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Summit Cove Elementary School teacher Sarah Pomeroy cooks dinner inside her van on Dec. 15 in Dillon. Dubbed Beatrice by her students, the van is where Pomeroy calls home. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

DILLON — When Sarah Pomeroy rumbles into the parking lot of Summit Cove Elementary School each morning, she brings everything she owns: her lab mix, Mack; a fake hanging plant she calls Amanda Vines; her kitchen sink, stove and mini fridge; overhead cubbies filled with clothes; and even her bed.

It’s all tucked neatly inside her white Dodge Ram ProMaster — dubbed Beatrice by her students — which for the past year and a half has doubled as her home.

Pomeroy, who teaches science, technology, engineering and mathematics as well as physical education at the Summit County school, loves toting her entire life around with her. It’s convenient, particularly for moments of mishap, like the time she ripped her pants while at school. She simply darted back out to Beatrice to retrieve another pair.

It’s also cost effective. While many people embrace “van life” as a means of ditching the grid and waking up against a new backdrop each day or week, Pomeroy’s decision to live on wheels is driven not by freedom but necessity. Her van has become the most affordable way for her to stay in a mountain resort community where the average home price through October reached $983,458 — far beyond financial reach for an educator who earns an annual salary of about $60,000. Just 6% of houses in Summit School District were affordable to educators earning an average teacher salary of $67,000 in 2021, according to a teacher housing report published by the nonpartisan Keystone Policy Center in August.

Without the money to purchase a house or comfortably rent her own apartment, Pomeroy would likely be pushed out of the place that has become her home over the past decade, if not for Beatrice. Her struggles echo across much of Colorado as many educators find themselves priced out of their local housing markets — with fewer than one-fifth of homes in the state affordable to teachers who earn an average salary in their district, making it harder for school districts to draw teachers and keep them in classrooms long term. 

When people are forced into “van life” over a traditional house or apartment, “it says that our community is on the brink of unsustainability,” said Chris Romer, president and CEO of Vail Valley Partnership, located in Eagle County just west of Summit County.

Community is the whole reason Pomeroy, 32, bought a van and outfitted it to become a home for her and her dog, Mack. 

“As much as I don’t have a stationary home, it feels like home and I care about this community and what I’ve put into it,” said Pomeroy, who has taught at Summit Cove Elementary School for almost six years.

Along with running a robotics club and sewing club for students during their lunch period, Pomeroy is raising money to create a bike track behind the elementary school and has collected 30 bikes for kids to ride. Leaving behind those projects and the individual relationships she has fastened with her students — including one who offered up her family’s extra bedroom — would be a much greater hardship than living in a van.

Still, packing her entire life into the Dodge Ram ProMaster has come with many challenges from day one, when she bought a drill to begin outfitting her van without realizing she would need drill bits. She constructed her living space practically on her own, tackling it during weekends and after school while also bartending two nights a week at a bar in Frisco. After purchasing the used 2020 van from a Boulder dealership, Pomeroy cleaned it out, primed and insulated it, laid the flooring, built her bed, installed walls and a ceiling, wired it, ran electrical and added solar panels to the roof — watching YouTube videos for instructions throughout the process. 

Sarah bought the cargo van before constructing the interior design with basic needs, like bed and kitchen. “I wanted something that was my own, but couldn’t really afford a house,” Sarah said. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

She moved into the van two months into owning it and continued to work on it steadily, finishing the last touch in October.

The teacher has become a student again, learning how to get water — she has a 7-liter jug that she often fills at her boyfriend’s house in Frisco and a foot pump that runs out of the jug into her sink — as well as figuring out how to keep cool in summer months and warm in the winter. She has a thermostat that helps her regulate the temperature inside the van. Last winter, her battery and heater primarily ran off solar power. But with less sun during winter months, her battery did not charge as much in the cold. She has since retrofitted the van so that she can also generate heat through the alternator in the van’s engine.

Pomeroy also has a spare heater she can use in case her battery didn’t get enough charge, and on especially frigid nights, she stays at her boyfriend’s house.

In the summer, her heater converts to a fan — one of two she relies on — and she also spends a lot of her time outside. 

“You’re constantly thinking about heat, cold, solar, power,” Pomeroy said, particularly as a dog owner living in a county where winter mornings plunge to 0 degrees before climbing to 50 degrees before noon.

But those struggles largely pale in comparison to the financial pressures and emotional trauma Pomeroy faced when she had an actual roof over her. 

She previously escaped an abusive relationship and began staying with friends before converting her Subaru into a temporary home for the summer in 2020. As the school year approached, she lucked out and found a one-bedroom apartment in Frisco for $1,400 per month — the most affordable option even as she had to divert most of her paycheck toward her rent. She stayed there for several months but began to explore other options so that she would have a shot at building up savings.

“I realized that I would never save money, and I think I am in a position where I’m watching a lot of friends buy houses with significant others,” Pomeroy said. “And I realized that being in a one-bedroom by myself wasn’t sustainable for me to stay in Summit County.”

