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The Housing Conundrum

This summer, my sixth at my current institution, we have several new faculty and instructional-staff members coming aboard, as is common at this time of year. Also as is common, several of them are scrambling to find housing. Storm Lake, Iowa, is a modest town of about 12,000 people, hosts a large transient population, and has at best a mediocre and small stock of available rentals.

This year more than most, our new faculty and instructional-staff members are all young and moving to their first professional job, which significantly limits their financial flexibility. While there aren’t many houses for rent, there are a number of “starter homes” for sale. If the pattern of previous years persists, at least one or two of our new colleagues will buy one of those houses because they won’t be able to find a rental.

I’ve been thinking about housing issues for junior faculty members for a long time, since my first academic position 23 years ago in another small town in Iowa. At the time, that institution was in a distinctive generational transition, with a noticeable plurality of senior faculty members in traditional heterosexual family arrangements—a male faculty member and a female trailing spouse. The newer faculty members brought a whole range of different familial relationships to the campus, including single people, gay and straight couples in various kinds of dual-career circumstances and long-distance relationships, and every possible permutation in between.

A (single, male) friend of mine who had moved to the nearby big-university town was confronted in the grocery store one day by one of the more traditional senior faculty members, who remarked, “I don’t like it when new faculty move out of [small town] because it’s not in the spirit of the college.” Permutations of that attitude were explicit or implicit in many transactions between faculty members of my generation and people who’d been there longer. As a single person myself, and with family members far away, I felt noticeable pressure to be in town—and to accommodate my life to the traditions of the place—which I found troublesome and off-putting.

A variety of forces were dictating such moves other than a desire to flee the institution. Most important, as is the case here, there was a dearth of decent rental properties in our small town, even if one really wanted to live there. The college maintained a few apartments and small houses, but not many, and had placed a strict three-year limit on how long one could inhabit them. The market for rental houses (a desperate need for families with children) existed primarily in an underground economy of friends and friends of friends, a network that a new faculty member would generally be unable to tap.

Frankly, too, not everyone was comfortable with a “live where you work” situation; some needed the safety valve of physical or contextual distance to function effectively. I ultimately did buy a house in town, but not until my fourth year, when it was clear that I was going to get tenure and stay a while, though I ended up moving on six years later.

Many of those same issues affect my current institution. As I’ve already said, Storm Lake has nowhere near enough rental properties to accommodate the university’s needs. We own a few houses, but, surprisingly, it’s very uneconomical for a small university to maintain a stock of housing—budget, maintenance, and management are all real headaches. While I doubt all of my readers will believe this, we in fact net almost nothing on the rentals, though I think we would if we had apartments rather than a number of small houses with diverse maintenance and management needs.

It’s been such a significant challenge that we are teaming up with the city to see if we can develop a better stock of rentals not only for the university but also so that the community can attract more businesses, which require a ready supply of housing for new employees and in-migration to the city.

Ironically, this shortage of rental property in the rural Midwest is the flip side of unaffordably high housing prices in larger cities. It genuinely hinders our ability to hire people, and sometimes causes new faculty members to face an unsettling period of housing brinkmanship before they move here. Moreover, we’re surrounded by even smaller towns where there are essentially no rentals at all, so moving to an adjacent location is not an option for many people. The nearest medium-large city is over an hour away.

It is, or was until recently, often easier for new faculty members to buy a house in town than it was for them to find a rental. Houses here run from ridiculously cheap to barely more expensive than what would be entry-level in many big cities. We have great relationships with local banks that can help new faculty members get mortgages perhaps more easily than is the case elsewhere. So it’s not surprising that many new hires do indeed buy houses before they get here or soon after. It’s pleasing to see them invest in the community in this way, and it does demonstrate a commitment to the institution that, in my official capacity, makes me quite happy.

Nevertheless, I strongly believe that it’s wrong for a college or university to see whether a new colleague has purchased a house as some kind of test of institutional loyalty. There’s a genuine question of reciprocal obligation there that isn’t quite just to an untenured faculty member.

There’s also the issue of liquidity. As I’ve written here before, I am personally, painfully aware of the problems people are having with homeownership and selling. We still own our house in the city where we previously lived, now more than five years after we left. It’s rented to an excellent tenant, but the rent covers only about 80 percent of the carrying costs, and that’s before any maintenance or repairs. A couple of years ago, we went without rent for two months to cover repairs to the air conditioner, for example, which put a serious crimp in our finances.

Such circumstances are happening all over as people move from job to job, and I know that they are much more difficult for an entry-level faculty member than they are for me. I certainly don’t blame people for being cautious about buying a house, and am even more resistant to any sort of expectation that they do so than I have been in the past.

Don’t get me wrong: It makes me happy to see new faculty members buy a house. It suggests that they are interested in staying here and hopeful that they will; they will work to “grow where they’re planted,” as a colleague once said to me. Having stable, well-paid professionals in town or in neighboring areas is good for the university, the city, and the region. It tightens the bond between Buena Vista University and the City of Storm Lake.

But in any way expecting new faculty members to make such a purchase, especially prior to tenure, is wrong, and doesn’t recognize the financial, familial, and personal realities of a diverse new faculty work force. I think those of us in senior positions need to be extremely careful about how we deal with the question of new faculty housing.

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user Jo Naylor.]

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