Affordable housing must be priority for Northwest Arkansas, experts say

Posted: February 5, 2018 at 1 a.m.

Northwest Arkansas is showing early signs of an affordable housing shortage but can avoid a full crisis if its people can work together now, local and national experts said this weekend.

The University of Arkansas Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design and Walton Family Foundation held a series of talks and panel discussions on Saturday and Sunday looking into how to make sure the area has enough apartments and homes that are attainable with low and moderate incomes. The symposium marked the beginning of a longer project to help grow more housing options here.

Web watch

More information on the Housing Northwest Arkansas initiative from the Walton Family Foundation and University of Arkansas Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design can be found at housingnwa.org/.

Northwest Arkansas and the state as a whole have affordable reputations that hide some real problems, speakers said.

The region will need more than 10,000 new living units in the next few years but is on track to build a fifth of that, for instance, said Matthew Petty, a Fayetteville City Council member and developer. Census estimates in 2016 also found tens of thousands of low-income households that pay more than 30 percent of their income on rents and mortgages, crossing a standard upper limit on affordable housing.

"In no way are we keeping up with the rate of population growth that we have," Petty said, and more well-off tenants can beat lower-income people for the housing that's around. Without change, "we end up with a scenario were we may never catch up."

Speakers also looked at costs more broadly. Local residents overall spend about a quarter of their income on average on rents and mortgages, which is a pretty typical chunk of change around the country. But the metropolitan area's relatively scattered layout sends another quarter of the paycheck to transportation costs.

Those costs combined take up more than half of the average income, higher than in Chicago and Seattle, according to the Chicago-based urban research group Center for Neighborhood Technology.

Problems like these can grow until they reach the crisis level on the California coast, where many people can't afford to live anywhere near the cities they work in, several speakers said. But Northwest Arkansas can also turn the trend around.

"We tend to think of our communities as static; in fact they change radically and dramatically in the course of a few decades," said Shaun Donovan, who served as U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development until 2017 and spoke in Bentonville on Saturday.

Ramping up housing construction and fixing other issues will require people and regional groups to work together in new ways, speakers said. Local governments, nonprofit groups and businesses must all provide the resources -- money, initiative and otherwise.

A public housing authority and private construction company recently teamed up to build a popular, 150-unit, partly public-housing complex in Alexandria, Va., for example, said Lisa Sturtevant, a consultant and senior fellow with the Urban Land Institute. A county, a university, a local economic development agency and a nonprofit developer have also worked together in various combinations for similar projects in the state.

"I'm sure you'll pick up there's no one way to do these things," Sturtevant said.

Much smaller projects involving a single building with a few units can also make a difference, said John Anderson, an architect and co-founder of the Incremental Development Alliance. Petty is a local member of the development group.

Single residential buildings are the "missing teeth" in many communities, replaced by little parking lots and the like, Anderson said. No outside or major developer will build or fix up such a building, but they can slowly create local housing and local wealth.

"We've been building single-family homes literally like they're going out of style," Anderson said, but people want denser places to live that are close to shops and jobs and schools. He urged small developers to pick a neighborhood and tend to it like a garden.

Petty, Anderson and others also said local government zoning and permitting policies should be changed to speed up housing construction and help it be more affordable, such as by defraying some of the costs or providing public land for projects.

Doing all of these things will take courage on the part of local leaders to stand up against sentiments of "not in my backyard," said Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, which describes its mission as pushing for inclusion and justice for all people. Making more affordable housing will also need a rethinking of what housing should look like, he and others said.

"Everybody wants a house on an acre of land," Walker said. "That cannot be our future. That cannot be the future of the planet."

The Walton foundation gave $250,000 to put together the symposium and hold other housing projects at the architecture school. This semester the school is holding a studio for 25 students to explore designs for affordable housing that could be built around Northwest Arkansas, said Peter MacKeith, a professor and dean of the school.

In March the school will also request bids for architecture firms to design a mixed-use, attainable housing development in Bentonville, he said.

The projects are part of a long-running push by the foundation, the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission and other groups to learn about ways to improve the area's quality of life, including in transportation and downtown walkability.

NW News on 02/05/2018