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Eagle Valley Middle School math teacher Brian Trommater assists an eighth-grade student during class on Thursday in Eagle. Trommater, like several other local educators, struggled to find affordable housing. He said he felt lucky to find a small one-bedroom apartment in the town of Gypsum. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

EAGLE — Brian Trommater’s bedroom window opens up to a view of mountain slopes peeking out from behind clusters of trees, giving him a vantage point that often leaves him dazed by the thought that he’s living a dream.

It’s an expansive backdrop for an otherwise tiny place to call home: His apartment covers about 375 square feet and doesn’t have a closet. But the middle school math teacher has everything he needs in his new space and he says he is relieved to have found a reasonably priced spot in Eagle County School District, where just 6% of homes are affordable to educators earning the average teacher salary, according to data compiled by the Keystone Policy Center.

“You will have to make a sacrifice and you will have to get lucky,” Trommater, 44, said.

His struggle to find an affordable place to live is one shared by many teachers across Colorado. Even though average teacher salaries in Colorado have jumped by about 25% in the past seven years, fewer than one-fifth of homes are within reach of teachers who make an average salary in their district.

In Eagle County, the lack of affordable housing has become so severe that the superintendent in July sent a letter to community members pleading with them to open their homes and any vacant rooms and spaces they own to educators desperate for a place to live. The letter, mailed out to all property owners in the county, was the district’s latest — and perhaps most creative — attempt to expand the housing stock affordable to its employees. The district also is constructing a 37-unit apartment building for educators and support staff. Meanwhile, some educators in the district have turned to Habitat for Humanity Vail Valley to become homeowners.

“At present, it’s nearly impossible to secure affordable housing in Eagle County,” Superintendent Philip Qualman wrote to community members. “Having been here for 31 years, this is the worst affordable housing market I’ve ever seen. Now is the time for our entire community to pull together to help provide housing for our educators.”

The district of about 900 full-time employees is asking property owners to convert vacant homes, condos, lock-off units and spare bedrooms into living quarters for teachers at rates that won’t stretch their budgets. The district is willing to do the grunt work behind matching district employees — who have already undergone background checks — and property owners. The district even promises to cover lease payments if the tenant leaves and also find someone new to move into the space.

Eagle Valley Middle School math teacher Brian Trommater assists eighth-grade students during class Thursday in Eagle. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

It’s a matter of survival for both Eagle educators and the district, which for the past two years has consistently had 70 staffing vacancies, leading to overcrowded classrooms and trouble keeping schools clean and moving lunch lines along, Qualman said. Without enough affordable housing in the region, his district can’t keep educators in classrooms. The district has fielded fewer applicants per open position, and candidates frequently end up declining offers simply because they can’t find somewhere to live, said Qualman, now in his third full year as superintendent.

Land Title Guarantee Co. shows the average sales price for single-family homes through June in Eagle County reached $2.7 million and multifamily homes reached $1.6 million, up about 15% from the average sales prices in 2021. Zillow and Redfin show median home prices in Eagle County for the year around $950,000, up about 7% from the previous year. (Median prices iron out the impact of sales of slopeside trophy homes that skew average tallies in resort communities.)

The superintendent has repeatedly heard about vacant properties in the community, which always prompts the same question: Why can’t Eagle teachers rent them?

“I said, let’s ask. See what happens,” Qualman said.

The district’s mailing campaign has yielded about 100 new rentals that it has posted on its internal classified system for employees to see, but only about 10 are affordable for teachers and staff members. The district is offering master leases to the property owners, so that each lease would be with the school district. That way, the district can help negotiate affordable rates for teachers long term while giving landlords confidence they will be promptly paid by the district, not the staff member, Qualman said.

The district will not subsidize rent for any employees if they’re interested in properties that emerged from the mailing campaign but are more expensive, however, he added.

During the summer, the district reported 50 employees who needed to secure affordable housing or potentially give up their jobs with the district, about half of them teachers and the other half support staff. Eagle County School District is currently aware of about 20 staff members who are struggling with housing challenges, according to Adele Wilson, the district’s chief human resources officer. Those employees may already be living somewhere but are searching for a more affordable housing option, Wilson said.

Another component of the district’s 10-year housing master plan revolves around partnering with Habitat for Humanity Vail Valley, which is using district-owned land to build affordable homes for district employees. The nonprofit organization has a dozen homes in the construction pipeline and plans to break ground next spring.

