Beaufort News

Affordable housing for Beaufort County teachers in the works

A planned affordable housing program for teachers may help ease the sticker shock of moving to Beaufort County and slow the school district's high teacher turnover rate.

Beaufort County School District superintendent Jeff Moss will present a proposal to the school board on Dec. 8 to provide teachers the option of living in two-bedroom bungalows that would rent for about $800 per month.

That deal is hard to come by for many budget-minded Beaufort County residents, who typically pay at least $950 to $1,000 each month for two-bedroom rentals in the greater Bluffton area and rarely less than $1,000 on Hilton Head Island, according to Brian Tierney, owner of ForeShore Realty. Furnished units or those in tourist-heavy locations often rent for more than $1,350 a month, Tierney added.

Superintendent Jeff Moss said the funding for his "teacherage" proposal would not come out of the school district's budget, but from grants and other sources.

He declined to say how much the project would cost or when the first homes would be available for rent until he has provided that information to the school board.

However, he said the district would likely start small with a pilot program before expanding to meet demand.

Affordable housing is a top concern job candidates for teacher positions raise with principals, said Moss. It was also major contributor to the district's 12-percent teacher turnover rate in 2014-2015, he added.

Other teachers simply exhaust their search in Beaufort County and have to turn down jobs in the district. Moss suspects housing scared off many of the 43 teachers who ultimately decided against accepting contracts for the 2015-2016 school year.

An analysis in May by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette found that Beaufort County has the state's highest cost-of-living, which deters teachers from sticking around. When adjusted for cost of living, the district's average teacher salary of $50,000 only goes as far as $40,480. Only three other districts -- Charleston, Florence 4 and Lexington 4 -- have average teacher salaries below $50,000 when adjusted, according to the papers' analysis.

The district has made strides to make up for the pay gap.

Beginning this year, teachers and classified employees will receive two $500 cost of living supplements in December and May. Another $1,000 will be added each year for four years until all staff members receive $5,000 every year.

The concept of affordable housing was born from the same budget talks that led to that supplement last year, Moss said.

He has since spoken with the Beaufort Housing Authority and several municipalities in the hopes of developing a strategy, which could include buying existing homes, developing new properties or partnering with real estate agents.

"Some of that may actually come into fruition and we may be able to present the board with a possible path that would lead to developing teacher villages," Moss said.

The new housing program would be much different from the housing units that the school district provided unmarried teachers from the 1940s to '60s.

While some teachers made their own arrangements to board with local families or experienced teachers, many others were assigned to live together on or near schools' campuses.

One early Beaufort County housing site was planned by W. Kent Alston, principal of the segregated Robert Smalls High School, and built by students of a veterans trade school.

Alston himself bought about $6 worth of blocks to begin the foundation of the "cottage" and then managed the home from 1948 to 1957, according to a letter he wrote in the high school's newspaper in 1962.

Alston's teacherage cost $8,400 -- a sum of roughly $84,000 today.

Another home on Beaufort's Bay Street, with six bedrooms and a wrap-around veranda overlooking the water, was donated to the school district as a home for unmarried teachers through the 1950s and 60s, according to Linda Hoffman, research secretary for the Beaufort County Historical Society. That historic building is on the market today for nearly $1 million.

The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette columnist Ervena Faulkner often writes about her years working at St. Helena Island High School in the 1960s, when the principal still hand-delivered checks and it made good sense to share a car between five teachers.

Though she boarded with a family on Meridian Street, Faulkner writes that she would sometimes stay at St. Helena High's communal home "to get the teacherage experience." "There," she wrote in November, "we stayed up late learning more about St. Helena Island, hearing the nameless tales and remembering enough to put everything together."

Now it seems the greater Bluffton area, not Beaufort, is most in need of affordable housing.

And while the district is focused on improving its retention of highly-qualified teachers, Moss said other fields -- from local hospitals to fire and rescue groups -- are facing similar struggles.

"If we can start to develop some of these pockets in some locations and work some other kinks out, I think it could be easily replicated throughout the entire county," he said.

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