Low-Quality Housing Exacerbates Teacher Shortage

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Jemez mountains teacher housing winnebago

Some teachers at Jemez Mountain School District live in trailers that are nearly 50 years old. One science teacher lives in a small Winnebago, since all teacher housing is currently occupied.

For the past eight months, Troy Green has been responding to a wide variety of work orders as maintenance supervisor of the Jemez Mountain School District, located in Gallina.

“I’m learning to be patient,” he said. “There isn’t a whole lot of money.”

And unlike some districts in the state, Green spends much of his time fixing and repairing a dozen or so teacher housing units for the District.

Some fixes are simple, like a stove that will not light or a leak under a sink. In some cases, though, he has had to replace severely-outdated plumbing systems so corroded that they shut completely.

Green has lived in the Gallina area for over two decades, but shook his head as he looked out at small units where the bulk of the District’s teachers live.

“Something needs to be done,” he said.

Of the 12 houses for teachers, known as “teacherages,” three are trailer homes built in the 1970s, while the rest are small 900 square foot homes constructed out of cinderblock built in 1955.

Teacherages are often used in districts in very rural areas, where homes for rent or sale are few and far between. Districts located on tribal reservations sometimes have hundreds of teacherages.

District Superintendent Dan Padilla said they need teacherages to attract educators to the area, but poor conditions of the housing often drive them away. Sometimes teachers only last until December before resigning due to the conditions.

He said the homes used to belong to gas companies in the area for their workers to live in. He said the poor construction and age of the facilities forces the District to make expensive repairs or tear down units altogether.

“We’ve gotten rid of two in the past, because they needed so much repair that it wasn’t worth it,” Padilla said. “They were falling apart.”

And in the rugged wilderness of western Rio Arriba County, where brutal winters can last for months on end, repairs are needed often.

Green and Padilla said the primary issue with the housing is that the walls have virtually no insulation, making it hard for any heat to stay in the building. To combat the frigid temperatures, each unit comes with a pellet stove and 500-gallon container of propane connected to the house.

Green said some teachers leave their propane tanks on all day in order to keep the house warm, which can be expensive since the cost of propane averages around $2.75 per gallon.

“They’re going through probably 200 gallons a month,” he said.

Rhonda Gallegos, who teaches history, started at the District over the summer and said she has spent nearly $1,000 of her own money trying to keep her place warm during the winters. She has bought rugs for areas with tile, covered cracks around doors and put four layers of insulation on all her windows.

“You got to be a little MacGyver here,” she said. “You have to figure it out.”

While rents on the units are fairly cheap at $275 per month, Gallegos said any savings are eaten up by the huge electric and gas bill she pays each month. In January, gas alone cost $250.

She also uses a bag a day of pellets for her stove, with each bag costing around $5. For Gallegos and her 12-year-old son, the conditions can be a lot to manage.

“It takes a certain personality,” she said. “We really like it, but it’s a little rough.”

Green said the most common repairs he works on are pipes, which are outdated and prone to damage. He said he is even hesitant to use the District’s water shut-off valve, because it has never been used and could cause a leak he cannot turn off.

Clyde Sanchez, a teacher and track coach with the District, had gone through a entire week with no water pressure to his home. He said hot water comes out slowly and in drips.

“If you want to take a bath at 8 p.m., you better start at 6 p.m.,” he said.

He said sometimes the extremely cold conditions of his home has taken their toll. He walks have wearing three shirts and three jackets of stay warm.

“I could try it for a couple years, but how long could I really go?”

In 2019, the state Public Schools Facilities Authority surveyed all districts with teacherages to find out their age and condition, something that Authority Executive Director Johnathan Chamblin said had never been done before.

27 percent of teacherages in the state were built before 1960 and 25 percent were described as being in “poor” condition, including the single-wide trailers at Jemez Mountain.

The District also said in the survey there were worries that all their units potentially had mold and asbestos. Padilla said they have not found any evidence yet, but have also not done a thorough inspection.

“I would bet that if you took those walls apart you’d find mold back there,” he said.

Green said the lack of nearly any insulation leaves him doubtful that asbestos could be present, but that he remains unsure.

“Who knows what’s underneath all that,” he said.

Gallegos and Sanchez said they never considered if asbestos was in their homes and that the District never told them it could be.

“You don’t have time to worry about if there’s asbestos, because you’re teaching six different subjects,” Gallegos said.

She said, given the lack of housing options in the area, she had little choice but to live in a teacherage, despite the health risks.

“We didn’t know and they don’t warn you either,” she said.

Gallegos previously lived in the teacherages at the Dulce School District, which she said were much nicer by comparison. Dulce has received millions of dollars for their teacherages in recent years, allowing them to make needed upgrades and build brand-new cabins next to Dulce High School.

Now, she said she considers herself lucky to live in a house and not a dilapidated trailer.

‘It’s very common’

Until the teacher housing survey was taken in 2019, no one at the state level had ever kept track of the number or quality of teacher housing, Chamblin said.

“Even though districts have teacher housing, and they’ve had it for decades, it was not a building type that we would measure, assess or look at,” he said.

The Authority, he said, is currently in the process of visiting districts with teacherages to check for themselves the level of need and disrepair of certain homes.

And while only Jemez Mountain mentioned concerns about asbestos in the survey, Chamblin said it is “safe to assume” that any home built before 1980 probably has the dangerous chemical if it has not been abated already.

“Unfortunately, it’s very common,” he said.

The findings of the survey were presented in August before the Public School Capital Outlay Oversight Task Force, a group of state lawmakers and community members familiar with public schools’ facilities needs. Attendees said conditions were far too dire, especially with a statewide teacher shortage.

“Very rarely have I seen residences that are adequate,” Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, said. “I’ve seen some deplorable situations, where portable homes are so old that the wind blows in and the teacher can only patch it up and hope they don’t freeze over the winter.”

Housing and Urban Development (HUD) regulations require that teacher housing meet the same standards of living as other housing units, but some legislators expressed their doubts that current teacherages met these standards.

“If you did go to HUD requirements, half of these places would be torn down,” Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, said. “It has concerned me that school districts have to be landlords at the end of the day.”

Due to the lack of statewide records, it is difficult to know exactly how much teacher housing has been updated in small, rural districts like Jemez Mountain.

Sanchez, though, said his mother taught in Gallina and lived in the teacherages during the 1980s. He said the house’s conditions today== have left him discouraged.

“Everything looks the same,” he said.

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