Durham County

If you build teacher housing, will they come to Durham — and stay?

Why this Durham teacher struggles to find safe and affordable housing

Southern School of Energy and Sustainability teacher Deja Young talks about high rents in Durham and how affordable housing can impact Durham Public School teachers.
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Southern School of Energy and Sustainability teacher Deja Young talks about high rents in Durham and how affordable housing can impact Durham Public School teachers.

For Deja Young, the rent for an apartment near The Streets at Southpoint is a bit of stretch on her beginning teacher’s salary of about $35,000.

Young, a first-year math teacher at Southern School of Energy and Sustainability, pays about a $1,000 a month for a one-bedroom apartment in the bustling Southpoint area. That’s about $25 per month above the area’s $975 average for a similar apartment.

There are less expensive places to live in Durham, but for the recent N.C. Central University graduate who prefers to live alone, it’s hard to put a price on feeling safe.

“Finding affordable housing in Durham is a little challenging if you want to live alone,” Young said.

She explained that she is willing to pay a little bit more per month to live alone in a place where she feels safe while others might be OK living in an area that is considered more risky as long as they have a roommate.

To make ends meet, Young works two part-time jobs and her mother helped to subsidize her rent over the summer before she began working at Southern.

Young is the kind of teacher Durham school officials have in mind as they consider a proposal to build 24 affordable apartments on land once occupied by the defunct Lowe’s Grove Elementary School and owned by Durham Public Schools.

It’s near the site of the current Lowe’s Grove Middle School.

DPS, CASA, a Raleigh-based nonprofit that develops affordable housing and the State Employees’ Credit Union (SECU), would partner to develop the units on about 2.2 acres off Jester Road near the South Regional Library and a SECU branch.

CASA is an acronym for Community Alternatives for Supportive Abodes.

Teachers across the district would be able to lease the one-and two-bedroom apartments at below-market rents which have yet to be determined. Eventually, the apartment complex could grow to 72 units.

DPS and the DPS Board of Education, which first discussed the plan publicly in February, see the project as one that could help recruit and retain teachers.

DPS loses nearly one out of five teachers a year.

The most recent data available show DPS’ teacher attrition rate at 18.4 percent for the 2015-16 school year. That’s twice as high as the 9 percent statewide rate of attrition.

By comparison, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools had an attrition rate of 14.22 percent and Orange County Schools 13.74 percent.

“I definitely think it will be a great recruitment tool when we are out there [on the recruitment trail] next month,” said Kim Hager, the school district’s interim human resources director, said of the housing project.

Questions about housing affordability usually follow those about salary when the district is recruiting teachers, Hager said.

About a decade ago, Hager was an administrator in the San Francisco Unified School District when officials there began to discuss teacher housing.

San Francisco, where a one-bedroom apartment costs about $3,300 a month, is among the most expensive cities in the nation in terms of housing.

“Even though a teacher might make $65,000 a year, the rent is still pretty high,” Hager said.

Last year, San Francisco agreed to spend $44 million to build 130 to 150 rental units for teacher housing. Those apartments, which will be likely priced below market rates, could be ready by 2022.

Hager said she is happy to see those conversations from a decade ago finally come to fruition.

Affordable is ‘non-existent’

Corey Barringer, a seventh grade social studies teacher at Lowe’s Grove, said it has been a struggle to find affordable housing in Durham.

“Affordable is pretty much non-existent,” said Barringer, a third-year teacher who recently married.

Barringer pays about $1,300 a month for an apartment off University Drive, which he said eats up a significant portion of his take-home pay of about $2,500 a month.

Federal guidelines recommend spending no more than 30 percent of annual income on housing. For a teacher earning $35,000 a year, that’s $10,500, the equivalent of $875 a month for rent.

Reuben Ahukanna, the first-year band teacher at Lowe’s Grove, said finding affordable housing in a safe neighborhood has been especially tough.

“There are spots I can afford, but they are in areas that are bad and the property is poorly maintained,” Ahukanna said.

Ahukanna once lived in a duplex where he paid $450 a month for a two-bedroom, one-bath apartment.

He said the landlord wouldn’t even perform routine maintenance.

“It was bad,” Ahukanna said. “My next-door neighbor got robbed.”

Ahukanna now pays $912 a month for an apartment he shares with his girlfriend and son. Sharing the apartment is the only way Ahukanna he said he can afford to live there.

Similar projects in North Carolina

SECU has financed similar teacher housing projects across the state, most recently in Asheville.

That 24-unit complex built for teachers employed by Asheville City Schools and Buncombe County Schools opened in May to become the credit union’s first venture in the western part of the state.

Cynthia Lopez, the human resources director, said all but two of the apartment units were filled when school started in August.

Lopez said six people have since expressed interest in the two vacant apartments.

“I think they all would have been filled at the start of the school year but we had to figure out the pet issue,” Lopez said. “We started out with no pets, but then everyone started saying I have a cat or I have a dog.”

Lopez said pets are now allowed but tenants must pay a $500 non-refundable deposit.

The two-bedroom, two-bath apartments rent for $915 a month, $165 below the median rent for Asheville.

All apartments were designed with two bedrooms so teachers could share them if they wished.

“We have a number of folks who are sharing, and we have some families,” Lopez said.

The SECU Foundation partnered with Eblen Charities and provided the charity with a 15-year interest free loan of up to $2.8 million to build the Williams-Baldwin Teachers Campus.

The apartment complex is partially named after UNC basketball coach Roy Williams and his wife Wanda, both former teachers in Buncombe County Schools.

“Teachers don’t get paid enough period, so anything you can do to help their financial situation is going to help,” Roy Williams said during a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the project in May.

The project also carries the name of Buddy and Rosa Lee Baldwin, two other former educators from that area.

In addition to ties to the Williamses, Pamela Baldwin, superintendent of Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, is linked to the Asheville project. Baldwin was superintendent of Asheville City Schools when that district partnered with Buncombe County Schools, Eblen Charities and the SECU Foundation and agreed to build the apartment units.

Baldwin said the partnership was driven by the school district’s need to recruit and retain teachers in one of the state’s more expensive cities to live.

“Being able to offer that kind of a benefit to employees is an obvious plus,” Baldwin said.

A little league curve

At a recent work session, Durham school board members learned about a proposal by the South Durham Little League (SDLL) to build up to four baseball fields on a portion of the site.

The plan calls for SDLL to share the site with the teacher apartment complex. The fields would be constructed on the back portion of the lot, which CASA would not use for apartments.

“We need more facilities to support our needs and practices,” said Jamie Clegg, SDLL president.

Clegg said that as southern Durham grows so does the need for more baseball fields.

The SDLL serves about 500 children from ages 4-14 each year in its spring and fall baseball leagues.

The league currently shares its fields with DPS middle school and high schools and rents some from Durham Parks and Recreation.

But Clegg said some of those fields do not have lighting and because the league often uses them after 6 p.m., league practices are sometimes cut short due to darkness.

If the deal goes through, DPS would maintain control over the fields and its schools would have priority use of them.

But the deal with SDLL is far from a sure thing. Some school board members want DPS to keep the focus on the teacher housing project.

“At my memory and heart, this is about teacher housing and it’s about potentially growing teacher housing,” school board member Natalie Beyer said. “I understand the little league folks interest in that land, but I think our core motivation for this project is and needs to continue to be teacher housing.” Beyer said.

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645

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