SALUDA — First-year teacher Maria Gohean didn't mind the 45-minute morning commute to Hollywood Elementary in Saluda County, but she hated the drive at the end of a long day.
“All I wanted to do after school was get home,” she said. “I dreaded it.”
Gohean asked about the possibility of renting one of the apartments designated for teachers near her rural school. None were available, so she settled for her next best option, her mom's house in her hometown of Chapin.
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That changed in January when someone moved out of the lofts. Gohean grabbed the spot.
“Coming home to this in the middle of nowhere is nice,” she said as she made a sweeping gesture in her one-bedroom pad with hardwood floors, high ceilings and new appliances.
The lofts opened four years ago as part of an innovative pilot project to give teachers affordable places to rent. Rural areas often lack that kind of housing, which makes it harder to recruit and retain teachers.
The Saluda apartments provided a solution, and officials hoped they would be a model for school districts across South Carolina. That hasn't happened.
This rural-teacher housing project is the only one of its kind in the state, and no one is working to replicate it. The state's efforts have idled while groups elsewhere in the country, even next door in North Carolina, have pushed forward to tackle this problem.
The lack of suitable rental housing in South Carolina isn't confined to its rural counties. Charleston County spans 1,000 square miles, and some educators face lengthy commutes to teach on the outskirts, such as McClellanville or Hollywood.
And for those who teach in Mount Pleasant, such as those with just a couple of years' experience, their $35,000-a-year salary isn't enough to cover the rent for many one-bedroom apartments.
Creating the lofts
Saluda is about an hour west of Columbia and nearly three hours from Charleston. About 20,000 people live in the county, and about 2,100 students are in its five public schools.
The community doesn't have much in the way of rental units that would appeal to single, young teachers, and that was a concern in 2009 when 28 of the district's 30 new hires came from outside the county.
“The options that exist in larger cities obviously don't exist for us,” said Saluda Superintendent David Mathis.
Collaboration between two state agencies and a private individual made the lofts possible. The state Department of Education encouraged the initiative, while the state Department of Commerce provided a $150,000 grant for it. Billy and Bobbie Martin, the couple who owned the building where the lofts would be, provided a $150,000 matching investment.
The state awarded the grant with money it receives annually from the federal government to provide affordable housing. It required half of the lofts' residents to make less than the region's average salary, and the low salaries of early career teachers easily qualified them. A first-year teacher with a bachelor's degree in Saluda County makes $32,572. In Charleston, that same teacher would make about $2,000 more per year.
The Martins subdivided the second floor of a downtown building into six apartments, and they outfitted the spaces with amenities such as crown molding, energy-efficient lighting and windows, and water-saving toilets and showerheads. Mathis described them as “luxury apartments.”
“I do wish we had more places like this,” he said. “It's a place we're proud of, and ... for the new teachers, especially the first-year teachers, they're appealing. They're convenient for everything, and it takes the stress out of 'Where am I going to live?' ”
When the Saluda project was being launched, Charleston school leaders started talking about whether they could figure out how to replicate it locally.
“Having that opportunity to share and go through experiences together is very motivating for some of our folks,” said Kathleen Magliacane, the district's director of hiring.
They wouldn't necessarily have targeted rural teachers, but perhaps teachers in hard-to-fill subjects, such as special-education, she said. Rural teachers in Charleston already receive a travel stipend, depending on how far they drive.
Their efforts to create a similar housing complex never came to fruition here, and no other school district in South Carolina made it happen either.
The cost of living in Charleston is the more common concern that Magliacane said she hears from teachers. District leaders are putting more effort toward attracting and retaining all teachers, rather than on a specific housing project that only would benefit a handful, she said. They plan to roll out a new Red Carpet program this summer.
Audrey Lane, the district's deputy for human capital development, said some teachers have to take second jobs to make ends meet, and this is an effort to make it easier on educators to come here and stay.
It will include creating lists of apartment complexes that provide discounts to teachers, and working with those places to help ease the transition costs, such as spreading out security deposits over several months.
Across the country
Studies have shown that schools in remote areas and inner-cities are the hardest to staff. It's difficult to recruit teachers to rural schools for a number of reasons, including lower salaries, geographic and social isolation, a lack of adequate housing and the poor economic health of the surrounding area.
As a result, rural schools tend to see more teacher turnover, which some say hurts student learning.
South Carolina's former education superintendent, Jim Rex, embraced the idea of the state taking on the issue of teacher housing, such as the Saluda lofts. His administration proposed a Teacher Village project, which would have provided free, pre-approved architectural housing plans to local districts and encouraged them to forge partnerships to build those.
The state's current superintendent, Mick Zais, has a different approach. He is not pushing either of those housing initiatives, and instead encourages districts to include housing allowances for new hires.
Gov. Nikki Haley asked lawmakers in January to begin talking about how the state funds its schools, particularly in poor, rural areas. As those conversations continue, “one of the major issues they focus on is teacher retention in rural areas — it's a critical part of improving education for our children in our state,” said Rob Godfrey, Haley's spokesman.
Across the country, other places have taken on this challenge. Alaska provides partial grants to create teacher housing, and it has funded more than 300 housing units worth more than $90 million in rural communities.
And in North Carolina, one credit union's foundation has provided multi-million-dollar, zero-percent-interest loans to four districts to build affordable teacher housing. Those loans are repaid by the rent teachers pay to live there.
Five of the six Saluda apartments are being rented by teachers, and the Martins said they hope to keep it that way, even after the grant's requirement to lease to teachers expires next year.
“That's what it was for,” said Billy Martin. “I want to try and uphold that as much as I can.”
Although the district hasn't been hiring as many teachers in recent years, Martin said he's had no trouble finding residents. About six other teachers have lived in the apartments, and most of them left for jobs elsewhere, he said. But a couple who lived there went on to buy homes in the community.
“If you're going to live in Saluda and teach in Saluda, there's not a lot of places to live,” he said. “This is a nice place and a pretty safe place.”
Tammie Shore, principal at Hollywood Elementary, said she usually talks about the apartments when recruiting teachers. She said having that option makes it easier for them to move to the area, and she's seen less turnover in her staff.
“They're able to come in, make friends and make a social network,” she said. “It really has been an asset to our community.”
Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or 937-5546.
Hollywood Elementary School teacher Megan McCartney works with fourth-grader Angeles Sandoval during an after-school program recently. McCartney is one of the teachers in Saluda taking advantage of apartments specifically for teachers.×
A few of Saluda School District teachers live in apartments above “The Body Building,” which offers gym and aerobics, along with tanning.×