By all accounts, Julie Keffer’s life as a young 20-something was exhausting.
She worked full-time as a Head Start teacher by day and took classes at Haywood Community College by night, all the while playing the role of single-mom to an infant and four-year-old. Looking back, however, Keffer only remembers feeling blessed to be doing what she loved.
“I had a knack for it,” Keffer said of working with preschoolers. “And I was determined. I wanted to give my kids the best life that I could and not be on assistance.”
But as Keffer began making more, she lost her rent subsidies through Mountain Projects and was thrust headlong into the affordable housing dilemma.
“It was a struggle. I wasn’t quite middle class and it was hard to make ends meet,” Keffer said. “It was basically paycheck-to-paycheck.”
The usual path of upward mobility through homeownership was simply out of reach.
“That was a foreign concept. I had never even thought about it being a possibility,” Keffer said.
Things haven’t gotten any easier for young teachers across Haywood and Jackson counties amid rising housing prices and an acute shortage of affordable starter homes. The housing barrier presents a challenge in recruiting and retaining teachers.
Haywood County Schools has to hire between 40 and 50 teachers a year to replace those who retire or move away.
“About half of those are very young teachers, right out of college, and they are looking for somewhere to live. They either end up in a garage apartment or, more often that not, in Asheville,” said Jason Heinz, human resource officer for Haywood County Schools. “They end up driving back and forth to Asheville, so that makes it hard to keep them.”
Heinz’ own son who works for the school system is in the home market himself, but as soon as a house in his price range goes on the market, it’s sold by the time he calls.
Despite Haywood’s myriad other selling points, the lack of affordable housing tops the list of reasons young teachers leave.
“They always say to us ‘The community has been fantastic, the parents are so supportive, the school district has been fabulous,’ but they want to get their first house and it is very frustrating,” Heinz said.
Teachers who do put down roots here nearly always stay, however.
“When a teacher lives in the county where they teach, they go to church here and make friends here and feel more part of the community,” Heinz said.
Keffer, meanwhile, is in her 23rd year as a HeadStart teacher and couldn’t imagine doing anything else. “You aren’t in it for the money. You are in it for the outcome, not the income,” said Keffer, who grew in Canton and now lives in Cullowhee.