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Published in Print: January 13, 1999, as District Looks to Students for Solution to Housing Crunch

District Looks to Students for Solution to Housing Crunch

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Teachers facing a housing crunch in the Santa Fe, N.M., area can now thank local high school students in a building-trades program for their new homes.

The students, mainly freshmen and sophomores at Santa Fe High School, which runs the program, are building houses that the district can rent to educators in the city's public schools.

While students in many vocational education programs across the country build houses to sell, Santa Fe's program benefits educators exclusively.

State of New MexicoSchool officials in the New Mexico capital, who know of no similar program elsewhere, call it one of the most unusual approaches that the 13,900-student district has taken to combat the housing problem for Santa Fe teachers.

"The cost of living has been one of our challenges in recruiting and retaining teachers," said Edward Lee Vargas, the district superintendent. Moreover, he added, "our salaries are not as competitive as other districts' in the state or country."

So far, Santa Fe students have built two three-bedroom homes, and there are plans for 11 more, averaging about one house per year. The cost of building the houses runs about $100,000 each, excluding the land, which was donated to the district more than 20 years ago.

Using a lottery system, the district is choosing teachers for the homes from a pool of applicants. The first teacher moved in Dec. 30.

Applications will be weighted based on such criteria as family income, marital status, and number of dependents. Although the houses are available to all school employees, teachers have first choice. Those selected will pay rent that is equal to 25 percent of their annual incomes, and the money from the rent will go into a fund for future housing for educators.

Fresh Start

The students enrolled in the program's elective classes are not paid for their efforts, but they leave the program having learned marketable skills they can use in future jobs.

"We have contractors all over town who got their start from our building-trades program," said Fabian Chavez, a member of the Building-Trades Advisory Board, a local nonprofit group that works to secure loans for the program's construction materials.

Though the shift to building houses for teachers just began this year, Santa Fe High's building-trades program has been in existence since the mid-1970s. At that time, the houses students built were sold to the highest bidders.

School officials credit the success of the building program to the students' dedication to the entire building process, which goes beyond simply constructing a house.

Mr. Chavez explained that students are involved in every step of the process, from design to construction to the finishing touches.

For example, students in a drafting class design the houses by computer, and after a house is built, students in the school's horticulture program provide the landscaping.

Building Success

The program has been especially important for students like Bobby Gallegos. The 16-year-old has been working with his grandfather's construction business since he was 12.

Mr. Gallegos, who aspires to be a contractor, says that he's learned a lot from the building-trades program. "I've learned how to bid on homes, find prices for customers, and also how to cope with others," he said.

The primary purpose of such programs is career exploration, according to Stephan F. Hamilton, a professor of human development at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. "Also, students get a clearer idea of what their options are and how they can get into those areas," he said.

One concern though is the possibility that students could be exploited as a source of free or cheap labor. Mr. Hamilton, however, says that as long as students get paid for their work or receive academic credit, such programs are legitimate.

Often, he added, the students who need such training the most are the ones who don't envision themselves going to college.

But for Mr. Gallegos, that is not the case. The 10th grader is already planning to get a master's degree in business to supplement the skills he has learned. "It's not all construction," he said. "You need business skills, too."

'Win-Win Situation'

Santa Fe district officials knew that a growing number of teachers could not afford to live close to the schools where they teach, and when the program's first house on the donated land didn't sell during the past school year, the district decided to buy the house and rent it to a teacher.

The district, which purchased a parcel of land to be used to build 12 houses, then committed to buying all of them. "It seems to be a win-win situation," said the advisory board's Mr. Chavez.

Several Santa Fe teachers have lengthy commutes to the northern city of 60,000 people, which is seen as a desirable area that has drawn a large artistic community in recent years. Property values and rents have become so high that a number of teachers make the 60-mile trek from Albuquerque, N.M., or come 65 miles from Las Vegas, N.M., said Mr. Vargas.

The average cost of a house in Santa Fe is about $190,000; in Albuquerque, a comparable home costs about $120,000, he said.

For a teacher with a starting salary of $23,000, and even those veterans whose salaries average $30,000, houses in Santa Fe are not affordable, Mr. Vargas said.

"This puts us at a disadvantage because as soon as an opening happens closer to a teacher's home, they leave us," he said.

Many attractive areas--such as Boston, San Francisco, and San Jose, Calif.--are exorbitantly expensive and have similar housing problems, noted Deborah McLean, a spokeswoman for Recruiting New Teachers Inc., a Belmont, Mass.-based nonprofit organization that seeks to improve the nation's teaching corps.

But Ms. McLean said that she was unaware of any other district that uses student labor to try to alleviate the problem. "It seems like a very innovative recruiting strategy," she said. "Unfortunately, [the students] probably can't build as many houses as [the district] needs."

Mr. Vargas said the district's building program is just one remedy for the situation. He has been working with private organizations and the city, county, and state to create a "teacherage."

Built by independent contractors and architects, the neighborhood of teachers would be a 50-unit structure that could include a combination of apartments and townhouses. Like the student-built houses, the units would be rented at 25 percent of a renter's salary. Final recommendations from the committee for the project could go before the Santa Fe school board next month.

When the legislative session begins next week, the superintendent plans to ask state lawmakers for $300,000 to help build a teacherage. Until then, Mr. Vargas said, the district will continue to look to the students to help solve their teacher-housing crisis.

Vol. 18, Issue 18, Page 6

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