Home Ownership is a Wonderful Thing: Teachers Share Their Experiences with the Arkansas Teacher Housing Assistance Program

Last Updated: November 06, 2008

This article appeared in the November 2008 Rural Policy Matters.

"If you have a heart for teaching and are not in it for the money, and if you're doing it in an area where there are a lot of financial constraints on families and the schools, it's rewarding but it also takes a lot out of you. Teaching in those circumstances is that much more difficult," says Teryn Spears a 6th grade literacy teacher in Blytheville, Arkansas. "If there is any incentive that eases the financial constraints on the teacher, that's a benefit. A little goes a long way — financially and in terms of morale."

Spears is describing the assistance she and her husband, who is also a Blytheville teacher, received through the Arkansas Teacher Housing Development Foundation (ATHDF), which provides rental and mortgage assistance to experienced teachers in high-priority school districts.

The program, described in "A Win for Everyone," pays up to $2,000 a year in direct rental subsidy and up to $10,000 or 10% of the cost of a home as a forgivable loan that can be used on the down payment and/or closing costs for a mortgage. The program helps make teaching in high-poverty/low-performing school districts more attractive. And, it helps communities build local wealth through teacher investment.

Spears is one of four rural teachers with whom RPM talked about the program. We were struck by some of the policy implications of their observations as well as their insights about how the program helps teachers and communities in struggling school districts. We share those conversations here.

Incentives for Teachers

Spears and her husband were already living in Blytheville, where he grew up. They had jobs in other fields when they decided to enter a non-traditional licensure program to become teachers at the local school. "It's what we're supposed to be doing," she says and adds, "with us both being teachers, we would not be in a position to do as well as we are had it not been for the better down payment the program allowed us to make. It's taking a little pressure off us so we can move to the next stage of our lives. Home ownership is a wonderful thing."

Susan Williams teaches middle and high school math at Turrell Public school. When she saw "one of those pieces of paper that comes to teachers and it turned out to be about this program, I thought ‘why rent and throw away money when I could invest in bricks and mortar?'" So she applied for the loan and began searching for a house. She signed on her home in August and is enjoying settling in.

"A teacher wants to be prosperous," she says. "With this program a teacher can be in a good house and work in a school where they are needed. It helps those schools keep highly qualified teachers."

Like Williams and Spears, Nancy Duncan, who teaches pre-kindergarten students in the South Mississippi County school district, was already teaching in her school when she applied for the mortgage loan. "I've been teaching 20 years and lived in this community my whole life," she says. "The superintendent asked one of the teachers who had used the rent program to tell the rest of us about it. My family had already found a house we were interested in buying, so when I learned there was also a mortgage program, I went online. You can download the application. It's simple and easy. Three people that work with you also have to fill out forms and they are easy to complete, too."

Duncan continues, "The program allowed us to put down more on the house. In a low-economic area, teachers often don't make as much as people in factories, so it can be hard to get a loan for a house or a car. Having this program helps you feel better. It's a sign that your work is valued."

Circumstances were different for Donald Shirley. He was living in Louisiana and teaching in a neighboring district in Texas when the eyewall of Hurricane Rita made a direct hit on his town. "The following Monday I had a substitute position in Arkansas, out of the hurricane's path," he says. Although he later took a regular teaching job, things were not easy for his family. "Gas prices went up and we needed to get closer to school." He ran across an internet link to the ATHDF's website and learned about the assistance provided for teachers in high-priority districts. When he was asked to be the band, choir, and general music teacher at Clarendon High School, which is struggling academically, he also applied for and received mortgage assistance. "It's right for us to be here now," he says. "This program is definitely an incentive for teachers."

All of the teachers noted that the downloadable application is simple and easy to complete. And everyone commented on the direct assistance the program provided them in the process. Like many other people these days, Williams said she was having some credit difficulties that ATHDF staff helped her address. Shirley noted that "banks had stopped reporting on houses hit by the hurricanes and that made our credit look funny." ATHFD staff helped resolve some of those issues so the loan process could go forward.

ATHDF, which just celebrated its first anniversary, works directly with local banks and realtors. In doing so, it leverages programs and institutions that are already present and can help turn over money in the local economy. But it also means that program participants must deal with some of the same frustrations as other buyers in communicating with lenders and other parties to the mortgage process. Things can sometimes seem to stall and banks can make last-minute changes in closing dates and locations. Shirley noted that he wished ATHDF's authorization from the state were somewhat broader so that his loan could have covered renovation as well as purchase costs.

Yet despite some of these frustrations, all four teachers expressed gratitude for the program. "You really feel like the staff of the program is on your side," says Duncan.

Spears adds, "They believe in you and want you to have everything you can to keep doing the job you're doing."

Help for Schools and Communities

The program is reserved for teachers in "high-priority" districts. Duncan says that feature is good for her school. "We have trouble getting teachers into our district," she says. "This program is helping us compete for teachers with nearby districts that are not as poor. It's like a fringe benefit for teaching here." The problems in her district are compounded by the recent location of a power plant to the area. "That's driving up the cost of rent as well as houses and making it even harder to get teachers. So the program is a real advantage," she explains.

"Our district is very, very excited about this," Duncan says. "We have several teachers who participate in the rental assistance program and several who are looking at the mortgage program," she says. "Lots of teachers drive into our district. Of course we want people to move in. That helps your community. With mortgage assistance it can be as affordable to buy as house as to rent, especially with costs going up in our area. That's a way of enticing teachers here."

Spears says that her district includes information about the program in their recruitment package. "We had the largest pool of new hires ever this year and this is definitely an incentive," she says. "It's a little more leverage, if you will, for the district."

One of the advantages of the program for low-wealth districts is that it helps secure teachers' economic and personal investment in the community and the school.

"I can think of no better way to allow people to invest in the community than to help them buy a home there," says Spears. "When you buy a house, you put roots in the community and that trickles into the school. You get to know the community, you go to ball games, you learn more about your students and their lives, people can see that you are putting down roots. It helps build rapport. And all of that makes a difference in your ability to educate kids. And that's what it's all about."

Policy Implications

  • Strong housing programs tuned to the circumstances of low-wealth rural communities can help reduce the competitive disadvantage struggling rural schools face in recruiting teachers.
  • A good program will help schools keep good teachers they already have and will help those teachers feel better about their work and their life circumstances.
  • The application process for programs should be simple and transparent.
  • The program should include incentives for teachers to buy or rent in or near the district in which they teach.
  • Programs should be flexible in order to accommodate the unique housing situations of many rural communities, including rental agreements other than leases and the prevalence of homes that need renovation or updating.
  • Programs should help struggling communities build local wealth.

Read more from the November 2008 Rural Policy Matters.