When Alison LaGarry graduated from Ithaca College in December, she investigated teaching positions in Fairfax and Loudon counties. But after crunching the numbers -- starting salary, minus rent -- the 23-year-old determined that the going rate for apartments was beyond her reach.
Instead, the soon-to-be chorus instructor moved into a two-bedroom last week in what has become a teachers village in La Plata, part of an arrangement between Charles County public schools and a local developer to provide more affordable housing for teachers.
"It was very daunting," LaGarry said of her initial housing search. "A big factor in my decision was that I could find somewhere less expensive but still high quality."
With the price of housing on the rise throughout the region, teachers and other middle-income workers are struggling to find affordable places to live. The challenge is magnified in Charles County, developers and education officials say, because apartments are scarce.
"Housing is one of the reasons we lose a lot of teachers," said Meg MacDonald, chief negotiator for the Education Association of Charles County, which represents 1,500 school employees. "It's too expensive to live here, and it's hardest for young people."
To help recruit new teachers, the school system increased starting salaries last year from $35,451 to $38,695. Keith Hettel, the school system's assistant superintendent for human resources, also began working with a local firm to reserve apartments at below-market rates.
Developers Steve and Jill Mote, who until recently owned local McDonald's restaurants, have two children in Charles County schools. Renting the couple's two apartment buildings on Kent Avenue to teachers is a smart investment in the school system's future and a wise business decision, Steve Mote said. In a letter to Mote this spring, Hettel said school system employees intend to rent "the entire inventory" of the two buildings as soon as they become available. In return, Mote agreed to rent the apartments below the market rate.
"At the end of the day,'' he said, "having the units full with good tenants makes good business."
The median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the county is $1,218 a month. But that is too much for 54 percent of renters in Charles, according to the Maryland Center for Community Development. The annual income needed to afford such an apartment is about $49,000.
Last year, teachers Jamie Edwards and Cedrik Balas stretched to pay $1,395 a month to rent a Waldorf townhouse together.
"You're a teacher, you're a professional, you're making decent money, but it doesn't match up to the living costs,'' said Edwards, a health teacher at Milton Somers Middle School. "We're educated. I have my master's degree. I've done my part, but we can never catch up."
Edwards was relieved to find out from a fellow teacher about the new apartments -- two bedrooms, two bathrooms, dishwasher, washing machine and dryer, walk-in closets and high-speed Internet access -- for $950 a month. The Motes also renovated an older building two years ago with 32 apartments that they rent for $840 a month almost exclusively to teachers.
Together, Edwards and Balas will pay $445 less each month -- money Edwards said they plan to save for a down payment to buy a house.
LaGarry, who will teach chorus at Westlake High School, said she plans to pay off her college loans and start saving for graduate school tuition.
April Hansen arrived Friday from Akron, Ohio, to teach geometry at Thomas Stone High School. The 23-year-old has heard that the first year of teaching can be rough.
Besides the affordable rent, she looks forward to being around other teachers in the apartment building and swapping stories about what works and what doesn't in the classroom.
"I liked the idea of living with other teachers who are going through the same experiences as me," she said. "I couldn't believe how well everything worked out."
New teacher April Hansen has had one of her fears -- housing costs -- eased: "I couldn't believe how well everything worked out."