BENTONVILLE -- One key to providing housing a region's workers can afford is to not destroy such housing where it exists, a panel of leaders in a successful community restoration and enhancement effort in Washington, D.C., told an audience in Northwest Arkansas on Thursday.
Gentrification -- plowing up established neighborhoods in newly desirable locations to make way for more high-dollar housing or road projects or other development -- threatens affordable housing in communities across the country, the panelists said. Three leaders of the 11th Street Bridge Park in Washington, D.C., addressed a meeting set up by the Northwest Arkansas Council's Workforce Housing Center. At least 90 people attended the discussion held at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
"You shouldn't have to be a billionaire to live in downtown Bentonville," said panelist Kymone Freeman, co-owner of WeAct Radio in the historic Anacostia community.
The bridge park -- an elevated park built on the piers of a bridge -- grew out of a decade-old effort led by residents of that community to preserve their neighborhood. Other panelists were: Scott Kratz, senior vice president of the nonprofit company Building Bridges Across the River, and Vaughn Perry, director of the Skyland Workforce Center in the Anacostia community. Panel moderator Megan Kimble wrote about the group's efforts to build the park and preserve their neighborhood for the New York Times.
The panelists agreed one vital part of any group's plan to provide workforce housing is to acquire land, whether a group wants to preserve such housing or create more.
"Housing becomes unaffordable when land becomes unaffordable," Perry said.
Kimble, who has written about community preservation efforts in other parts of the country, emphasized that point. The more land a workforce housing effort can acquire and the earlier it can acquire it, the better. One such organization is a community land trust, a community-led nonprofit that can acquire land including places occupied by residents already without displacing those residents, panelists said.
"What is affordable housing?" Perry asked the crowd. "I bet I could get 100 different answers from you." There is no one simple answer, he said, and the best way to find the right answer for whatever spot or neighborhood you're looking at is to ask the people already living there. Any successful community preservation effort has to be led by the people living there, he said.
Not all community efforts will succeed, panelists acknowledged.
"You've got to give them the opportunity to succeed or fail," Perry said.
How can a community-led effort keep the reins in hand without the effort being taken over by the powers-that-be, asked Solomon Burchfield of New Beginnings NWA, a local nonprofit trying to eliminate homelessness in the region. By inviting anyone willing to participate to participate, panelists said. Gatekeepers should not be excluded but outnumbered, they said.
Historic Black communities in Fayetteville are down to the vanishing point, panelists were told. How can community members get city government to end the decline, the panel was asked. Organize, they replied.
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Northwest Arkansas Council Workforce Housing Center: