If you pull into Hertford County High School in northeastern North Carolina, pass the bus circle and the soccer fields, and continue to a patch of woods, you find three, cheerful, two-story apartment buildings. Knock on any door here and you'll find the home of a teacher or employee of the local school district.
North Carolina has some of the lowest teacher salaries in the country. Combine that with a housing shortage in this rural county, and that creates a big problem. So local leaders took on both problems at once, by building affordable housing just for school district staff.
"When we started doing a study in Hertford County, we found out that there were only about 15 apartments for teachers — with the salaries that the teachers made — [that they] could live in," says James Eure, who led the school system's foundation through the financing and construction of the complex.
Eure says he hopes the project will eventually pay for itself. The rent collected from employees goes to pay back a zero-interest loan the foundation took out to build it.
Units like these can draw new teachers to the district who often can't afford to buy a house in the area, or who don't want to rent one miles away.
Amy Thompson is one of those teachers. She moved from Virginia this year to teach science at one of the district's high schools.
"This was exactly what I was looking for as far as price range," she says. New teachers in this district, like Thompson, make about $36,000 a year. That's after a recent pay hike for beginning teachers.
She pays $625 a month for her two-bedroom unit, plus a $25 fee for her cat.
Thompson likes the feel of the place, too. "When they told me about the apartments and how close they were to work, and that it was a community of people that teach here in the county, who work the same hours as you, I was sold," she says.
Some worry, though, that providing housing isn't the best solution.
"It's another approach that's kind of like a Band-Aid to fix a wound on a long-term problem," says Mark Jewell of the North Carolina Association of Educators. He's skeptical that these apartments will keep teachers in a district for more than a couple of years. "Many people want to have a family and children and yards. That's not giving them an option of really staying long-term."
Jewell thinks the answer lies in teacher pay. On average, teachers in the U.S. make a little more than $57,000 a year. North Carolina ranks 42nd, at about $48,000, based on estimates for 2015.
He says North Carolina should raise teacher salaries, for both starting and veteran teachers.
This dilemma: lower rent versus higher paychecks, is playing out in many places.
Across the state in Asheville, a city known for its vibrant art scene, the 4,400 student district has a different problem than Hertford County: high rents. "It has been difficult when you hire a teacher, and they find out that a starting salary or even not a starting salary is not enough to live in the area," says Superintendent Pamela Baldwin.
Asheville and the adjacent Buncombe County schools are working with a local nonprofit to build a teacher complex.
"With salaries the way they are right now in North Carolina for teachers," Baldwin adds, "it was important to find some sort of a way to help them with housing."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
North Carolina has some of the lowest teacher salaries in the country. Teachers there sometimes struggle to pay the rent or just plain can't afford to live in the communities they serve. Jess Clark of North Carolina Public Radio has this report, and it starts in the northeastern part of the state where one rural school district is taking steps to solve the problem.
JESS CLARK, BYLINE: If you pull into Hertford County High School, pass the bus circle and the soccer fields and continue behind the school to a patch of woods, you find three cheerful two-story apartment buildings. James Eure admires them from beneath the gazebo and out of the rain.
JAMES EURE: This was owned by the school system and it was all woods, and we cleared it off and built these apartments and they're really nice.
CLARK: Eure volunteers for an organization that took out a loan to build these apartments for the school district's teachers and staff.
EURE: When we started doing a study in Hertford County, we found out that there was only about 15 apartments with the salaries that the teachers made could live in.
CLARK: Eure says he's seen the apartments draw in new teachers who make about $36,000 a year in this district and often can't afford to buy a house or don't want to rent one miles out in the country.
THOMPSONAMY THOMPSON: Hi.
EURE: Hello Amy.
CLARK: He introduces me to one of those teachers, Amy Thompson, who moved to Hertford County from Virginia.
Nice to meet you.
THOMPSON: Nice to meet you.
CLARK: Thompson is a first-year high school science teacher. She pays $625 a month for her two-bedroom unit.
THOMPSON: So this is just the living room area. I recently decorated for the fall - so (laughter).
CLARK: Thompson says the rent wasn't the only selling point.
THOMPSON: When they told me about the apartments and how close they were to work and that it was a community of people that teach here in the county who work the same hours as you, I was sold.
CLARK: Hertford is among several districts in North Carolina and across the country that's recognized the need for affordable teacher housing. Rural districts have one problem - a lack of it. But housing like this is piquing interest in other districts too for a different reason.
PAM BALDWIN: Asheville, in particular, it is an expensive place to live.
CLARK: Pam Baldwin is superintendent for Asheville City Schools in the western part of the state. Asheville and a neighboring district are working with a local charity to open teacher apartments next year.
BALDWIN: With salaries the way they are right now in North Carolina for teachers, it was important to find some sort of a way to help them with housing.
CLARK: On average, teachers in the U.S. make a little more than $57,000 a year. North Carolina ranks 42nd in teacher pay. Some worry providing teachers with housing isn't the real solution.
MARK JEWELL: It's another approach that is kind of like a Band-Aid to kind of fix a wound on a long-term problem.
CLARK: That's Mark Jewell of the North Carolina Association of Educators. He's skeptical that these apartments will keep teachers in a district.
JEWELL: Many people want have families and children and yards. That's not giving them an option of, you know, really staying long-term.
CLARK: Jewell says the state should raise teacher's salaries, both for starting and veteran teachers. Baldwin, the superintendent in Asheville, says until they do, her district has to work with what it's got. For NPR News, I'm Jess Clark. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.