Guest commentary: Northwest Arkansas can shape housing future with bold action

Growth puts pressures on affordability

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is now such an integral part of the region's landscape that it is easy to forget what a transformative move it was by our entire community. The museum's mission to increase access to world-class art in the heartland would not have been possible without the daring, can-do spirit of our many regional partners. Northwest Arkansas has always been a place for doers, dreamers and discoverers who think big and act boldly.

We now have an opportunity to build on what has made the region special while transforming it to better meet the needs of a growing population of all ages, incomes and cultures. One issue that requires our collective and bold action is the widening gap in the housing market.

Northwest Arkansas has emerged as the 14th fastest growing area in the U.S. Long-time residents and recent transplants are building successful lives working at Fortune 100 companies and startups, but also in schools, shops and restaurants. They all want to take part in the region's dynamic economy, vibrant downtowns, trails and relatively low cost of living. It is no surprise for the past three years, the region has ranked among the top five places to live in the nation by U.S. News & World Report.

As we look to what is next for the region, we can learn from the experiences of other places. When we talk with leaders from cities that have experienced similar growth and ask them what they wish they could have done differently a decade or two ago, their consistent response is more housing options for people of different circumstances.

A recent University of Arkansas study, commissioned by the Walton Family Foundation, signaled early warning trends that may limit future access to downtown living, including rising residential prices and low vacancy rates for multifamily units.

During the study period, residential sale prices rose across the region's five largest downtowns. Bentonville saw a 207.5 percent increase in prices per square foot.

To avoid the housing shortages and skyrocketing rental rates that have challenged other cities, our communities need access to a robust mix of housing options so teachers, artists and firefighters can live in the neighborhoods they serve.

To be clear, this issue is not unique to Northwest Arkansas. In the most recent annual Menino Survey of Mayors, leaders from across the country -- the coasts, the South and cities of all sizes -- are grappling with attainable housing issues.

We are unique, however, in our ability to get out in front of these issues now.

So, what can we do?

We can stay true to the character of our cities while also embracing density with the right mix of residential, commercial and public spaces. Zoning and city planning policies can incentivize the development of walkable, bikeable, multiuse, multi-income communities that allow us to seamlessly live, work, eat, shop and connect with each other.

We can encourage inspired design for people from all income levels. Many of the housing options in Northwest Arkansas, like elsewhere, have remained static. That's why I was thrilled to see innovative submissions from all around the country, and as far away as Norway and Mexico, in the recent Northwest Arkansas Professional Design Competition. We can and should raise our expectations for creative and affordable housing design within the region.

We can be proactive in developing systemic solutions to meet the housing needs of all citizens. We can be the kind of community that invests in both homegrown talent and newcomers alike. We have room to grow. How we manage that growth is up to us.

The same bold spirit that made Crystal Bridges possible can propel Northwest Arkansas as a leader among the most forward-looking regions in America. While philanthropic action can start a wave of change, it takes collective leadership to sustain it. We call on visionary mayors, city planners, businesses and community groups to join us in saying yes to making our cities accessible for all who want to make a living here. Yes to developers, bankers and architects working together on responsible growth. And yes to nurturing a new generation of doers, dreamers and discoverers in the American heartland.

Commentary on 06/16/2018

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