By Ashley Lisenby St. Louis Post-Dispatch
ST. LOUIS • For 80 years, teachers educated St. Louis’ children at Wilkinson School. But amid declining enrollment, the handsome multistory brick school building suffered in 2008 the same fate as so many schools in St. Louis: It closed.
Now, a new plan would return teachers to Wilkinson, but this time as tenants.
In an effort to keep teachers from migrating to suburban districts, St. Louis Public Schools Real Estate Director Walker Gaffney said school officials sought proposals this summer to turn school buildings into affordable housing for teachers.
The district invited developers to present concepts for one or more such projects. Thus far, the Wilkinson project is the first under development. Project developers said the school could be converted into around 40 apartment units chiefly marketed to teachers.
Converting schools into apartments is nothing new in St. Louis. Several of the school system’s former school buildings now serve as housing.
Nor is it new for affordable housing projects to target teachers specifically. Cities such as San Francisco and Baltimore have successfully created cost-effective housing for teachers.
In St. Louis, the Teacher Corps provides aspiring educators in city Catholic schools with training, housing them in a former convent at St. John the Baptist in south St. Louis.
But putting all those elements together is a first for the St. Louis district — one that those behind the Wilkinson project said might catch on elsewhere.
“We’d love to see this as a pilot that could be replicated in not only other SLPS buildings, but maybe other cities and states that are struggling to retain quality teachers,” said Donna Smith, of Smith NMTC Associates, LLC.
In September, the Special Administrative Board that oversees St. Louis Public Schools selected a business led by Smith and her husband, Howard Smith, along with real estate developers Kathy and Richard Sorkin, to transform Wilkinson School on the 7200 block of Arsenal Street.
Smith’s company works with groups in St. Louis and around the country to invest in low-income communities by creating affordable housing, manufacturing facilities and community centers.
The Wilkinson School building was among the district’s properties listed in good condition and a good candidate for housing units. Three companies submitted proposals to the board to purchase the former school listed at $602,000.
The vacant school is among 22 recently marketed buildings by St. Louis Public Schools. Over several weeks in 2015 the district opened its doors to developers, held open houses and consulted with neighbors about best uses. As the abandoned buildings fall into disrepair they can attract crime and become eyesores.
So far the district has entered into contracts in recent months with buyers for other projects including initiatives to rehab vacant school buildings into senior living facilities and community centers, Gaffney said.
Gaffney said the concept turns buildings that were once liabilities into community assets that can “attract and retain good teachers that might otherwise leave for better paying jobs in the county.” The need for affordable housing is great here, even though St. Louis has relatively lower rent costs than many other large cities.
Smith said the project with the district is in the delicate first stages of planning. She said next steps, which include thorough building inspections, cost assessments and ensuring financing options and property ownership, could leave room for misfortune that might compromise the deal with the district.
A few years ago, McGowan Brothers Development had multimillion-dollar plans to turn the vacant Jefferson Arms building downtown into affordable housing for young educators and regional headquarters for Teach For America, but the plan never came to fruition after a series of setbacks.
Smith said it’s too early in the planning process to determine unit sizes and prices. Fair market rent in the St. Louis metro area is almost $700 for a one-bedroom apartment, based on data by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
But some apartments in parts of the city can run closer to $1,000 or more for a one-bedroom. Further, a report by the National Association of Realtors found rent rates between 2009 and 2014 in a number of metropolitan areas, including St. Louis, outpaced growth in income of adults ages 25 to 44.
That reality can especially put pressure on new public school teachers, whose salaries tend to be among the lowest of college-educated professionals.
Smith is the daughter of a former teacher and understands educators are often underpaid and underappreciated.
Being involved in a project that could help retain quality teachers, she said, is an added benefit for her.