WEBB, Miss. — The tidy, four-unit, red-brick duplex with white trim sits within view of the baseball field at West Tallahatchie High School. There’s room for parking, and birds can be heard some days, tweeting merrily from the trees that circle the area.
The well-kept residential building in one of Mississippi’s poorest and most remote communities was meant to provide affordable housing to attract sorely needed teachers to the area – at least, that’s the vision the state’s lawmakers once had 17 years ago, when they allocated $200,000 for it as part of the Mississippi Critical Teacher Shortage Act of 1998. State leaders heralded the sweeping law as a forceful response to the teacher shortage, and teachers initially moved in.
These days, however, no teachers live in the duplex, according to the district, which still struggles mightily to recruit and retain teachers to an area with few stores, restaurants and amenities. Instead, the building has become a symbol of an idea that failed in Mississippi, although it has been taken up in other states, which are now building housing teachers can afford to live in.
Before the housing was approved, former West Tallahatchie Superintendent Reggie Barnes, an outspoken advocate for the state’s most impoverished schools, told Mississippi Department of Education officials that districts like his struggled to help teachers find housing. According to Tracy Mims, a current school board member and mayor of Webb, a local real estate developer received the sum for building the duplex, and then paid the loan back over several years at reduced interest rates, as required by state law.
“It was something we were very hopeful about at the time,” said Mims, who has lived across the street from the duplex for more than 14 years. “It sounded like it would give teachers a chance to participate more in the community — to really be here and be engaged.”
When the apartments opened, top priority was to be given to teachers working in the district, and then to other licensed school district employees, according to the law. Other school district staff were to be given third-tier priority. After that, the apartments could be rented to anyone able to pay.
Initially, teachers filled the apartment complex, according to Mims. But through the years, as teachers moved out, more non-teachers started to move in. And if a tenant moved out during the school year, there often weren’t any teachers — who tend to relocate before school starts in early August — ready to move in. Mims said he recalls the rent — about $400 a month — being regarded as a bit high for the community in the late 90s.
In the end, instead of being an exciting recruitment tool, the duplex has been filled in recent years by people with no direct ties to the school system.
And the rural district, located about a 30-minute drive from Clarksdale, still finds it hard to attract and keep teachers.
Housing is just part of the problem, although — as in many rural districts — few homes are available for rent, and many of those that are for sale need major work. The district has other woes. It currently rates a D on the state’s A to F accountability system, which uses test scores and other data to assign letter-grade scores to school districts. Teachers are further deterred by the lack of grocery stores, restaurants and shops in the town, which has about 565 people, according to 2010 Census data
Although the idea of creating apartments for teachers has not panned out for West Tallahatchie, it is now catching on in other states and districts, where teachers struggle to find suitable housing, either because it isn’t readily available or because it is too expensive. Apartments specifically for teachers and other district employees have been completed in Newark, New Jersey and in pricey, tourist-driven areas on the Outer Banks in North Carolina. Similar apartments are under construction in the high-cost market of Los Angeles, and the Oakland Unified School District in California is considering a teacher apartment proposal.
In rural McDowell County, West Virginia, a group of nonprofits and companies spearheaded by the American Federation of Teachers recently purchased land to build a teacher village, hoping to provide the type of community that the West Tallahatchie district sought to create with its duplex, and to bring in more teachers with the promise of good, inexpensive housing.
Leaders in those states might learn some lessons from West Tallahatchie, including the fact that recreation and other amenities matter, and that teachers usually need both low rent and move-in dates that accommodate their schedules.
The offer of decent housing was not enough to overcome the isolation and challenges of the district, which in late September still had three openings, including two elementary posts and one high school position. In recent years, the district hasn’t even tried to use it as a draw: The district’s superintendent of two years didn’t even know the location of the duplex until he researched it.
“I wouldn’t really call it a tool at all, honestly,” said Superintendent Darron Edwards, “We don’t have a connection to it, and we don’t necessarily know when they have vacancies to fill.”
The units all appeared to be occupied on a mild, sunny day in mid-September a grill was located outside one unit, a pink scooter outside another, and a crated brown-and-black puppy sat outside a third unit
“It’s still mostly professionals and some blue collar workers,” said Mims, who believes the last teacher moved out about eight years ago. “But it’s not really serving the purpose it was built for anymore.”
Instead, teachers found housing in other places where rent was cheaper and amenities like stores and restaurants and activities were closer, Mims added.
Barbara Miller, a second-year elementary teacher in Carroll County, another remote Mississippi Delta area where housing is tough to find and about half of teachers commute distances of 25 minutes or more, said she could see the appeal of housing close to school.
But she said her family ties and her husband’s job mean it makes more sense for her to live farther from her work, and commute to her job at Marshall Elementary in Carrollton.
“I think there are a lot of things people consider when they decide where to live, and it’s about more than where your job is. It can be a complicated decision,” she said. “But driving isn’t a problem for me. I love the way this school district is like a family and a community. We do great things for children. I would be willing to drive a very long way to get here.”
Miller’s principal, Fletcher Harges, makes the 30-minute drive from Grenada and says that a lack of entertainment and shopping in Carrollton are definitely factors in his decision to live away from where he works. The town has one restaurant and no grocery stores. There is only a Dollar General where residents can buy some basic supplies.
“If you are going to talk about housing, you have to talk about what else is here — where people go when they aren’t working,” Harges said with a smile. “It’d be nice to have an Applebee’s or Starbucks but of course that’s not where we are right now.”
To boost the appeal of teacher housing, some developers, like those in Newark, New Jersey, are heavily promoting recreation opportunities and amenities.
Teachers who live in the complex there have access to gyms and other recreational spaces at the school when the school isn’t in use. The airy apartments also have upgrades like stainless steel appliances, wood flooring and quartz countertops.
The idea, according to promotional materials for the complex, is to give teachers a place to live near work, and also provide them with ample opportunities to both network and socialize with teachers and other professionals.
Meanwhile, West Tallahatchie’s superintendent, Edwards, said he understands why many of his teachers choose to make the 25-minute drive from Clarksdale — or to make an even longer commute — to his district.
“If you aren’t from an area like this — if this isn’t what you know and what you are comfortable with, you are probably going to make the choice to be in an area where there is more for you to do — a place that has some restaurants, and where you don’t have to drive 20 miles or more to get basic necessities.”