Blaine County to help teachers who can’t find an affordable place to live

HAILEY — Housing in Blaine County is so expensive teachers are living in the streets, and the shortage of affordable options has affected the school district’s ability to recruit and retain its workforce.

“There are teachers who live in RVs parked on the streets or Forest Service land,” said Blaine County Education Association co-president Brenda Southwick, a Spanish teacher in the district. “Showers are taken using gym memberships. Many are surfing from place to place, or constantly looking for roommate opportunities. They are essentially the roaming homeless teachers in this valley.”

The housing crisis is not lost on district leaders, who have spent more than a year searching for solutions.

Last October, the Board of Trustees approved a two-year pilot program to provide up to $500 of rental assistance per month to qualifying employees. The stipends come out of the district’s Financial Emergency Reserve Fund.

But to really make up for the shortage of affordable housing, said trustee Dan Turner who headed up the board’s workforce housing committee, the district needed to create its own housing. And at Tuesday’s board meeting, trustees brought the district one step closer to that reality.

The district and local nonprofit Advocates for Real Community Housing (ARCH) have partnered to build up to eight units of workforce housing on district-owned land. The units will be rented to qualifying staff – teachers, classified staff and administrators – for no more than 30% of their adjusted gross income.

While not a long-term solution, many in the district say it’s a positive step forward.

“We’re investing in a model that we can replicate,” said Turner. “And hopefully we’ll put it to larger solutions down the road.”

Fueled by the pandemic, a lack of affordable housing puts strains on the district

Over the past five years, housing and rental prices have exploded in the Blaine County district, which encompasses popular resort town and enclave for the ultra-wealthy, Sun Valley, and surrounding cities Ketchum, Hailey, Carey and Bellevue.

As the pandemic fueled an influx of newcomers from large, urban cities into the mountain towns, the county’s median home sales price reached an all time high at $775,000 in 2021, according to a report from the Idaho Mountain Express. The previous record, reached just the year before, was $600,000.

Rent prices skyrocketed, too. In 2018, the median advertised rent throughout the county was $1,671, according to ARCH. Year to date calculations peg this year’s median monthly rent at $2,500.

Though the district pays the highest salaries in the state – teachers earned an average $74,546 last year – it’s still not enough for most employees to afford to buy a home. And renting is no longer a safe bet, said Superintendent Jim Foudy.

 The district and the Donovan Group, a Milwaukee-based PR firm, conducted a survey in 2021 to get feedback from staff. The survey found that 74% of staff owned their own home, while 19% rented and 7% fell into an ‘Other’ category. Of the 19% who rented, a vast majority said they had difficulty finding a rental in the past year, and believed high housing costs would negatively impact their long-term retention.

“If you own your home, you’re in a relatively secure place,” Foudy said. “If you’re renting, the landlord or the owner of the home that you’re renting at any point can evict you or sell it out from underneath you…even if you’re paying your rent, you can’t count on that long-term.”

In a survey conducted by the Blaine County Education Association last year, teachers spoke about their struggles as renters.

  • “My family got the boot from our place last year and made it by the skin of our teeth to find a somewhat affordable place,” one teacher said. “If it happens again, I’m leaving for good.”
  • “I rent because I can’t get qualified for a home,” said another. “I can’t find a rental and again have to be out this June.  They want to make my current place an Airbnb.”
  • A third teacher responded, “The places I have rented have been sold out from under me several times, meaning I have had to move out with little notice.”

Sticker shock alone can deter applicants from accepting jobs in the district, said the superintendent, who spent a portion of the summer covering two open positions in addition to his own job. The special programs director position had been open since February and was filled in early October. The HR director position opened in June, and has not yet been filled, Foudy reported Tuesday.

“We advertise a position, we receive several applications, we screen all of those applications, and then we set up scheduled interviews,” Foudy said of the hiring process. “We identify top candidates and then we reach out with an offer letter. The top candidate looks at the housing closely and they’re not able to find a place to live. So they decline the offer. And then we go to the number two candidate who’s already taken a job, and the position remains unfilled.”

One teacher expressed their own hesitancy to join the district in another response to the BCEA survey.

“I am new to the valley, when I took the job last year the cost of housing nearly deterred my wife, family and I from accepting the job here,” they said. “Our rent is over 300% higher than it was in our previous location. Even with the housing stipend the district is distributing, my rent is over 200% higher.”

Chronic vacancies have put added strain on staff and administration who’ve taken on additional responsibilities to make up for a lack of manpower.

Last month, the superintendent said the transportation director and mechanics were completing daily bus routes to compensate for a lack of bus drivers. The district is still down six drivers.

Blaine County also expects to see an increase in students who qualify as homeless under the McKinney-Vento Act, a federal law created to support the education of homeless students.

Students who lack stable housing, Foudy said, may be at risk of falling behind, and can experience a myriad of social and academic impacts.

Board moves forward with solution, workforce housing to be built on district property

District trustees voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a policy and lease agreement supporting the development of workforce housing in the district. The move brings Blaine one step closer to renting out its first housing unit after over a year of planning.

The district currently has one single family home available for rent. The house was built by students at the Wood River High School’s Residential Construction Academy.

At least 60 students at Wood River High School’s Residential Construction Academy worked on the home for over four years. It is the first home to be leased to a district employee.

For future projects, the district will ground lease its own land for $1 to ARCH, a local nonprofit dedicated to affordable housing in Blaine County. In return, ARCH will finance the construction of six to eight new housing units, ranging from one-bedrooms to three-bedrooms.

The units are not intended to be long-term housing, but two-year transitional placements.

“Right now, our philosophy is ‘bridge’ housing,” said Foudy at Tuesday’s meeting. “Its not housing forever.”

ARCH has collaborated with other agencies and organizations to fund similar projects, and is working with St. Lukes to build workforce units in Bellevue and Hailey, the Idaho Mountain Express reported in May.

The district projects a completion date as early as Fall 2024.

The policy passed Tuesday outlines the application and selection process for employees wishing to enter district housing.

Employees and candidates who are offered employment will be notified by email when a unit is available, and will have seven days to apply. The application includes a scoring rubric that will be used to determine priority candidates. Rent for each unit will not exceed 30% of an employee’s adjusted gross income.

Turner said developing the policy was like being in “uncharted waters.” Nothing similar had been done in the district before, so those working on the policy ensured it was crafted in a way that allows them to continuously compare it to the market and the district realities.

If there are vacancies, the district can direct ARCH to lease to non-district personnel if they choose, or to keep units open for potential applicants.

“For this to come to fruition, is thrilling for ARCH,” said the organization’s executive director Michelle Griffith. “We really credit the current leadership, both at the board level and in senior management at the schools with finally moving the ball forward, for housing for their teachers. The community as a whole are the beneficiaries.”

The first unit will likely be rented later this fall.

Idaho Education News data analyst Randy Schrader contributed to this report.

Sadie Dittenber

Sadie Dittenber

Reporter Sadie Dittenber focuses on K-12 policy and politics. She is a College of Idaho graduate, born and raised in the Treasure Valley. You can follow Sadie on Twitter @sadiedittenber and send her news tips at [email protected].

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