Jennifer Marlar teaches seventh grade language arts at Jackson Hole Middle School in Jackson, Wyoming, but she doesn’t live anywhere near the tourist town’s shopping district or ski area.
“It just makes the most sense, financially,” Marlar says.
Instead, she commutes one hour — over a sometimes-treacherous mountain pass — from her home in Driggs, Idaho.
“It’s brutal,” says Marlar. “And that hour feels like eternity.”
Marlar makes $70,000 a year. That’s well above the national average teacher salary of $56,000, but it’s not enough to buy a home in Jackson, a swanky resort town south of Yellowstone National Park. The median home price there is nearly $1 million. So, when Marlar’s daughter Aniston starts preschool in Idaho, she’ll likely leave her job in Jackson.
“I’ll probably have to resign there and try to get work on this side so that I can be a part of my community that I live in,” Marlar says.
Renting or buying a place to live is becoming less affordable across much of the country. That’s hit low-income Americans hardest, but increasingly, it also means middle-income earners that hold key jobs — like teachers — can’t afford to live where they work. It’s a problem facing all high-cost communities: big cities, wealthy suburbs and tiny resort towns like Jackson.
Teacher Jess Tuchscherer works in Jackson and lives here in a converted barn. The tour of his place only takes a few seconds.
“Well, this is the living room, kitchen, bathroom and bedroom — and that’s really it,” Tuchscherer says. “It’s not very big.”
Tuchscherer rents the barn for about $1,000 a month. He loves his job and the winter recreation opportunities here, but knows this isn’t a long-term gig.
“I can’t buy a home here, so therefore I can’t really stay here,” Tuchscherer says. “It’s great, but I can’t raise a family in this house.”
This is a huge problem here. That’s why Jackson just put up its first affordable housing units for teachers.
“If we fail to house the people that work here, then we will not have a quality workforce, we will not have a quality system of education and we will suffer in all respects,” says Anne Cresswell, of the Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust, which partnered with the school district to build the homes.
The three-bedroom homes were sold to local educators for $403,000 each, but were appraised at closer to $650,000. Cresswell’s group has developed similar housing for hospital workers and national park employees.
“Affordable housing is as basic to the essential infrastructure in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, as any other road, water or sewer project is,” Cresswell says.
It’s a solution communities from Baltimore to Los Angeles are trying out. A National Housing Conference report shows teachers can’t afford median-priced homes in one-third of the 200 metro areas it surveyed.
“That can really put communities at a disadvantage for attracting high quality teachers, nurses or police officers who are unwilling to remain committed to extremely long commutes,” says Janet Viveiros, senior research associate at the National Housing Conference.
And, in many communities, the problem is only getting worse.
“There’s not enough affordable housing as there is, and many communities are losing the affordable housing that already exists,” Viveiros says.
Bringing teaching talent to high-cost communities is hard, and will get even harder in the future. The National Education Association says half of the country’s teachers will likely retire in the next five to seven years.
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