Elementary school teacher Sydney Scharer poses in front of her tiny home.
Elementary school teacher Sydney Scharer lives with her fiancé in a 400-square-foot home owned by the school district. Megan Kimble/CityLab

The state ranks last in the nation for elementary school teacher salaries. For one rural school district, building a tiny-home community for staffers is one way to address the issue.

Sydney Scharer teaches fifth grade at Senita Valley Elementary School in Vail, Arizona, a small but fast-growing community in the Sonoran Desert southeast of Tucson. The Vail School District spans 425 square miles of adobe-style suburban housing developments sprawling amid the stands of saguaro and ocotillo in the foothills of the Rincon and Santa Rita Mountains. According to Zillow, the average home price is $258,600—and there are no apartments located within district boundaries.

“The lowest rent you can find for a house in Vail is $1,200,” Scharer says. In her fifth year of teaching, Scharer makes $38,000 a year. So Scharer lived with her fiancé in a 600-square-foot apartment in Tucson: She paid $850 a month in rent and drove the 25 miles to work every day. “It was the closest thing we could get to Vail and still keep our rent reasonable,” she says.

A lot of her colleagues came up with the same solution to the Vail School District’s housing challenges. But last fall, the district sent out an email to its staff, asking if anyone might be interested in living in a planned community of two dozen 300- to 400-square-foot homes on district-owned land. Scharer was the first to jump at the opportunity. “I wanted to be more in the community,” she says.

Across the country, teachers often struggle to find affordable housing in the communities where they teach, most famously in high-cost places like Silicon Valley. Some school districts have started addressing this affordability crisis by building teacher- and staff-only housing, often in the form of apartment complexes. Vail is the first district in the country to try another tack: tiny homes.

“I’m often asked, are you doing this because it’s an affordable housing issue, or are you doing this because it’s a teacher pay issue?” says John Carruth, the school district’s associate superintendent, and leader of the tiny home project. “And the answer is yes to both of those things.”

Vail is unusual: It’s comparatively pricey and a largely rural district near a metro area that has plenty of affordable housing—the average home price in Tucson, where most teachers end up living, is $180,200. Because Vail is unincorporated—it falls under the jurisdiction of Pima County—the school district is also one of the only unifying entities in the community. “Vail is very much its school district,” says Scharer. “You go to any Vail event, and the whole district is there. The community is the schools.” Without teachers living in town, the district—and community—suffers.

The tiny-home community is planned for a five-acre site at the intersection of Old Vail and Colossal Cave roads, an area that was once the historic center of an old railroad town. There’s Old Vail Post Office, a small adobe building constructed in 1908 that became a hub for ranchers and railroad hands, and across the tracks is Old Vail Middle School, site of the first school to open in Vail in 1903, when the town was a water stop on the old Southern Pacific. An original straw bale home will become a conference center and co-working space; an old feed store has already opened as a thrift shop, with proceeds benefiting the Vail Food Bank, also on-site.

“They’re trying to make this the center of the community,” says Scharer. “When you’re like, where’s Vail? It’s kind of this blob of space. They want there to be a central area.”

Scharer and her fiancé moved into the community’s first tiny home in July. The 400-square-foot structure feels relatively spacious, she says, with a full kitchen, bathroom, and separate bedroom. They’re renting this home while they finish designing their own tiny home with Luxtiny, an Arizona-based manufacturer. The community will eventually include a combination of teacher-owned homes and rental properties owned by investors, mostly Vail residents who want to support the project. The district is investing $200,000 for infrastructure improvements—installing electrical utilities, expanding the septic system, and landscaping the property—and will charge teachers and staff $125 a month to rent the land, including utilities and Internet service.

Scharer’s home is the first of what the school district hopes will be a community full of tiny houses. (Megan Kimble/CityLab)

Securing traditional financing is by far the largest hurdle for those hoping to buy tiny homes, but Scharer says that they were just approved for a 30-year fixed rate mortgage from Tucson-based Pyramid Credit Union. With their mortgage and the land lease, they’ll pay around $700 a month.

The site plan shows clusters of four homes set around shared green spaces, with plazas and pathways meandering throughout and space for a community garden. Right now, it’s still a barren strip of desert; Scharer’s home sprouts from an empty expanse of dirt, towering over a tiny mesquite tree that casts sparse shade.

Carruth and Scharer are still working out the details that emerge when your employer becomes your landlord. For many decades, Vail schools have employed “site residents,” who live in mobile homes on district land, leasing the property from the district in exchange for managing and monitoring a school. “Originally, we did that because we’re out here in the middle of the country, so you’re chasing cows off the fields,” Carruth says. But the schools were also the center of daily life, so someone needed to unlock the door and clean up after a community event. “We’ve got everybody from principals to teachers to maintenance staff as site residents,” Carruth says. “The tiny home community is just an extension of that idea.”

Because you have to be an employee of the district to live in the tiny home community, if you decide to leave the district—or if you are asked to leave—you also would have to leave your home. Although Carruth says that teachers will have the option to take their tiny homes with them if they move on, moving these structures, particularly if installed on a foundation, can be a costly endeavor. Tiny homes typically don’t retain value like traditional homes do, in large part because they aren’t attached to land ownership. And the Vail effort has critics who feel that the very premise of the program is a workaround that fails to address a more urgent statewide issue: inadequate teacher salaries.

“A tiny home is not a solution out of dignity. It’s a solution out of convenience,” says Joe Thomas, the president of the Arizona Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union. “I think it’s a creative approach, but I don’t know if it values the work and the contribution that educators make in the community. Maybe if we can just move away from tiny school budgets.”

Arizona ranks last in the nation for elementary school teacher salaries. This spring, many Arizona teachers walked out of their classrooms, demanding more funding for education from the state. The Red for Ed movement won substantial gains, including $300 million added to the 2018-2019 school budget, and an initiative on the ballot in November that would add an additional $690 million dollars into the classroom’s site fund. “The best model is to compensate teachers so that they can afford a home like anyone else can,” Thomas says. “I don’t think it’s any more complex than that.”

In Vail, Carruth says his district is doing everything within their control to do that: 89 percent of the district’s maintenance and operation budget, he says, goes toward salaries. But even a 10 percent bump in teacher pay wouldn’t solve the area’s affordable housing issue, he says, particularly for young teachers who are still paying off student loans. The tiny house solution, he admits, “isn’t for everyone. The majority of our teaching stuff is under 35. They’re dealing with this. We’re trying to solve something we can control.”

Indeed, a tiny home can only serve as a solution for a very specific demographic. Scharer, who is 25, isn’t planning on raising a family in the tiny home. If and when she and her fiancé decide to have children, she says they’ll hopefully have saved up enough money for a down payment on a larger home in Vail. But for now, she’s happy live small and save money.

“The more we stay here, the more we’re part of Vail,” she says.

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