Lake Havasu Unified School District has had its eye on housing prices for several years, but finding housing for its new employees has morphed into a much larger challenge recently.
Director of Student Achievement Jaime Festa-Daigle said when she first moved to Havasu in 2002 her starting pay as a teacher with the district was $28,000 — which allowed her to purchase her first home for about $107,000. Festa-Daigle said base-pay for a teacher in the district this year is $37,500, but the price of a single family home in Havasu has risen much more quickly and it is making it difficult to attract teachers and other employees. Director of Human Resources Lindsey Bitterman said the district had between 15 and 20 potential employees accept a position with the district leading up to the 2021-22 school year, but ended up calling back days later to decline the offer after being unable to find housing in Havasu.
“We had last minute cancellations, so we are scrambling,” Festa-Daigle said. “What we are sitting with is substitutes, with teachers working on their prep periods, we are just filling in in all sorts of ways. We see a teacher shortage all throughout Arizona, but this has really amplified it in our community. We are in service to kids, so it is the upmost importance that we have the best people we are able to hire.”
Festa-Daigle said workforce housing isn’t the only challenge the district faces when hiring - a nationwide teacher shortage and pay for teachers in Arizona also certainly play a role.
“This is just a piece of the puzzle, but it is a very important piece,” she said.
All industries feeling the squeeze
Workforce housing is an issue that affects far more than just the school district. Lake Havasu City Mayor Cal Sheehy said the high cost of housing is affecting lots of businesses in pretty much every industry in towwn. Chad Nelson with A Team Real Estate said he gets calls from people every day looking for a place to rent – from electricians, to plumbers, restaurant owners, framing contractors, roofing contracts and more.
“We have heard that from restaurants, we have heard that from the school district, our own municipality has had that happen to them in trying to hire young professionals,” said Partnership for Economic Development CEO James Gray. “So the number one difficulty is it restricts new talent from coming in. Currently that is a huge obstacle for our local business community.”
Lake Havasu Association of Realtors President Richard Gomez said the groups’ members have pooled together in an effort to match up clients with suitable rentals. But he said even with all of the property managers in the association’s combined efforts, there isn’t always a workable option available for everyone.
“There are two or three emails a day looking for a two bedroom or three bedroom rental for someone who is in transition, and there are not enough units,” Gomez said.
Help wanted, housing wanted
Help wanted signs have become a common sight in Havasu during the pandemic and glassdoor.com has a total of 1,150 job listings within five miles of the Havasu city limits – including 69 listed within 24 hours of Monday afternoon. A total of 242 of the jobs listed in Lake Havasu City are in the healthcare industry where housing also appears to be a significant issue.
Havasu Regional Medical Center, which is the largest medical provider in the city, declined to comment for this story but HRMC has more than 100 jobs posted on glassdoor.com. On Aug. 5 the hospital put out a post on social media asking locals to contact them if they have a house, casita, condo or room that they would consider renting.
“HRMC is looking for affordable housing to accommodate our new employees and travel nurses moving to the area,” the post said.
Lake Havasu City Manager Jess Knudson said the city has run into the same issue as the school district and other employers recently.
“Just over the last couple months there have been a handful of instances where we will go through an advertisement for a job position, we will make a job offer, the candidate will accept the job offer, and if they are outside of Lake Havasu City we are seeing them contact us a couple days later and saying, ‘I’d love the job, and I’d love to live and work in Havasu. But I can’t afford to live there,’” Knudson said. “Then they pull their offer.”
Other industries are struggling to get people to apply in the first place.
“There is not enough workforce to provide the goods and services that already exist today,” Sheehy said. “So some of our residents are seeing restaurants and retail outlets that have reduced their hours, some have closed a couple days a week or they may close for an extended period of time to give their staff some time off. So it has exasperated the whole issue. It is all because there isn’t enough staff. There is not enough staff for a variety of reasons – it isn’t just housing – but housing is a huge component of it.”
Sifting to a search for rentals
Bitterman said the housing situation is not new – it has already been on the school districts’ radar for more than five years. But Festa-Daigle said the challenge has taken on a new sense of urgency recently.
“We have always known that housing has been an issue,” Festa-Daigle said. “Early on it was buying a house. We were looking for the ability for teachers to be able to purchase a house. That has really shifted now – we are not just looking for teachers or staff members to be able to find a rental.”
Festa-Daigle said a teacher’s ability to purchase a home is important to the district because it can help attract, recruit and retain the best teachers available. But in the last couple years the district has had to settle for helping its new employees find a place to rent.
“We have been looking for rentals that were available at that specific time and we were able to match people up with other educators coming into the community just to make everything work,” Festa-Daigle said. “The Realtors have been really helpful and supportive, previously, in helping us do that. This year was totally different. When we were asking to look for housing there was literally not housing available. We had one educator who could not find housing and people who have been very helpful to me in the past were only able to find something in Kingman for their price range.”
It isn’t just new hires who are affected either. Festa-Daigle said the high price of homeownership in Havasu also has an effect on employees’ ability to put down roots in Havasu – even if they are able to find a rental.
“They are coming in and looking at a rental, but at some point we want these people to be able to own a home and be a permanent part of the community,” she said. “If that is never in reach the reality is they are going to choose somewhere where that is in reach.”
Bitterman said the district is starting to examine how other school districts in the state have tackled this issue in their areas. She said the district is also starting to look into potential grant funding options that could help boost housing options for its employees.
The district has also explored a potential deal with a developer to swap some of its land holdings with a developer in exchange for some of the housing creating being held for the district’s teachers. A memorandum of understanding was drafted in December 2018, but the land swap has not yet been officially approved.
Mohave County’s Economic Development Director, Tami Ursenbach, said hospitals, school districts, and businesses throughout the county are experiencing similar challenges with housing its workers as Havasu. She said the current workforce housing crunch is also an issue for attracting new businesses to come to the county.
“When I bring in businesses I have to have some type of housing for those people to come here,” Ursenbach said. “If I’m bringing in a company that has 100 employees, let’s say, not every one of them is going to be able to be local. They are going to need to bring in some of their own employees who are already trained. That may be five, it may be one, it may be 20 – but we have got to have the housing to support them.”
Locals getting priced out
In addition to business and economic concerns, Knudson said the rapid increase in housing costs is also making it more difficult for Havasu natives and longtime residents’ ability to find housing.
“We want to preserve that sense of place that makes Havasu very unique – that means that neighbors know neighbors and there are good conversations that occur throughout the community,” Knudson said. “What we are seeing now is we have families with kids that are graduating high school. They are looking for that first job and maybe moving out on their own. Well, where do they live in Havasu?
“We don’t have opportunities for those kids graduating from high school or from college who are getting their first fulltime job and are ready to pay a rent or a mortgage. So we are going to lose those kids to other communities because we don’t have inventory in Havasu.”