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Districts Use Subsidized Housing to Attract, Retain Teachers

When Brent Jaco became a superintendent, he knew he’d be overseeing district properties, but he never anticipated that one day he might be a landlord worrying about lockouts, broken stoves, or clogged plumbing. But that’s exactly what happened when the Pecos-Barstow-Toyah ISD school board hired him in July 2020 as the district’s new superintendent.  

Located in oil and gas rich West Texas, a nearly six-hour drive from the state Capitol, Pecos-Barstow-Toyah ISD began offering teachers affordable housing in 2016. The housing makes the move to the rural community a bit less stressful for teachers who might struggle with paying high rental rates, which are common in the area, Jaco said. And more importantly, subsidized housing for teachers is proving to be an excellent strategy to attract and retain qualified teachers in an increasingly competitive market.  

“I am an educator. I got into this to be an educator 20 plus years ago,” Jaco said. “I’m not an apartment manager, but it is one of the necessary pieces of the job. We’re having to navigate it and it’s a new concept. We are learning as we go with it and working to make adjustments.”   

Recruitment and Retention  

When Jaco was hired, his district, which serves about 2,600 students, already had 56 housing units, including trailer homes, duplexes, and triplexes set aside for teachers and a few administrators.  

But there was so much interest in the affordable units — currently there are 42 teachers waitlisted — that in 2021, the district’s school board allocated capital funds to build its own apartment complex. The all-in cost to build the as-yet unnamed apartment complex: $16.6 million. But for districts trying to recruit teachers, especially in rural or high-cost housing areas, the investment may be worth it.  

“Housing has been a hot topic on our recruiting trail,” Jaco said. “We will have all of our elementary teacher positions filled by the new year, and it will be the first time since I’ve been here. And we are excited to have certified teachers in the classroom.”  

A New Normal  

These days, it’s no longer unusual for districts to use subsidized housing as a tool to attract and retain teachers. Many districts across Texas either have some form of teacher housing or are considering building or providing subsidized units.  

For example, in June, Round Rock and Pflugerville ISDs each approved individual memorandums of understanding with the Texas Workforce Housing Foundation to provide teachers in their districts, both located in Austin suburbs, with subsidized rental options. Also, in the November 2022 election, Travis County voters approved Pflugerville ISD’s Proposition H, a $43.9 million bond that will allow the district to purchase property and build its own affordable housing for teachers and staff.  

Meanwhile, Austin ISD is trying to find a partner to develop sites, such as the district’s Anita Ferrales Coy Facility.  

In an interview earlier this year with KXAN-TV in Austin, Jeremy Striffler, Austin ISD’s director of real estate, said, “Our focus is building high-quality, attainable housing.” The housing would be prioritized for district teachers and staff but would be open to anyone who qualified.  

“All these efforts we are doing around housing are by no means to replace the need to increase compensation,” Striffler said in the KXAN interview.   

The Cost of a Living  

High housing costs, coupled with stagnant teacher salaries, have created a financial strain for some of Jaco’s teachers. 

“When housing does become available, it is a hot commodity, and therefore is priced pretty high,” Jaco said. “We’ve had to do something different to make sure we could attract teachers to Pecos and make sure they have a place to live.”  

Pecos’ booming oil and gas industry has fueled the region’s competitive housing market. Energy industry workers often receive housing stipends, which inflate rental prices well above the recommended 30% of a teacher’s salary, roughly $1,665 based on the district’s new teacher salary of $55,500 in 2023-24, according to the district’s website.  

A quick search on the rental site shows that rents for the limited apartments listed online for the Pecos area can start at $1,485 for a studio and go as high as $2,045 for a three-bedroom unit — when they are available.  

To combat the high rental prices, Jaco and his school board began exploring the idea of building housing. The district had a piece of property that would make a great site. The goal was to build 64 units — eight buildings each with eight apartments.  

The construction project began in 2022 and should be completed by January 2024. The district had hoped to have the apartments ready for teachers during the fall, but construction issues have delayed the project’s completion, Jaco said.   

The Old Is New Again  

Ector County ISD, also located in the oil-rich Permian Basin and about an hour northeast of Pecos in Odessa, was also having challenges finding qualified teachers who could afford local rental rates. The district currently serves more than 32,000 students.  

Around 2014-16, monthly rents in the area were pricey, at around $1,600-$2,000 for a one-bedroom apartment, said Steve Brown, a TASB Director and an Ector County ISD board member who is in his 11th year of board service.  

“The district would extend offers to teachers, but when they were unable to find housing, they would resign,” he said.  

The district bought a property, now known as the Barbara Chancellor House. It had served as a boarding house in the 1940s and later as a bed and breakfast. The property has 15 rooms, with three common living areas, a large dining room, and a commercial kitchen.  

“The initial idea was to use it as transitional housing for people who were moving here and didn’t have a place to stay,” Brown said. “The economy here was extremely robust but the housing options weren’t.”  