Additionally, Eagle County School District is developing residential property in Edwards, creating the 37-rental unit building near Battle Mountain High School. The units are under construction and slated to open in a year, Qualman said. The complex will have 19 one-bedroom units, 11 two-bedroom units and seven three-bedroom units, with rent that is always capped at 30% of the base salary of a new teacher, which is $47,160.

Many educators in Eagle County School District and other mountain towns in Colorado are struggling to find affordable housing. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Rent for a one-bedroom in the district property will total about $1,150 per month including utilities.

The rental property won’t cost taxpayers anything, Qualman said, as the district filed for certificates of participation and put up its own property for collateral. The certificates of participation act like a mortgage payment with rent payments covering the costs.

Without more affordable housing in Eagle County, Qualman worries the district will continue struggling to fill critical staff openings, which amplifies the stress of each school day.

“All that work still needs to get done,” he said, “so the classes still need to get taught, the lunches need to get served and the schools need to be cleaned. So the people who stick with the organization are the ones who pick up that slack. So class sizes get bigger, lunch lines get longer, schools may not be as clean as we want them to be. So there’s huge ripple effects. (It) makes everybody in the system tired, frustrated.”

Eagle County School District pays its teachers a base salary that is among the most competitive in the state. Still, Qualman sees low teacher pay statewide as the fundamental problem.

“At the root of it is inadequate pay,” he said. “Yes, our housing market here has been traditionally high, but we’re also one of the lowest paying states in the nation. So until Colorado fixes its funding model, this is going to be a constant problem.”

Making sacrifices no matter where you live — whether in an apartment, a house or a van

Trommater, who says hunting for housing in Eagle County hinges on both sacrifice and luck, made an impulsive dash to slide into his apartment in Gypsum once he saw it posted in classified ads a few weeks ago. He spotted the ad during one of his first days as a full-time teacher for the district while preparing for students to return for classes: a one-bedroom apartment for $1,400 a month, including rent, utilities, internet and DirecTV.

Timing was the element of luck for Trommater, who had been temporarily staying at a dumpy local motel.

The downside? Space — or lack thereof. The educator describes his new home as “comically small.”

“The sacrifice I had to make was of course the smaller place, but so many people have to make worse sacrifices,” said Trommater, who teaches at Eagle Valley Middle School. “They have to get roommates. They have to live far away.”

Affordable housing neighborhood on April 18 in Gypsum. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

His new home is a secluded apartment inside the house where his landlord lives and is a 5-minute drive from school and a 10-minute walk from the Eagle River. 

The apartment is particularly affordable for Trommater, who earns $47,160 as a first-year teacher and has only himself to care for. He was determined to make housing work in Eagle County after he landed the job a little more than three weeks ago.

He’s on a waitlist for income-restricted apartments that would guarantee him a more spacious place, but he’s content in his cozy apartment where he can soak in sunsets from his bedroom window and peer out at the panoramic views of beauty that is hard for him to put into words. He knows other places across Gypsum and Eagle County with the same kind of commanding views come with a much steeper cost.

“It’s very expensive,” Trommater said. “So if you’re coming out here thinking you’re just going to waltz in and get something awesome for you and your family, no way.”

Karen Kolibaba, president of the Eagle County Education Association and a fifth-grade teacher at Red Hill Elementary School in Gypsum, also hit a stroke of luck in nailing down an affordable place to live.

Kolibaba, who lives alone, moved to Gypsum after teaching for Douglas County School District for 11 years. She eventually sold her home in Denver for a significant profit. Her parents bought her Gypsum home and first rented to her, and she has owned half the home for the past five years.

The educator, who has taught in Eagle County School District for eight years, knows many of her colleagues scrape by to cover their expenses, sometimes picking up second and even third jobs. A pair of educators early in their teaching careers in her district live together in a van, moving around and making arrangements to shower at various stops.

Kolibaba, 43, acknowledged the Eagle County district pays teachers well compared to many other Colorado districts, but in places like Summit County and the Roaring Fork Valley, base teacher salaries are $50,000. Some new teachers may be lured to the districts where they can earn more, she said.

Housing can be just as hard to come by for more seasoned teachers in Eagle, she noted, with the lack of affordable homes reaching “a crisis” and one that her district can’t solve on its own.

“When it comes down to it, the biggest issue is how Colorado funds education,” Kolibaba said. “That goes beyond what Eagle County can do.”

Staff writer Jason Blevins contributed to this report.

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Erica Breunlin

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