By Brandon Walker EBS STAFF
BIG SKY – A Big Sky community member for 11 years, Whitney McKenzie has taught second grade at the Big Sky School District for the last four years. She recalled finding it challenging to attain housing when she first became part of the Big Sky community in 2009, after graduating from Montana State University with a degree in elementary education.
McKenzie noted that Big Sky’s housing scene forces her to work anywhere from two to five jobs at any given time throughout the calendar year. “It’s hard to live up here without having an extra income because of the cost of living, and just all of the things that come with living here,” she said. “Everything’s a little more expensive.”
At an October 2018 local realtor association meeting, the BSSD teacher housing project was born. After BSSD Superintendent Dustin Shipman and Business Manager Corky Miller observed a presentation by Habitat for Humanity of Gallatin Valley Executive Director David Magistrelli, the discussions for the project ensued.
When construction began in the summer of 2019, the housing project became the first of it’s kind in the U.S., according to Magistrelli. “It’s unique in the country in that this is different than other Habitat [projects] that have either purchased land from the school or exchanged housing for land with school districts,” he said.
He excitedly described the project as a “joint venture” between BSSD and Habitat for Humanity, with the funding coming from a $600,000 levy passed by voters of the school district and roughly $400,000 in contributions acquired by Habitat for Humanity from the Big Sky Resort Area District, accounting for the more than $1 million housing project budget.
When completed the two triplex housing units can host up to 12 individuals within the six, 1,000 square foot units comprised of two bedrooms each, complete with a garage. Magistrelli anticipates the completion of the first triplex to be this fall, while the second triplex will be complete late spring or at the beginning of the summer in 2021.
COVID-19 has not helped progress on the units. Magistrelli noted that “caravaners” who typically travel from one Habitat for Humanity job site to the next lending a hand with construction aren’t doing so as frequently this summer. He estimated that the amount of volunteer labor lost this year as a result of the coronavirus is between $65,000 and $75,000.
“We lost a substantial amount of volunteers from the end of May through now,” he said. “… I would say now we are getting a little uptick in volunteers, especially from the professional community.”
Magistrelli said since construction began a year ago that contractors have donated more than 500 hours of time assisting with the construction of the triplexes. He noted that businesses such as Blue Ribbon Builders, Alpine Custom Builders and Haas Builders have all lent a hand, among others.
“We’ve gotten a lot of support from the community from the contractors and because a lot of that stuff had to be done by contractors, it did limit the number of volunteers, however, with that, we have had regular volunteers from the school district,” Magistrelli said. He continued to say that BSSD has even developed educational opportunities for students who wish to donate their time and assist with the construction.
Haas Builders, owned and founded by Big Sky local John Haas, has greatly assisted the construction efforts of late. Haas learned of the need for assistance at the job site and sprung into action, allocating a crew of four workers to frame the second triplex.
“An enormous community need is housing, especially for our educators,” he said. Haas originally inquired about the status of the project and any assistance needed in May, and after coordination of materials with Habitat for Humanity, his crew began work at the job site at the end of July. After four weeks of donated time, Haas’ crew will have completed the framing of the second triplex.
Haas hopes that community members will learn of the need for assistance at the construction site and lend a hand to help strengthen the community as a whole. He also believes the lack of assistance lately was due to the lack of exposure the project has received.
“I wanted to figure out how we are going to help the teachers and how we’re going to get this project going,” he said. “… Most importantly how we can get more teachers here and provide a better education for our children.”
McKenzie has donated time to assist with the project. She’s one of numerous volunteers who have collectively donated more than 1,000 hours to assist with construction, according to Magistrelli.
“The reason we’re able to build affordable housing is because of the volunteers from the community and the businesses willing to support the building, so it’s really a community effort and were just acting as facilitators,” Magistrelli said.
McKenzie believes the teacher housing units will be a large benefit to the school district, the community and educators. “When a district tells you that you might have a house available, that eases so much of the pressure,” she said.
While teaching isn’t the most profitable career field, and even though she’s had to work additional jobs, McKenzie wouldn’t change anything.
“I didn’t go into teaching for the money. I went into teaching for the passion and the drive and the benefits that I reap from it, which are making connections with people and really just becoming … part of this town,” she said.
The cost of the units is dependent on the occupants according to Shipman. He said if two BSSD staff members live in a unit together, it will cost them collectively $1,000 per month, while a BSSD staff member who occupies a unit with a spouse will cost $1,500 per month.
Additionally, rental income may be used to assist in repayment of the levy and could effectively reduce the tax amount sought from district taxpayers over the remaining three years of the levy.
The allocation process to determine which BSSD staff members will occupy the units is yet to be determined, Shipman said, as the district would like to hear employee interest prior to any final determinations.
“I think it’s going to be huge for retention for sure because it’s stable housing,” he said. He also detailed that other school districts within the state already have similar employee housing opportunities. “…They have built housing to make their community more attractable and desirable for candidates, whereas we’re trying to make our community more livable for our faculty,” he said.
Magistrelli agreed that the affordable housing is key to attract and retain educators as well as for cultivating relationships between students and faculty and keeping dollars in the local community.