Around that time, the district also purchased a 31-unit apartment complex, the Michael C. Killion House, which was renovated with the district’s teachers in mind. Each apartment is furnished, and the gated complex offers free laundry, cable, Wi-Fi, on-site gym, and other amenities.  

But by the start of the 2019-20 school year, Ector County ISD was 400 teachers short, which was about 18% of the district’s teaching staff, Brown said.  

“We found ourselves in a precarious situation,” he said.  

So, the district entered into a three-year contract with a property management company, which would make 100 apartments available to teachers, offering them a discounted rate and waiving any deposits, Brown said. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, not many of the units were needed and the district didn’t renew the contract.  

Down the road, the district might reconsider working with the property management company, Brown said. Even though rentals can still be pricey, rates have decreased as more homes and apartments have been built in the Odessa area.  

Over the years, the district has made a point of offering teachers good benefits, pay, and opportunities for development, which in addition to its subsidized housing has helped to attract and retain teachers, Brown said. At the start of the 2022-23 school year, the district was short only 80 teachers, less than 1% of its staff.  

“We saw a need that we had to address if we wanted to be in a better position to recruit teachers,” he said. “We were losing teachers because we didn’t have any kind of housing available.”   

Forced to Innovate  

About 80 miles southwest of Odessa off Interstate 10 is Fort Stockton ISD, which serves 2,230 students. Unlike Ector County ISD, which was attracting teachers but losing them for a lack of affordable housing, Fort Stockton ISD needed subsidized housing to be more competitive with other districts, such as Ector County and Pecos-Barstow-Toyah ISDs.  

When Superintendent Gabriel Zamora was hired at Fort Stockton ISD in 2021, he inherited six three-bedroom duplexes that the district built for teachers.  

“The purpose behind it [teacher housing] is that we are competing…to attract the best educators, the best administrators,” Zamora said.  

When he first moved to Fort Stockton, Zamora stayed in one of the district’s three-bedroom apartments as he awaited touch ups to the district’s superintendent home.  

“The duplexes they built are nicer and way more modern than the superintendent house,” Zamora said. “The houses that they built are top notch.”  

Zamora had a decision to make: He could offer his teachers small pay raises, which over time would require him to continue tapping into the district’s fund balance, or the district could use the funds — $705,000 — for a one-time purchase of a well-maintained motel.  

Realizing how beneficial the subsidized housing was for teachers, the district bought the Spanish Trail Lodge to provide an additional housing option to attract teachers.  

Zamora said the 19-room motel was renovated in 2018 and the rooms were already in great shape. At the motel’s center was a home that was previously used as a residence for the on-sight manager. It became a workout room and a flex space for resident use. The motel office now serves as a full-size kitchen to make the units feel homier.  

“We’re charging $250 a month, all bills paid. It’s been a blessing,” Zamora said. “The way we sell it, it’s a monthto-month thing. They’re not required to stay there the entire year. If they need to, they can use it as transitional housing, if they want to find an apartment or a house…it’s been a success.”  

While the housing benefits some of his teachers, Zamora said it’s not intended to be a permanent solution. He hopes that his teachers are able to save money so they might buy a home or consider other housing options. Regardless, he hopes the teachers stick around.  

“I am a strong believer that we have to continue to work on innovating to attract teachers and staff,” Zamora said. 

Recruitment Efforts  

Districts with subsidized housing may also have an advantage when recruiting international teachers, said Cortney Smith, the new chief facilities and operations officer at Midland ISD, a district that is about 30 minutes east of Odessa.  

Smith has plenty of experience managing teacher housing. Prior to his role at Midland ISD, he worked at Ector County ISD as its executive director of district operations. While subsidized housing is beneficial for new teachers just starting out, Smith said it is also another way districts can support international teachers, who sometimes arrive with only two suitcases of personal items.  

Ector County ISD used some of its housing not only to attract the international staff, but to help them feel more connected far from home, both Smith and Brown said.  

“The response from teachers has been very positive, especially from our international teaching community,” Smith said. “They come here, say you get six or eight people from Colombia who come, and they live in the same apartment complex, and it provides a community atmosphere for them. They’re very appreciative.”  

Midland ISD is another district in the Permian Basin offering subsidized housing to any of its qualifying staff. Midland ISD, which has more than 26,000 students, has a total of 69 units, including 49 apartments and 20 modular homes, Smith said. “With housing in the Midland-Odessa area, it’s not uncommon for a one-bedroom to go for over $1,000 a month, so it is a really good option for teachers and employees,” Smith said.  

For now, the district is happy with the housing it has available and has no plans to expand, though the district has been contacted by folks with properties to sell, Smith said.  

“I would not discourage a district from doing it,” Smith said. “It’s a good selling point for your district, for international teachers and for first-year teachers. I don’t think I would tell a chief of operations to actively search for properties, but if you have them, you should maintain them and offer that to your teachers but keep it on a manageable scale.”  

This article was first published in the September/October 2023 issue of Texas Lone Star

Photo rendering courtesy of VLK Architects.

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Mary Ann Lopez
Senior Communications Specialist

Mary Ann Lopez is a senior communications specialist for TASB.