Schools work together to address teacher housing shortage

The lack of affordable housing is an issue across Michigan.

That issue has become especially severe in northwestern lower Michigan, where the lack of affordable housing is stopping prospective teachers and school staff from taking or keeping jobs in communities in the region.
To change the situation, a group of local schools has banded together to form an educational consortium, the Grand Traverse County Housing for Educators. The aim is to help create housing developments and affordable living options to attract and retain teachers and staff.

“Teachers are one of our many occupations that are affected,” says Yarrow Brown, who is director of Housing North, a nonprofit housing advocacy organization that was tapped to help conduct a housing study in the region. “In Northwest Michigan, we are in what we call a housing crisis, and it’s been happening for 20 years now. It sort of came to a head about five or six years ago.”  Yarrow Brown of Housing North

The consortium of four school districts includes Grand Traverse Area Catholic Schools, Traverse City Area Public Schools, Northwest Education Services, and Interlochen Center for the Arts.

“They all have land and a need for teachers, and (for) their whole workforce, including their support staff,” Brown says.

Last year Housing North was approached by IFF, a community development financial institution (CDFI) to do a housing survey.  That assessment showed that workers in 11 out of 35 occupations could not afford to rent or own in a 10-county region.

With that study in hand, IFF then spent time working with the consortium and community leaders to decide where a potential development of affordable housing could work, what the units would be like, and whether the consortium wanted to own or manage it.

At least one housing plan has emerged. The plan is to build a mixed-income development of at least 144 units in Blair Township for school personnel making between 50 percent to 80 percent of the average median income in Grand Traverse County. The units are for those support staff, teachers, principals and administrators with a household income ranging from earning between $28,000 to $100,000.

Housing options could range from $750 a month to $1,500 a month for rentals. The proposed housing site is a 60-80-acre, undeveloped tract owned by the Traverse City Area Public School District.

“We’ve got all of our plans and worked with construction management. We really have everything on paper that we need now,” says Dr. John VanWagoner, superintendent of Traverse City Area Public Schools.  “It’s just a matter of putting the cash stack together. We’re looking for an appropriation from the state. We’ve had a lot of support from our nonprofit partners, Rotary Charities of Grand Traverse City, and the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation.” Dr. John VanWagoner, superintendent of Traverse City Area Public Schools

So far, the consortium has received a $50,000 grant for pre-development work from the state of Michigan through the Office of Rural Prosperity. The next steps are securing additional grants for the estimated $12.5 million financial gap.

Combined with help from Housing North and other entities, VanWagoner hopes to reach the final steps of the plan.

“We’re thankful for those voices and collective expertise coming together,” he says. “We’re almost to the finish line of a shovel in the ground – if we can just get that last little bit of help from the governor and our legislature.”

It’s hoped that development will be a model of future educator housing developments near Traverse City.

VanWagoner says the educational consortium is a step in the right direction and absolutely critical.

“Traverse City is one of a couple growing areas in the state of Michigan,” VanWagoner says. “The downside of that happening is that combined with being a tourism destination and the Airbnb market and short-term rental housing, it has really caused a housing crunch for us.”

There is not adequate housing stock for young professionals and their families. Beginning teachers in the area make roughly $40,000 a year – that salary, coupled with college debt, means many cannot find housing in their price range.

“The issue is the affordability,” VanWagoner says. “We get plenty of people looking and excited to come here. We’ve had 10-12 employees and teachers who accepted the job, and within two to three weeks, called back and said, ‘I’ve been trying and I can’t find a place to live, now I’ve got to take a different position somewhere.’”

‘Affordable housing’ is a buzz phrase and at the heart of many topics surrounding the housing crisis, but, in reality, the term affordable means something different to each community, Housing North’s Brown says.

“We don’t want people to be paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing. In general, people who need the housing the most tend to be those that have a more fixed income or have less to spend on housing,” she says.

The housing study

The school superintendents approached the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation, a charity foundation that serves five counties in northwestern Michigan, and that conversation led to hiring IFF to help fund an analysis of housing needs.

“We helped fund this IFF real estate study, and IFF did a survey of school personnel to understand what the housing needs are, and what type of housing they are looking for,” says David Mengebier, president and CEO of the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation, noting that the organization acts as a convener, connecting nonprofits, government and business leaders, and organizations. David Mengebier, president and CEO of the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation

“IFF did some site visits in Blair Township, outside of Traverse City. They gave advice and financing options and helped design an RFP for real estate developers. They helped the schools decide how many units they wanted, and what kind of income brackets.”

Mengebier says the collaboration between public, private schools and an ISD working together is sort of unprecedented.

“I think it just underscores the seriousness of the housing shortage,” he says. “What school leadership has told us is that they have many open positions for teachers, counselors, and other school personnel. People come up, apply, and get the job, and start looking around for housing. They cannot find housing they can afford, so they leave.”

As more of the school workforce nears retirement, the demand for new or mid-career teachers will only increase. Therefore, the housing stock also needs to increase.

“The interesting thing is that schools are uniquely positioned to actually address housing because they own property, and in a lot of cases, the property has utilities and other infrastructure already connected to the property,” Mengebier says.

Mengebier hopes this development can come to fruition and act as an example for other communities.

“We, as a community foundation, along with our partners and the schools, see this as a potential model for housing development for school personnel in other parts of the state,” he says.

Sarah Spohn is a Lansing native, but every day finds a new interesting person, place, or thing in towns all over Michigan, leaving her truly smitten with the mitten. She received her degrees in journalism and professional communications and provides coverage for various publications locally, regionally, and nationally — writing stories on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, community, and anything Michigan-made. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert, or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at
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