provided housing, it might even make financial sense: Aspen teacher housing would cost about $1,000 a month less than what Ms. Dame is currently paying.

“We’re constantly trying to get back there,” she said. “They’re really doing an excellent job trying to make housing affordable.”


By: Nathan Vanderklippe| The Globe and Mail

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