Kelly Matthews teaches special education at Jackson’s Colter Elementary School. She rents a studio apartment in town—above a garage workspace.
“It’s not an optimal place, but it’s a roof,” Matthews says.
Matthews makes $67,000 a year. That’s more than the $58,000 average for Wyoming teachers, but it’s not enough to get Matthews into a 2-bedroom place for her and her 8-year-old-son.
“He gets the bedroom, and mom gets the couch,” says Matthews. “I’ve been sleeping on the couch for two years.”
What she’d really like is to own a home—but the median home price here is $965,000. So, Matthews isn’t holding out much hope.
Housing in Jackson is a problem for seasonal and low-income workers. But, increasingly, it’s also a problem for middle-income earners. Among them, some vital occupations—like teachers.
Buying a home in Jackson also won’t be an option for Jess Tuchscherer either. He moved from Montana four years ago to teach language arts at the middle school.
“When I moved here, my salary more than doubled,” Tuchscherer says.
Still, his best option in Jackson was a small, converted barn he rents for $1,000 a month. Tuchscherer loves living and working here, but knows he won’t be able to do it forever.
“I can’t buy a home here, so therefore, I can’t really stay here,
Tuchscherer says. “If I want to have a family, I can’t raise a family in this house.”
This problem for teachers like Tuchscherer is a big headache for Teton County. Superintendent Pam Shea just retired after 30 years with the school district.
“Needing more space for a family usually is a trigger for what we call the 5-8 year churn,” says Shea. “Where we see folks leave to go to more affordable areas or areas where their families can be of support to them.”
When it comes to hiring teachers and keeping them around, she’s competing with school districts around the country. Even with high salaries, the housing crunch here really shrinks the applicant pool.
“It’s one of those unwritten interview questions,” says Shea, “‘Can you afford to live here?’”
And when top teachers can’t move here or stay here, students suffer.
“We know teachers, second to strong principals, are the most powerful influence on student success and achievement,” Shea says.
The district just unveiled one tool to combat this problem—its first-ever subdivision of affordable homes for employees. They were built with the help of the Teton County Housing Authority.
“Affordable housing is as basic to the essential infrastructure in Jackson Hole, Wyoming as any other road, water or sewer project is,” says Anne Cresswell, the housing authority’s executive director.
She drives down a cul-de-sac in Wilson to a parcel of land called Schwabacher Meadows. It’s eleven 3-bedroom homes that all look pretty similar.
“Yeah, they’re all exactly the same,” says Cresswell. “We save a lot of money on architecture fees when we do all the same.”
Teachers bought these units for about $400,000--60 percent of their market value.
Cresswell’s organization has developed similar workforce housing for hospital workers and city employees.
“If we fail to house the people that live and 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,” Cresswell says.
One of the units belongs to James and Mandy Howell—who both work for the school district. James is a strength and conditioning coach at Jackson Hole High School and Mandy is a speech pathologist for Teton County School District.
“This is a house that we never thought we would ever have lived in—in Wilson, Wyoming—where there’s millionaire homes, billionaire homes all over the place,” says James Howell. “So, it’s amazing. We’re lucky.”
The Howells were living in a 2-bedroom condo with two little kids. James says without this affordable home, his family would have had to leave town—but he doesn’t think it should be considered a handout.
“We paid $403,000 for this home—which was somewhat of a stretch for us, but we’re glad to do it to be able to stay,” says Howell. “I think a lot of people look at affordable housing as somewhat of a charity case. I’d like people to think of it more as an enrichment in your community and creating a more diverse community.”
For some teachers, finding affordable housing means crossing state lines. Jennifer Marlar bought a 3-bedroom home in Victor, Idaho 8 years ago for less than $300,000. Marlar commutes an hour each day to teach seventh graders at Jackson Hole Middle School.
“It’s brutal,” says Marlar. “On the way home, you’re tired, you’re exhausted, you want to be home. And that hour feels like eternity.”
Marlar likes her job. And she’s good at it. She’s one of only 7 percent of teachers in Wyoming who is National Board Certified. But her daughter Aniston will start school in Idaho in just a few years.
“Unfortunately, I think what’s going to end up happening is I’m going to have an expiration date in the Jackson Hole School District,” Marlar says. “And I’ll probably have to resign there and try to get work on this side, so that I can be part of my community that I live in.”
And another highly-qualified teacher will leave Jackson.