Since moving into the van, she has saved thousands of dollars and caught glimpses of “van life,” making the most of her time and freedom on the road by driving to scenic spots to cook breakfast or dinner and enjoy her meal with a view. But Pomeroy, an avid climber, mountain biker and skier, said that if she truly was in pursuit of a picturesque “van life,” she would move some place much warmer when temperatures plummet and likely wouldn’t have to rely so much on others for help. She’ll often do her laundry at her boyfriend’s house, use his oven and internet connection, and either shower at his place or at her school.

Summit Cove Elementary School teacher Sarah Pomeroy leads her kindergarten students to the school bus outside following the last class of the day. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

She wants to own a house, but for now, her tiny home on wheels keeps her tethered to her community.

“This is my dream job,” Pomeroy said. “And I love the students that I get to work with. So I think it’s worth me being in the van so that I can stay.”

“Not all doom and gloom” 

Summit School District Superintendent Tony Byrd is well aware that keeping his classrooms staffed with quality teachers largely depends on solving the lack of affordable housing. The school district of about 3,600 students hired 53 new teachers for the current school year — close to 20% of its entire teaching workforce. Many of the teachers who left during the previous school year were strained by the cost of living, Byrd said.

The district, based in Frisco, has staff vacancies in just about all of its nine schools, particularly in special education positions, counseling roles and science classes, Byrd said. Summit School District used to attract 30 to 40 applicants for teaching jobs as well as administrative positions. Now, it garners two to five applicants, Byrd said, with many people leaving after only three or four years because they simply can’t afford to live in the county.

“We don’t have the funding to pay teachers enough to live here — or staff,” said Byrd, who is in his first year at the district helm.

The district has done what it can to boost teacher pay, increasing the salary for beginner teachers to $50,000 from $48,000 last year.

“We’re thankful we can do that, but $2,000 does not cover the cost of rent or (a) mortgage over the course of a year,” he said. “It doesn’t come close.”

He’s troubled by the reality Pomeroy faces in living out of a van, and by other staff members in the district who rent their apartment to visitors on weekends to earn extra cash, bedding down temporarily in their vehicles or in tents.

Byrd has outlined staff housing as one of the major priorities for district leadership to address and has spent part of the past two months exploring housing possibilities, with the district consulting Roaring Fork School District, Eagle County School District, Frisco, Breckenridge, Silverthorne, Summit Habitat for Humanity and Summit Combined Housing Authority for ideas.

“I’ve been here for 10 years and I love the friends that I’ve built. I love the climbing community. I want to be here and it feels like home. Even if I don’t have a stationary home,” Sarah said. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Beginning in January, Summit School District will work on developing a multi-year plan to create short- and long-term housing solutions. Short-term prospects include potential master leases and finding better ways to advertise housing opportunities. Long term, the district is looking into constructing housing on vacant land it owns. One idea under consideration revolves around building multi-unit apartment complexes that would have studios, one-bedroom, two-bedroom and three-bedroom options all for rent at adjusted rates, Byrd said. 

Summit School District has a few open plots of land that could become home to a staff housing development, including about 10 acres spanning Breckenridge and Frisco and another roughly 10 acres in Silverthorne, Byrd said. The district’s housing plan is part of a larger master plan for land use that will map out the next five to 10 years. Byrd aims to present a master plan for land use that includes housing to the school board by April — for the sake of both staff and students.

“The single most important variable during the school day for students is the teacher, and second to that is the principal,” Byrd said. “And so if you don’t have a high-quality teaching staff that can stay, you run the serious risk of never being able to deliver on high-quality teaching and learning for every student.” 

The district’s momentum around constructing staff housing coincides with a project initiated by Summit Habitat for Humanity that over the next five years will plant six homes in Summit County and eight homes in Fairplay for the local workforce, including teachers.

Romer, of Vail Valley Partnership, noted that public agencies, such as school districts and hospitals, will need to play a more active role in providing more affordable housing as they work to fill open positions. He offered as an example a 37-rental unit building near Battle Mountain High School in Edwards that is backed by the Eagle County School District.

The housing pressure in the Vail Valley has been a relentless challenge for decades, Romer said.

“It’s primarily driven by the resort nature of our communities because we have a global real estate market,” he said. “Our real estate market is open to people who not only live and work within the community but (is) also fueled by Front Range and out-of-state and international people who visit here or live here on a part-time basis.”

Increasingly, investors are using homes for short-term rentals, only further pinching the housing market at a time the region has more people than housing inventory, Romer added.

He worries about essential community workers, including teachers, flocking to other places where they can more easily afford a home while those who choose to stay remain limited in where they can live. But he’s also encouraged by the flurry of affordable housing projects across mountain communities.

“Despite the challenges, I think it’s really important to identify that it’s not all doom and gloom, that we are making progress,” Romer said. “We just have such a long way to go.”

Colorado Sun staff writer Jason Blevins contributed to this report.

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...