Amy Thompson lives in a seemingly typical two-bedroom apartment.
There's wall-to wall carpet, neutral walls, a comfy looking couch set, and a dining room table arranged with bright autumn leaves.
"I recently decorated for the fall," Thompson said showing off her handiwork.
But what makes this apartment not so typical is that every one of Thompson’s neighbors is, like Thompson, a teacher or employee at Hertford County Schools. Thompson is a first-year science teacher at Hertford County Early College High School, and she loves having her colleague right next door.
"He comes over and he’s like 'Hey, grades are out today. Were you able to log into PowerSchool?' He's been great with helping me transition in, especially because we work at the same school together," Thompson said.
Thompson’s apartment complex is called Hertford Pointe, and it was built specifically to house teachers for Hertford County schools, a rural district in the northeastern part of the state. A local foundation called Partners for Hertford County Schools took out a zero-interest loan from the State Employees Credit Union to build Hertford Pointe in 2006. The rent teachers pay to live there will eventually pay back that loan. Thompson pays $625 a month for her two-bedroom unit, plus a pet fee.
"This was exactly what I was looking for as far as price range," Thompson said.
James Eure led the school system’s foundation during the financing and construction of the apartments. He says before Hertford Pointe, there weren’t enough apartments in the area for Hertford’s teachers.
"When we started doing a study in Hertford County we found out that there was only about 15 apartments for teachers---with the salaries that the teachers made---[that they] could live in," Eure explained.
Now, Eure says the teacher apartments are a draw for new teachers who often can’t afford to buy a house or who don’t want to rent one miles away. They certainly were a draw for Thompson, who moved to Hertford County from Virginia.
"When they told me about the apartments and how close they were to work, and that it was a community of people that teach here in the county, who work the same hours as you, I was sold," she said.
Hertford County schools is one of three rural districts that has or is planning to build teacher apartments because of a lack of housing. Hoke County schools opened teacher apartments in 2013, and Richmond County schools is planning one as well.
In urban districts, building housing is more about affordability. Pam Baldwin is superintendent for Asheville City Schools, where a new teacher complex is in the works because of high housing costs.
"Asheville in particular is an expensive place to live," Baldwin said. "And so with salaries the way they are right now in North Carolina for teachers it was important to find some sort of a way to help them with housing."
Asheville and Buncombe County schools are working with a local nonprofit called Eblen Charities and the State Employee’s Credit Union to build a teacher complex slated to open in 2017. Rents in Asheville and the surrounding area are much higher than the state average. Pair that with a vacancy rate of around 1 percent in Asheville, and you’ve got problems recruiting new teachers, Baldwin says, especially in tough-to-hire areas like science, math and exceptional children.
"It has been difficult when you hire a teacher, and they find out that a starting salary or even not a starting salary is not enough to live in the area," she said.
Dare County, where the resort-oriented housing was too expensive for most teachers, built affordable teacher complexes in 2008 and 2011. Dare, Asheville and Buncombe are among a growing number of school districts across the country, but especially in L.A. and Silicon Valley, that are building teacher apartments because of high housing costs and relatively low teacher salaries.
But Mark Jewell of the North Carolina Association of Educators says he doesn’t think two-bedroom apartments will keep teachers in a district for the long-haul.
"Long-term, many people want to have family and children and yards," Jewell said. "That’s not giving them an option of really staying long term."
Jewell says helping teachers with housing isn’t the real solution for finding and retaining teachers.
"It’s another approach that’s kind of like a Band-Aid to fix a wound on a long-term problem," he said. "Folks want to be able to pay their bills. And of course we knew we were not going to be wealthy when we got into teaching, but we did hope to be able to live on our own."
Jewell says the state should raise teacher salaries for both starting and veteran teachers. But Asheville City Schools superintendent Pam Baldwin says until they do, her district has to work with what its got.