COLUMBIA -- Educators reluctant to buy a home because they worry about how to finance the purchase have a new ally -- the state Housing Authority.
The agency announced Monday it has $20 million to loan to S.C. teachers who meet income eligibility requirements.
For example, a teacher earning $26,100 in annual salary can qualify for a low-interest loan to buy a house selling for as much as $180,144 in Jasper County, according to state Housing Finance and Development Authority guidelines. To get a loan for a house at that same price in Richland County, an educator would need to earn a minimum of $33,950.
Teachers and districts in both rural and wealthier areas of the state could benefit.
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"I have been in the market for a house for quite a while," said Fran Guinn, a second-year social studies teacher at Whitmire Community School in Newberry County. She used to rent a duplex in Newberry but now lives with her grandmother in Whitmire.
"It genuinely makes me excited," Guinn said of the loan program. "I think it will appeal to a lot of younger teachers."
Salary and loan differences vary, a state Housing Authority spokesman said, because they are tied to median incomes in each of the state's 46 counties. Some loans for houses priced between $200,000 and $255,000 could be made, he said.
The agency also has special deals on down payments and closing costs, which could be worth as much as $7,000 in forgivable loans. In other words, the loan would not have to be repaid if the teacher meets the required income bracket and lives in the home at least five years.
The program has the backing of Department of Education and state schools chief Jim Rex.
"We're hoping that this new program will provide an additional incentive for young people to enter the teaching profession and remain in it," he said.
Rex is hopeful it will make communities where housing is expensive or scarce more attractive to educators and boost the profession's image.
"Buying that first home can really be a challenge especially for teachers whose salaries are moderate at best," Rex said.
First come, first serve
Valarie Williams, director of the state Housing Authority, estimated the agency can underwrite loans to roughly 175 applicants, who would be assisted on a "first-come, first-serve" basis. The interest for those loans, as of Monday, was 5.875 percent but is subject to market fluctuations.
"It is important that we invest in our teachers as they continue to invest in our children," she said, adding that her agency sees the effort as a way to recognize "these dedicated individuals who contribute to South Carolina's future."
Rex said rural school systems encounter difficulties attracting teachers and then getting them to stay because many communities have few housing options. Marlboro County is building a special housing complex for teachers who are just starting their careers in hopes it will foster after-hours collegiality.
"It's important that we find ways to keep them there," Rex said.
That's the case in Newberry County, according to Pam Arrington, the school system's personnel director for 13 years.
"I see it as a retention tool as much as a recruiting tool," she said. "If we can help teachers who already live in the area, that would certainly keep teachers with us. We find that if they'll stay for five years, they grow to love us."
"We'll take any help we can get in trying to attract people into the education profession," said John Kirby, superintendent of Dillon 3 in Latta.
But Kirby does not believe the program will appeal to first-year teachers.
"They're fairly mobile, and I'm not sure many of them would want to take on that responsibility with a beginning salary," he said.
Instead, Kirby envisions teachers with "three to eight" years' experience being prime candidates for such loans.
"Hopefully, those are people who will say 'I like this community' and want to stay. It would help in our retention."