Downtown Hoonah, 2014. Capital City Weekly file photo.

Downtown Hoonah, 2014. Capital City Weekly file photo.

To keep a teacher

Imagine finishing work for the day and pulling your mattress out of a closet, which you then have to put up in the morning when your students arrive for school.

This is a reality for many teachers in small Alaskan communities. Some live in schools or health clinics, while others make do with the backroom of someone’s house. Often, they’ll stay less than a year. Housing is a huge problem for villages across the state, and it means struggling to retain educators, healthcare professionals, and public safety officers in the places that need them most.

Dan Fauske, the previous director of the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation (AHFC), recognized this problem 14 years ago. After living in Barrow for 20 years and working for the North Slope borough, he had seen for himself the trying circumstances in which teachers were living in the rural communities. He heard story after story about how teachers stayed for a year and then left, leaving their students with no continuity in their education. He came up with the idea to start an AHFC program which paired communities in need of housing with the funding to create it. Since the program’s inception, they have helped 450 housing units in 81 communities across Alaska.

AHFC’s current CEO and executive director, Bryan Butcher, is now the face of the program. He is operating under a simple premise: if you offer safe, affordable housing, teachers will come and they will stay. He’s seen first-hand the difference that teacher housing can make.

“When we had our first couple of units go in, at this time it was just teachers,” Butcher said. “They would go to the hiring fair over the summer to try to hire some teachers in. They would have photos featured of the housing that they now had; they were all packed up and gone by lunchtime while many of the other communities were still scrambling to try to find enough people to take care of their folks in their communities. Very quickly people began to notice that housing is integral to bringing the benefits to the community that everybody wants.”

Dale Olney, AHFC’s teacher housing program manager, works directly with grant applicants to help them understand the process. He described the criteria they examine throughout the competitive process: need based on available housing and the availability of professional groups that applicants are looking to house; design, including cost effectiveness and energy efficiency; and the applicant’s ability to find other funding sources in order to limit the financial burden put on the teachers. Once a housing project has been awarded funds, he helps them follow their vision to completion.

“We’re really overall just looking to help the communities reduce turnover in those professional groups so they can attract quality professionals to stay in those housing units in the villages for more than just a short period of time,” Olney said.

The program has not been without its challenges. AHFC overcame the trial of convincing the Alaska Legislature to provide funding at the start of the program, but they are now facing funding challenges due to the reduced state budget. They faced opposition from the communities they work with as well.

“At first it was difficult to get the program going because people wanted grants,” Butcher said. “They were used to the grant process. When we introduced the idea of actual debt taking a mortgage out, it was difficult to convince a lot of areas that it was something that they should look at.”

Olney explained that the program offers funding in the form of a loan, a grant, or a combination of the two. The benefit to having a combination of funding sources is reduced financial burden for all parties involved. The process of developing a housing project goes more smoothly and AHFC has a bit of income. This ensures the longevity of the program and makes it possible to fund future housing projects.

Plus, Butcher noted, loans mean better caretaking.

“There really seems to be a high level of attention to taking care of your units when a community has some skin in the game. They have a loan, some of our money… it’s in everybody’s best interest to take care of it, which of course is important. We don’t want the deterioration; we want something which will be around for many decades.”

This year AHFC partnered with the Rasmuson Foundation to fund housing projects in four rural communities. Two of the Southeast communities, Kasaan and Hoonah, will each receive substantial combinations of grants and loans to fund housing for educators and healthcare professionals. Combining all of its sources of funding, the Organized Village of Kasaan will have approximately $507, 500 to build a duplex to replace the storm-damaged trailer they have been using for teacher housing. The Hoonah Indian Association will receive a similar amount of $550,000 to develop three buildings, including seven units with 14 bedrooms as well as office space for Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC) healthcare professionals.

Paula Peterson, the tribal administrator for the Organized Village of Kasaan, described the process of obtaining funding as long and arduous, but ultimately worth it. She went through a training in Anchorage to better understand the process of applying for the grant and teamed up with the Tlingit and Haida Regional Housing Authority to secure funding through the Native American Housing Assistance in Self Determination Act of 1996.

“It’s well worth it,” Peterson said. “It’s a lot of work to get but there’s so much need in the state of Alaska for housing. I learned a lot and appreciate that we got (a grant) after seeing the need in our state for public housing for professionals like (Village Public Safety Officer) and teachers. A big need.”

Hoonah, unlike many Alaskan cities, has no designated teacher housing. Ralph Watkins, Hoonah’s self-professed superintendent-principal-middle school teacher, described what he called the “plight” of the school district’s attempts to attract and retain quality educators without adequate housing.

“We were providing housing assistance in the way of tracking down available units and putting people in touch with the renters of those units. Unfortunately those persons did not reduce or subsidize in any way, or lessen the rent because it was a teacher in any way, so we had teachers paying more than a third of their net salaries just for rent. That’s not sustainable for us because teacher salaries have decreased a lot. Living in Alaska is expensive.”

Watkins recounted several teachers the school district had lost due to issues with their housing. A special education teacher had signed a contract to work in Hoonah but was unable to find affordable housing for herself and her family. She had to rescind her letter of intent, leaving Hoonah without someone in her position for an entire year. One middle school teacher’s rent was raised to unaffordable levels in the middle of the school year, forcing her to leave Hoonah and causing Watkins to add “middle school teacher” to the end of his title.

It’s not just teachers who are unable to find housing. The SEARHC clinic there has faced the same difficulties, leaving the town without a healthcare provider for weeks or, sometimes, months at a time. Hoonah’s police chief has been living in the U.S. Forest Service housing for lack of another option. Families have moved away because of it, causing dwindling enrollment in school, which impacts funding, which impacts the teachers and educational professionals.

Watkins, however, remains optimistic.

“We are committed. Myself, personally, and my family. We are committed… We try and make it work. As a superintendent I go the extra mile. I make home visits trying to find housing for teachers. I’d sell my soul if I have to. It’s becoming harder and hopefully this project will motivate people to come here knowing that there is the opportunity soon — not very soon but soon — for us to have good quality, affordable teacher housing.”

• Jack Scholz is the Capital City Weekly intern.

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