Northwest Arkansas Council establishes center to address area housing affordability issue

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 2,876 views 

The Northwest Arkansas Council announced Thursday (March 18) the launch of a new center that focuses on addressing the emerging issue of housing affordability in Northwest Arkansas. The Walton Family Foundation is supporting the workforce housing center at the Northwest Arkansas Council.

The Springdale-based council is completing a nationwide search for an executive director for the new center. The director is expected to have knowledge of best practices on the financial aspects of workforce housing development and how cities can adjust to prioritize housing needs.

“Teachers, firefighters, healthcare workers and other residents face increasing obstacles in finding housing at affordable rates relative to their incomes,” said Nelson Peacock, president and CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council. “These barriers often prevent people from living in and contributing to the richness of the communities where they work. Ensuring our residents have quality, attainable homes must be a priority.”

Rapid population growth is projected to continue in Northwest Arkansas for at least the next 25 years, according to a news release. Homebuilders are not expected to produce enough housing or provide the kind of housing that’s affordable for the area’s workforce to meet demand.

The workforce housing center will collaborate with community partners to address housing needs and priorities in the region, the release shows. The goal is to strengthen area community bonds by creating well-designed housing options and mixed-income neighborhoods for workers and their families. The center will promote housing development in proximity to employment centers, lifestyle amenities and services like mobility options.

“The economic and cultural vibrancy in Northwest Arkansas will continue to drive growth, and a diversity of housing options connected to opportunities and experiences will ensure that growth is inclusive,” said Karen Minkel, Home Region Program director for the Walton Family Foundation. “The center will champion community-driven solutions that lead to dynamic neighborhoods and serve as a resource that helps the public and private sectors develop workforce housing options.”

Affordable housing has become a rising concern that is increasingly unattainable for workers, families and the elderly in Northwest Arkansas, according to the 2019 Our Housing Future study funded by the Walton Family Foundation.

The study showed more than 80,000 families will move to the four largest cities in Northwest Arkansas by 2040. By then, the region will need to build 2,900 units annually, but the study shows the cities were adding 1,400 units per year from 2010 to 2016. About half of the housing units need to be built for workforce households, which are defined as a family of four earning less than $78,000 a year.

“Like many other cities in the region, Springdale is growing rapidly and needs more housing options that are affordable to respond to the increased demand,” Springdale Mayor Doug Sprouse said. “I look forward to working collaboratively with the council and other community members to address this mounting challenge proactively.”

The recent Skyline Report completed by the Center for Business and Economic Research in the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas showed record home sales prices and low home inventory in Benton and Washington counties. The cost to buy a home rose 11% last year and was an average of $293,403 in Benton County and $268,987 in Washington County.

Many area residents choose to live away from the large employment centers in the cities because of the lower housing costs in outlying areas. However, the savings on housing costs are offset by higher transportation costs and increased commute times. The Center for Neighborhood Technology considers communities affordable if families spend no more than 45% of their income on housing and transportation costs. Northwest Arkansas families spend 52% on these costs.

The council will convene partners committed to addressing housing issues across the region, including Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese, Community Development Corp. of Bentonville/Bella Vista, Excellerate Foundation and Partners for Better Housing. Community-driven solutions will be needed to address the housing affordability issue, the release shows.

“Hard-working Marshallese community members often struggle by paying high rent and face a challenging path to homeownership,” said Melisa Laelan, director and founder of Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese. “We look forward to helping shape the direction of the center’s housing-focused work to serve the needs of Marshallese families in Northwest Arkansas.”

The council will support the startup operations of the new center, and it will be one of the council’s key program areas, said Nate Green, communications director for the Northwest Arkansas Council. The support will include office space for the center.

Asked how much money the Walton Family Foundation is providing for the new center, Green said the council received an initial startup grant to support the center’s strategic planning and leadership needs. “A more defined scope of the support will be more accurate once there’s a comprehensive strategic plan,” he added.

The council declined to disclose the grant amount.