Teachers get lessons in finding a home

THE BALTIMORE SUN

As the Howard County schools recruiter, Susan Mascaro can offer candidates an opportunity to teach in the state's top-performing school system.

What she can't offer is a place to live.

Affordable housing in Howard, which has the region's highest average home prices, is scarce for many moderate-income families, let alone for fresh-faced college graduates starting their teaching careers at $36,556.

In an effort to keep these teachers living close to work, the school system's human resources office has begun a roommate referral service to connect new arrivals with each other as well as with potential landlords.

"We initiated this because we all make offers to candidates who've turned us down because they look into the cost of apartments and condominiums and find that they can't afford to relocate and live in the area," said Mascaro, manager of teacher recruiting and hiring.

The scarcity of affordable housing for teachers, police officers, young professionals and government employees is not unique to Howard County. The region has seen its home prices skyrocket in the past few years. A home in Howard County sold for an average of about $368,000 last year, according to industry figures.

Local governments have devised ways to help moderate-income families find homes they can afford. Howard requires a small percentage of moderate-income units to be included in very few types of developments.

Rents are up, too

Increasing housing prices are not limited to homeownership. Rents for a one-bedroom condominium in Howard County generally range from $850 to more than $1,000.

Because landlords who used to lease their properties are selling them because of the hot real estate market, rents are escalating, said Leonard S. Vaughn, the county housing director.

The problem has been particularly pronounced for school system recruiters trying to hire teachers in their 20s. In recent years, more than 45 percent of new teacher hires in Howard County have come from out of state.

"It's one of the first things new candidates ask us: 'Could you help me with housing and help me figure out where to live?'" Mascaro said.

Whether she could find an affordable apartment in Howard County was the deal breaker in accepting a job for Kristy De Nee, a second-grade teacher at Rockburn Elementary School in Elkridge.

"I wanted to accept the position, but I needed a few days to be able to find appropriate housing," said De Nee, who had just graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 2002 when she was offered the teaching job.

De Nee, 25, figured that she could afford to pay between $600 and $800 monthly based on a budget she had set for herself. That was too little.

Instead, she settled into a one-bedroom apartment in the Fairways community in Ellicott City, paying close to $1,000 a month. De Nee then moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Kings Contrivance Village after finding a roommate, splitting an $1,100 rent.

Now, De Nee and her husband, also a Howard County teacher, live in Baltimore County, where, she said, she feels she gets more value for the dollar.

The cost of living in the region "makes you wonder why you're here," said De Nee, who grew up in the Pittsburgh area. "But we're very happy with the school system and our jobs. That's what keeps us here."

Last spring, after much brainstorming, the Howard human resources office came up with the idea of creating a roommate referral service. Officials sought information about vacancies from school system teachers as well as from new hires looking for roommates -- compiling them into a rental listings book.

School human resources officials are gathering data to determine whether they have had any successful matches and are gearing up for the next batch of new hires, Mascaro said.

College buddies

Meanwhile, some young teachers are finding a solution by living with college buddies, as in the case of Scott Dingman and Chris Beil.

Dingman, 25, a physical education teacher at Glenwood Middle School, and Beil, 25, a ninth-grade health teacher at Centennial High, live in a two-bedroom condominium in Dorsey Hall. With teaching and high school coaching duties, they hardly see each other.

"If I wanted an apartment by myself, it would definitely cost $850," said Beil, who attended Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania with Dingman. "With a beginning teacher's salary, you can't afford it."

Each has a bedroom with an attached bathroom and pays $550. Their spacious condo resembles a game room with a foosball machine, an entertainment system, a Michael Jordan poster and a Steelers banner.

Though their apartment screams college life, their lives are far from it, they say.

"I have a real job," Dingman said. "It's a lot more beneficial."

Beil added: "You grow up quickly working. Teaching drains you; some people think it's easy. On the weekends, you relax. When I come home [on weekdays], I'm in bed before 10 o'clock every night. I value sleep."

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