Transforming Vacant Schools Into Affordable Housing for Teachers

Wilkinson School is slated to be turned into apartments. (Credit: St. Louis Public Schools)

In a bid to keep teachers from leaving the city for the suburbs, St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS) plans to turn the shuttered Wilkinson School back into a place for educators — not with classrooms, but with affordable housing.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that the Wilkinson School, closed in 2008 after 80 years of use, has been purchased with the intention of transforming it into affordable housing for teachers to help “attract and retain good teachers that might otherwise leave for better paying jobs in the county,” said SLPS Real Estate Director Walker Gaffney.

It’s the first project of its kind under development in the district, but it may not be the last. Gaffney told the paper that school officials had sought development proposals this summer for school to apartment conversions. Wilkinson School, listed at $602,000, is one of 22 buildings recently marketed for development by SLPS. Others have been purchased for transformation into senior living facilities, community centers and more.

Former schools have been turned into apartments elsewhere in the city, but this is the first time St. Louis has explicitly aimed to house teachers affordably there. According to a report by the National Association of Realtors, St. Louis is one of a number of metro areas where rents outpaced income growth for adults aged 25 to 44 between 2009 and 2014. That’s put pressure on new public school teachers especially, whose salaries are on the low end for college-educated professionals.

“We’d love to see this as a pilot that could be replicated in not only other SLPS buildings, but maybe other cities and states that are struggling to retain quality teachers,” said Donna Smith, of Smith NMTC Associates, LLC. She and her husband, along with a pair of real estate developers, won the contract for Wilkinson School. She told the Post-Dispatch that the project is still in its first few stages. Building inspections, cost assessments and financing options will still determine the project’s feasibility and success.

Other cities grappling with rising rents have struggled to retain and protect teachers as well. Earlier this year, San Francisco’s lawmakers unanimously passed an ordinance that would make teachers nearly immune to no-fault evictions. Last month, after landlords sued, a judge threw it out. “The court is cognizant of the desire to prevent disruption of the educational process,” he wrote in his decision. “[But] that concern must be addressed some other way.”

Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.

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Tags: affordable housingincome inequalitypublic schools