Skyrocketing housing prices endanger region already, Northwest Arkansas Council told

‘Economic life’ at risk, council told

Dozens of homes are under construction at Park View subdivision in Lowell, seen March 30 2021, being built by Riverwood Homes. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)

SPRINGDALE -- Northwest Arkansas saw the second-highest increase in the cost of buying a house of any metro region in the United States year over year, the Northwest Arkansas Council was told Thursday.

"This is threatening a core pillar of your economic life," Richard Florida, a University of Toronto professor who specializes in urban studies, told a crowd of about 150 at Thursday's annual meeting of the council. An "incredible quality of life" coupled with relatively low housing prices compared to other desirable, growing places around the United States is one of the region's main attractions, he said.

The council is a group of business and community leaders who address regional issues. During the meeting, Florida presented the council's strategic plan for this year through 2026, a strategy he helped compile.

"Of all 350-plus U.S. metros, the Northwest Arkansas region witnessed the second largest year-over-year increase in its median home price between May 2021 and May 2022 -- 28.8%, an absolute increase of nearly $75,000," the plan says.

Real estate industry figures show the fastest growth in Kansas City, Mo., with 32.9% from May 2021 to May 2022. Northwest Arkansas outpaced the next-highest area of Tampa, Fla.

Housing prices ballooned 43% in the past five years in Benton County and 47% in Washington County, Florida said.

"You can choke on your own success," audience member Jeff Koenig of Fayetteville said after Thursday's meeting, which took place at the Ozark Highlands Nature Center in Springdale.

The council hired Duke McLarty in November as executive director of the council's workforce housing center to specifically address the housing issue. The council set affordable housing as a priority at past meetings. They were right to do so, but regional action is urgently needed now, Florida told them.

"You're at an inflection point," he said. "You can't hesitate."

Options considered by the council and the region's cities to date include convincing investors to offer a wider selection of housing and finance options from townhouses to condominiums to single-family homes. Finance options could include private funds to bridge the gap between what a working family can afford and what it costs to buy a single-family house.

Northwest Arkansas needs a regional housing fund, the strategy document says. Such a fund blends public and private investments to back affordable housing developments. The region needs to look at other options besides direct lowering of the per-unit cost of a living unit such as making more neighborhoods bicycle-friendly and having more charging stations for electric vehicles, the strategy document says. Building houses farther and farther from job centers increase transportation costs, which is a major factor in the overall expense of living in an area, the plan says.

There are groups of investors who want to include affordability in their portfolios, Florida said. For instance, some apartment complexes have 80% of their units at market price and 20% reserved at a lower, more affordable rate. The community cannot continue thriving without a place where schoolteachers and emergency medical technicians can afford to live, he said.

Beyond housing price, the region needs to be sure and maintain the quality of life that keeps people wanting to move here, Florida said.

"He validated the thing that keeps me awake at night," said Mayor Greg Hines of Rogers, who also attended the meeting. "I don't want to be sitting in a restaurant 20 years from now and have people asking me why I didn't help get a grip on this problem while I was in office."

Besides housing, the council's new plan lists four other priorities. These are:

• Continue the focus on developing, attracting and retaining diverse talent.

• Expand efforts to bolster the innovation economy and an entrepreneurial environment.

• Keep building on Northwest Arkansas' brand as a vibrant, thriving, up-and-coming and inclusive community which offers a high quality of life for all.

• Expand the council's capabilities, missions and staff.

"No other organization can comfortably address so many subject areas as the region grows," the plan says.

"I don't talk much about politics, but as state governments become more aggressive in the social sphere, and that happens in both directions, you need to keep your reputation as a fair, open-minded place to live," Florida said.

"People who don't feel included will go," he said. "This isn't about sensitivity training. It's about economic development."

Another speaker at Thursday's meeting was Austin Booth, director of the state Game and Fish Commission. The state wants to open a world-class recreational shooting range in Northwest Arkansas, he told the crowd, but land costs are high. Therefore, the commission will tailor a detailed request for a proposal listing its requirements and see if a public or private group, or a combination, makes the commission the most attractive offer, he said. Expect the proposal in August, he said.

Recreational shooting -- rifle, pistol, shotgun and archery -- is a highly in-demand sport, and Northwest Arkansas seriously lacks enough facilities, much less one good enough to attract national shooting competitions, Booth said.

Any mention of shooting must address the issue of gun violence, with mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas; Buffalo, N.Y.; and Highland Park, Ill., so far in 2022, Booth told the group.

"We need to get shooting out of the darkness and solitude and into the light of day," he said. "When people go, they need to see the others in their communities with them."

Doug Thompson can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWADoug.

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