Educators’ Village housing initiative on east side struggles to attract teachers

After buying and selling two homes as they moved around the state, music teacher Sara Lefler and her husband, a local pastor, realized it was time to put down roots in Indianapolis.

They couldn’t believe their luck when they learned a development a few blocks from the site Lefler’s husband picked out for a new church was put on the market specifically with teachers in mind.

The couple visited an open house, filled out an application, and, thanks in part to a grant that helped drive down the cost of their down payment, sealed the deal several months later on a $175,000, three-bedroom home.

“The prices of these homes are very affordable, especially for teachers just starting out,” said Lefler. “It has the potential to really help people.”

Lefler is the type of buyer that developers had in mind when they first floated the idea of “Educators’ Village” — only they expected many more like her. One year since its first houses went on the market, seven out of the 15 homes sold are now occupied by teachers, making the village a much more mixed community than the developers’ initial lofty goals.

“Would we have liked it to be 15 out of 15? Yes, but we can’t control all the variables,” said Joe Hanson, executive vice president of strategic initiatives for the Indianapolis Neighborhood Housing Partnership, known as INHP, one of the stakeholders in the project. The project is being led by INHP and Near East Area Renewal, known as NEAR, a community development organization that has redeveloped more than 100 homes on the east side in addition to the village.

Each stakeholder admitted the development so far hasn’t been effective in recruiting and retaining teachers in the Indianapolis Public Schools area, a high-turnover district in a state where nearly 9% of teachers left the classroom for reasons other than retirement in recent years. Although at least one buyer teaches at Thomas Gregg Neighborhood School — an IPS school within walking distance of the village — it remains unclear how many of the seven teachers work in the urban core. And several buyers, including Lefler, chose to teach in different districts.

Observers believe several issues led to the development not attracting more teachers. While the homes were set below market value for buyers of a certain income, there was no incentive specifically for teachers set by area schools, and housing laws prohibit restricting buyers to a particular group of people. Outreach efforts fell short, and the application and income eligibility processes were lengthy.

Some teacher advocates agree that Educators’ Village is a creative idea that shows Indianapolis cares about rewarding teachers. But it also serves as an important reminder that removing existing barriers to teacher recruitment and retention, like inadequate compensation or assistance coping with student trauma, is a difficult goal to achieve through one type of project.

“A housing development project can support those that have these needs and challenges as educators, but probably not in their entirety,” said Amar Patel, executive director of Teach for America in Indianapolis, which actively recruits and places teachers in underserved schools across the city. “These are complex issues.”

Still, John Franklin Hay, executive director of NEAR,  said he sees the project so far as a success, even though he and other stakeholders noted more could have been done to attract additional teachers. As the project enters its final phase, Hay said he hopes at least four more teachers will buy a home in the village, meaning 11 of the 22 homes in the division would be owned by educators.

“The whole idea has been to pilot something and see if it works, to see if it’s transferable, to see if it’s expandable and useful to the school districts,” Hay said. “I think it will be a few years before we really know the impact of that.”

Education advocacy groups have recognized the benefits of affordable housing for teachers for some time, and other cities have already launched similar initiatives, though with mixed results. Officials in Newark, New Jersey, for example, created a $15 million “Teachers’ Village” in 2012 to provide affordable apartments to the city’s educators.

Educators’ Village managers said a lack of awareness and input from area schools caused one hurdle in attracting teachers. Hay, who worked with NEAR staff to build relationships with at least 50 schools, said there was little interest from schools to offer additional incentives for potential residents, such as a small bonus to help a teacher cover a home down payment. In their place, INHP has helped eligible buyers, including teachers, receive down payment assistance — sometimes up to $20,000. The group is now making grants of up to $15,000 available to eligible buyers, including teachers, to help sell the last seven homes.

IPS officials said they support any “creative ways to incentivize IPS educators to commit to the profession as well as our neighborhoods,” but said it remains unclear why fewer of its teachers purchased homes in the village than expected.

“Since this is not our program, we’re not sure why more teachers didn’t take advantage of NEAR’s program, but the district will continue to find fiscally responsible ways to recruit, retain, and develop more teachers,” said Carrie Cline Black, a spokeswoman for IPS.

The application process can also be long. Lefler, who had a job lined up at Westfield Intermediate School before she and her husband made the decision to move, said it took almost six months for INHP to verify their income eligibility, issue the grant, and work out other financial details.

“That can be a burden for people who are in a hurry to move, like younger teachers,” Lefler admitted. “And I think it would be hard for single teachers.”

The homes sold in the Educators’ Village were set at below the cost of development, thanks to around $3 million in federal funding secured by stakeholders. Candidates must make no more than 120% of the area median income to purchase one of 15 specially designated homes in the village. A single person, in this case, can’t make more than $67,140 in one year, according to INHP data. The other seven homes are to be sold to those earning 80% of the median income or less — for a single buyer, that means no more than $44,750 in annual income.

And because projects like this can’t restrict buyers to any specific group — that would be a form of housing discrimination — other young professionals, including 36-year-old musician Ben Jackson, have been able to purchase homes at an affordable price, even if that means diluting the village’s original focus.

“This was the closest place to downtown I could afford,” said Jackson, who purchased a three-bedroom home on his own for $184,000. He is a first-time homebuyer who has spent much of his adult life renting apartments in Indianapolis neighborhoods.

For some teachers who live in the village, the house wasn’t enough of an incentive to teach, or to continue teaching, in urban schools.

Village resident Tom Rochner — a seasoned teacher with 17 years of experience — recently left Wayne Township’s Ben Davis High School to work 30 minutes south of Indianapolis at Whiteland Community High School. He said he wants to continue to live in Indianapolis because he likes its culture and diversity, but believes schools outside the city can offer a better teaching environment.

“It’s not the teachers, it’s not the administration, it’s just a difficult clientele,” Rochner said. “Not a lot of people can handle it.”

Brandon Brown, CEO of The Mind Trust, a local education non-profit that supports Indianapolis charter and innovation schools by recruiting school leaders and researchers, noted that the challenges to the Educators’ Villages are emblematic of the ongoing recruitment struggles.

Moving forward, Brown and Patel agreed village stakeholders will have to carefully review what brought teachers to the neighborhood and what pushed others away — a process that requires elevating teachers’ voices to best understand their needs.

“It’s clear to me that a robust teacher retention and recruitment strategy has to be multifaceted,” Brown said. “There have to be multiple strategies happening in tandem to each other…and [the Educators’ Village] is just one of the many solutions we should be pursuing to make sure we are able to recruit and retain high-quality teachers.”

For the teachers currently in the village, Hay said he hopes the teachers will be able to find camaraderie in their new community and will continue to participate in NEAR’s central goal of revitalizing the neighborhoods on the city’s near east side.

“We hope they can form something of a community here, so they can draw strength and encouragement from one another,” Hay said.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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