RANCHESTER — Sheridan County’s joint housing study will be completed this month, and it should include some answers on how to affordably accommodate an influx of new residents into the county.
In Sheridan County School District 1, Superintendent Pete Kilbride seeks the same answers. Without affordable housing, the district struggles to attract and retain young teachers and student teachers, Kilbride said. While the district is currently fully staffed, Kilbride expects recruiting new teachers will become increasingly difficult in coming years as housing demand — and cost — increases.
“With housing prices going up, it is concerning when you think about young teachers trying to find housing and move here,” Kilbride said. “In recent years, we have had one or two people decline a position simply because they couldn’t afford to move their family here, and that trend is going to continue unless we find some way to combat it.”
One potential way forward may be the creation of a district teacherage, Kilbride said. Teacherages are district-owned housing particularly common in smaller rural communities with few affordable housing options. The teacherage would be a duplex or fourplex owned by the district and provided at an affordable rental rate to incoming teachers.
The teacherage would also be offered to student teachers, Kilbride said. Currently, the district has a number of student teachers each year, but the majority stay with family and friends who live in the area, Kilbride said.
“Providing a teacherage would increase the interest from student teachers who don’t already have ties to this area,” Kilbride said. “We have a great district, but most student teachers can’t afford to live and teach here.”
A teacherage would be largely untrod territory for the district, which, for the most part, has refrained from providing staff housing, Kilbride said. The district has rented out an apartment on the upper level of its bus barn for the last eight years. Renters are allowed to stay for up to three years before they’re required to find alternative housing, Kilbride said.
Kilbride said discussions of the teacherage have been mostly theoretical at this time, and he does not know how much the project could cost the district or whether it would even be economically feasible.
The district “does not want to be in the real estate business,” Kilbride said, but with few developers stepping up to address the district’s affordable housing needs, Kilbride is needing to think outside the box as the Tongue River Valley continues to grow and housing becomes more expensive.
The Tongue River Valley, and much of Sheridan County, is experiencing what Ranchester Mayor Peter Clark calls “growing pains.” The town of Ranchester itself has grown 64% in the last decade, Clark said, and it doesn’t show signs of slowing.
“Our issues are growing pains, and that’s a good problem to have,” Clark said. “We just approved a 24-house subdivision, and there is potential for another 250 acres to be annexed into town, plus another 70 homes that could be constructed in the town itself.”
That growth is heartening, but few of the recent developments — apart from some lots recently purchased for development by Habitat for Humanity of the Eastern Bighorns — are what can be considered “affordable housing,” Clark said.
“I haven’t seen anything listed at $200,000 or lower,” Clark said. “Everything is $250,000 or $300,000 or even higher.”
Aside from Habitat, Clark has not heard from any developers interested in developing the sorts of affordable housing the district needs to recruit a quality teaching staff.
The district’s first step in moving forward with the teacherage will be determining what sorts of housing are in demand among young teachers, Kilbride said. The district plans to circulate a survey in the near future asking young staffers about their housing needs and desires.
“If we were to offer district housing, it would be years down the road, but I’m curious what our teachers will have to say,” Kilbride said. “Will they be looking for something bigger than we can provide in a fourplex or duplex? If we built a teacherage, would they actually rent it? I don’t know the answers just yet, but we believe those are questions worth asking.”