Former HUD secretary: Diversity is key to Northwest Arkansas’ affordable housing issue

by Jennifer Joyner ([email protected]) 588 views 

(from left) University of Arkansas Community Design Center Director Stephen Luoni, former U.S. HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, and Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, participated Saturday (Feb. 3) in a panel discussion about affordable housing.

Former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan, a keynote speaker of the recent Housing NWA symposium, was exposed to a broad range of housing-related issues through his work with HUD under former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barrack Obama and his service as housing commissioner of New York City in the mid-2000s.

However, his perspective on the issue began to take shape much earlier.

“I do this work because I grew up in the New York City that all of us have seen in movies, that all of us have read about. It was the south Bronx that was burning,” Donovan said. As an 11-year-old boy he attended the 1977 World Series game at Yankee Stadium, where sportscaster Howard Cosell allegedly made that assertion to millions of TV viewers across the country.

“I saw those fires. I watched as that neighborhood around Yankee Stadium lost 75% or its population in just a decade. … I watched as Harlem burned,” Donovan said, noting a time when 66% of the borough’s real estate was owned by the city, and the housing agency renovated “those beautiful brownstones” and sold them for $1 apiece.

“New York City was the poster child for what urban theorists were saying was the death of the American city,” Donovan said.

However, cities have seen a resurgence in recent years, he said. Today in the south Bronx there are market-rate condominiums going up where the first effort to build affordable housing was to build small houses on quarter-acre lots. Those houses are surrounded now by 10-, 15-story towers.

“Life is teeming in the south Bronx,” Donovan said, attributing the transformation to be part of a national movement, including in NWA’s downtown neighborhoods.

“This is an urban moment in our history. I think those trends are not ones that will change quickly. Those trends are ones that I think will shape this region and successful regions across the country for decades to come,” he said.

Donovan was one of several housing specialists from throughout the country who convened with area architects, developers and public officials to discuss the issue of affordable housing in Northwest Arkansas at the symposium, organized by the University of Arkansas Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design.

Donovan and Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, were the keynote speakers on Saturday (Feb. 3) at The Record in downtown Bentonville, and both stressed the importance of diversity in housing. They were joined by representation of the UA and its architecture school, in addition to the Walton Family Foundation of Bentonville, which helped fund the Housing NWA symposium with a $250,000 grant.

A recent study compiled by the UA’s Center for Business and Economic Research at the Sam M. Walton College of Business and commissioned by the Walton Foundation indicated a need for more accessible downtown housing options in Benton and Washington counties.

“The report noted early trends of rising residential costs and close to zero percent vacancy for multifamily dwellings that suggest the accessibility of downtown living may be increasingly limited to those of higher incomes,” said Karen Minkel, Home Region program director for the foundation.

If left unchecked, the lack of affordable housing could cause problems down the road as NWA continues to grow, according to speakers at the symposium.

“This issue is not unique to Northwest Arkansas. Mayors across the country – whether from the coasts, the South, big cities, small cities – they’re all grappling with attainable housing issues,” Minkel said. “Where we can be unique is that we can thoughtfully think about the issue and address the problem before we reach a crisis point.”

The rise of housing costs was named as a top concern for mayors participating in the 2017 Menino Survey of Mayors, part of the Boston University Initiative on Cities.

Symposium speakers agreed it was much cheaper and more effective for the region to address the issue now, because there are numerous examples of larger cities that did not plan ahead and later faced repercussions.

“When we talk with leaders of aspirational cities, whether it’s Minneapolis or Austin, and we ask them, ‘What are the things you wish you’d done two decades ago?’ they also say two things: transportation and attainable housing,” Minkel said. “We are at an inflection point that really represents a challenge and an opportunity for our region.”

Donovan said NWA is just beginning to feel the squeeze of unaffordable housing, and that’s one reason it is difficult to address.

“One of the challenges you have that brings you together today is to imagine, to see a future that is not yet here, and to motivate people across the region to react – to make difficult decisions, to plan – in response to something that seems remote,” he said.

However, long-term consequences can include negative effects on the economy and other traditional urban challenges, including crime. Rising housing costs pose a problem for blue collar workers who serve as the lifeblood of our community, Donovan said.

“If you can’t attract and keep the range of workers that are critical to driving your economy – and that includes the people who are teaching your kids in school, treating your patients at your hospitals – the broad range of jobs that are necessary for a healthy, strong community. If those folks can’t live in your community, it’s going to be hard to continue to be successful over a long period of time.”

Donovan said other states have seen dramatic drops in GDP tied to an inability to attract lower-skill workers. Diversity in housing types is now present in NWA, and it will take a comprehensive plan to retain that element and control pricing.

“In the few minutes it took me to get here, I saw what looked like two French chateaus right next to mobile homes and everything in between,” Donovan said. “That’s what you want this region to continue to be.”

In addition to diversity in housing types, Donovan called for diversity of thought when it comes to decision-making, and Walker agreed. Many times, the decision-making table is populated by particular special interests in the community and is not a legitimate reflection of the residents’ interests, Walker said.

“Issues that are often under the veneer – like race, class, histories in the community – are ignored when these tables get created, and when they’re ignored within the larger discourse, they can play out in really dysfunctional ways that slow things down,” Walker said.

He said there becomes a problem when gentrification is equated with displacement. Walker recalled a moment he had while working on community development in New York in the late 1990, when at a community board meeting a woman pleaded with officials to not build a supermarket in Harlem.

It was the first supermarket to be opened in 40 years in that neighborhood, and Walker did not understand the woman’s objections to progress.

“It was so counterintuitive. Harlem was a food desert,” he said.

What Walker and others failed to take into account at the time was the residents’ perspective, he said.

“People in Harlem were angry because it was a black community practically in the middle of Manhattan that had been left for dead, and all of a sudden people wanted to move back to their community,” he said. “To her, that supermarket represented not the beginning of renewal but the end of her time and people like her in that community.”

NWA now has an opportunity to avoid repeating mistakes made in other cities.

“This community, NWA, whether you want it to be or not, is going to be successful,” Walker said. “It has all the ingredients.”

Success in terms of diversity and inclusion is not as certain and will depend on intentional and strategic effort, he said.

“You may be a place like the Hamptons or Aspen, or all these places where the people who live and work and do the day-to-day – the regular Americans, the people who we ought to care about the most – feel the most dispossessed,” Walker said. “I love the idea of a French chateau next to a mobile home, the notion of diversity – that you’re not going to become like Venezuela, where rich people all live behind walls with barbed wire around their communities and gates at the front, in order to keep (safe) the people who are privileged enough to be secure. We don’t want to live in a society like that. … That’s not America. That’s not the nation we want to be.”