One afternoon in early September, Dan Bonser walked up the stairs from Dillingham College to room 200. This is the college’s science room – where his family sleeps.
“Some of our bedding is over there. And then the first two bags over there – food,” he said, gesturing to the class.
There was a lot of turnover in the Dillingham City School District last spring. The district has hired 22 new staff members for this year, a quarter of the entire staff. Unable to find accommodation in town, some live at the school.
Bonser moved from Oklahoma to Dillingham last month with his wife, Lisa. Their daughter, CJ, also moved in with them and is a teacher’s aide for the special education program. The family lives in room 200 with their two cats, sleeping on inflatable mattresses.
Bonser said the first few weeks were tough.
“I’ve done a lot of different jobs in my life. And I’ve never been so exhausted,” he said. “It’s a lot.”
The housing shortage in Dillingham is acute, but it is not unique. Across the country, people struggle to find homes they can afford to rent or buy. In Alaska, the average selling price of homes jumped up nearly 9% last year. And in rural communities, the problems are compound by the cost of shipping construction materials and the lack of construction workers and contractors.
“The common thread is: a tight housing market, rising sales prices and limited availability. And that’s buying a house,” said Rob Kreiger, an economist with the Alaska Department of Labor. “On the rental side, generally speaking, rents are going up, vacancy is going down, suggesting a tight rental market, as well as a tight home buying market. And that’s roughly consistent across most areas for which we have data.
Kreiger said the state doesn’t have a good idea of what the rental market looks like in rural Alaska. But in general, housing prices are high and there are few houses for sale in rural areas.
“I think you have those two factors,” Kreiger said. “I think that would probably sum up most major rural centers as well.”
Bonser said when they were offered the teaching positions, the school district said it would help them navigate the search.
“We have a bead on a house, but it needs to be hooked up to the sewer, and there aren’t enough plumbers to do that and the landlord has been waiting a long time for that to happen anyway,” he said. -he declares.
The school district’s new human resources director, Lindsay Henry, was able to find a place for her and her dog. She said other new staff members have also been able to find accommodation. But it’s tricky when newcomers don’t know the state.
“I think what’s difficult for people who come and don’t know Alaska is that they hear about people working in the bush. And in most of these bush communities they provide accommodation, and Dillingham is a bit unique in that it’s a class A town and we don’t have to provide accommodation for teachers,” a- she declared.
Henry said the district is telling staff housing is a challenge and trying to help them find something. Officials can send teachers’ phone numbers and landlord names to the city.
“But we cannot take responsibility for negotiating accommodation for them. So it’s a challenge in many ways,” she said.
It’s also competitive. Henry points out that many organizations in Dillingham hire people from out of town and need accommodation for them. This includes the hospital, Fish and Game and the university.
The housing shortage in Dillingham is linked to a national shortage of teachers. Other schools have turned to teachers from other countries through the J-1 visa program. But this program also requires a housing plan.
Dillingham’s new superintendent, Amy Brower, spent five weeks at the school before finding accommodation. At a recent school board work session, Brower said several applicants had turned down job offers because they couldn’t find anywhere to stay.
“We had very good, high quality candidates who didn’t want to come because of housing,” she said. “So we’re at a point where with the number of teachers who aren’t there – and I said no – and the quality of the teacher that we’re looking for, we’re going to have to find a way to do something to help them come here.
The administration works with fish processor OBI Seafoods to lease crew quarters during the year. Brower said the school was also working with the town of Dillingham to find long-term solutions. The district discussed applying for grants to build new housing or renovate existing housing. This could include a grant from the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, which would allow a company to build housing that teachers could then rent.
Until then, some teachers will continue to look for a place to sleep – outside the classroom.