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Big Sky Teacher Housing Nears Completion As Home Prices Continue To Soar

People gather around one of the first completed triplex units for teachers in Big Sky, Mont. during a ribbon cutting ceremony in Oct. 2020.
Photo courtesy of Habitat for Humanity of Gallatin Valley
People gather around one of the first completed triplex units for teachers in Big Sky, Mont. during a ribbon cutting ceremony in Oct. 2020.

Student enrollment in the Big Sky School District has been on an upward trend for the last decade, but a lack of affordable housing in the growing ski resort community has made it challenging to recruit and retain teachers. Administrators and local leaders hope new, subsidized teacher housing will help.

“I’ve got the dining room table here. The kitchen’s nice and big; I like to cook a lot so that’s huge for me,” John Hannahs said while giving a tour of his new home over Zoom.

Hannahs is the Big Sky School District’s athletic director and middle school English teacher. In November, he was one of the first teachers to move into a newly built triplex rental on school property. The school district and its partners expect to wrap up a second triplex this spring.

Hannahs said he’s moved six times in the seven years he’s been with the Big Sky School District, adding he loves living in the ski resort town and has made it work.

“But it was really gratifying that my administration was willing to allow me this opportunity because it makes me feels like I’m being taken care of, and that’s a really nice feeling," Hannahs said. "And it’s huge for me financially.”

The subsidized teacher housing, a joint venture between the Big Sky School District and the non profit Habitat for Humanity of Gallatin Valley, is the first of its kind in Montana, though other school districts in rural parts of the state have offered housing as a perk to recruit staff for years.

In Big Sky, the average sale price of a single family home is nearly $2 million, something that’s out of reach on a public school teacher salary. The rising home prices have also pulled up the cost of rent, which Hannahs said is upwards of $2000 a month for a two bedroom place.

When Hannahs found out he was approved to rent a two bedroom unit in the new teacher housing for just 28 percent of his monthly pay, he said, “I was relieved, for sure.”

School employees who share one of the two bedroom units in the new teacher housing each pay $500 a month.

Superintendent Dustin Shipman said he’s watched Big Sky’s housing prices go up and inventory go down over the six years he’s been with the school district. He said the lack of affordable housing has been a major hurdle for finding and keeping new teachers.

“We get a lot of very good applicants for every job that we advertise for, generally, and everything goes very, very well until the point of: they try to figure out where they’re going to live here," Shipman said. "So this is going to help immensely with that.”

Shipman said the new teacher housing provides more stability and less anxiety for the roughly one third of faculty who rent in Big Sky. He said some teachers have had to scramble to find new housing after their landlords decided to sell their house or condo.

Another third of the faculty commute from the Bozeman area where there are more housing options, but Shipman said commuters typically last only three to five years in the Big Sky School District.

“It's a long commute. I mean, the traffic is unbelievable through that canyon," Shipman said. "It's two hours out of your day, and it's stressful.”

Shipman said teachers can rent the triplex units for up to five years to give them time to save up for a future place of their own.

David Magistrelli, the executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Gallatin Valley, said the teacher housing project is unique for the non profit because, rather than Habitat selling the triplexes directly to families, the school district maintains ownership and rents out the units.

“This is the first time this has been done in the state of Montana this way,” Magistrelli said.

He said square footage costs for the estimated $1.25 million teacher housing triplexes are coming in around a third of what they would be on the open market, thanks to a mix of volunteer labor and donated materials. Big Sky residents also supported the project with a levy and resort tax funds.

Magistrelli said the Bozeman School District has expressed interest in a similar model. In Gardiner, another community lacking affordable housing, the North Yellowstone Education Foundation plans to convert a property into three units for teachers by the end of this school year.

Big Sky Superintendent Dustin Shipman said consistency, having the same high quality educators return year after year, plays a big role in providing a good education to students.

“You can’t do that with a staff of nomads,” Shipman said.