Duke McLarty believes a home is the core of peoples’ lives.
“It’s where we let our guard down,” he explained. “It’s where birthdays and new jobs are celebrated. It’s where we grieve. It’s where homework and movie nights happen. It’s where our most authentic living happens.”
In Northwest Arkansas, where home prices continue to increase, affording a home is becoming more challenging for more people. It will be McLarty’s job to articulate that challenge loud enough to sound an alarm.
The Northwest Arkansas Council has hired McLarty to be the founding executive director of a new center that focuses on addressing the region’s housing affordability issue. The Walton Family Foundation supports the workforce housing center at the Northwest Arkansas Council, which announced the center’s creation earlier this year. McLarty is the center’s first employee. A Northwest Arkansas Council spokesman said a plan to staff the initiative further is in development.
McLarty’s first official day will be Dec. 6. He’s relocating his family from Colorado, where he works as the director of government affairs and community relations for AIR Communities, a real estate investment trust (REIT) that owns and operates apartments in 17 states and more than 40 cities.
McLarty, 43, is a Missouri native but has ties to Arkansas. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Missouri State University and a law degree from the University of Arkansas School of Law.
His parents are from Arkansas, and he is related to Arkansas Business Hall of Famer Thomas F. “Mack” McLarty, a former White House Chief of Staff to President Bill Clinton and now chairman of McLarty Associates, a Washington, D.C.-based diplomatic consulting firm.
“Mack’s dad and my grandpa were brothers,” he said.
Before joining AIR Communities in 2018, McLarty worked in several roles within the Federal Housing Administration of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, focusing on large-scale urban renewal development and multifamily development.
“Duke’s unique experience with government advocacy, community engagement and consensus-building for housing developments on federal, state and local levels will be valuable as the center develops innovative solutions for the region’s housing needs,” Nelson Peacock, Northwest Arkansas Council president and CEO, said in a statement. “As Northwest Arkansas continues to grow, we want to ensure working families have access to high-quality, attainable housing connected to transportation options, opportunities and experiences.”
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 that more than 80,000 families will move to the four largest cities in Northwest Arkansas by 2040. 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, defined as a family of four earning less than $78,000 a year.
Research completed by the Center for Business and Economic Research (CBER) in the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas showed that the average home prices in Northwest Arkansas rose by 16.2% to $306,236 in the first half of 2021, from $263,461 in the same period in 2020.
McLarty will work together with community partners to develop regional strategies that address each city’s unique challenges. The center will promote well-designed housing options and mixed-income, walkable and transit-accessible neighborhoods for the region’s workers and their families.
“The rising costs of housing across Northwest Arkansas communities has become an increasing challenge for the Latinx families RootED supports,” said Judith Yáñez, founder and executive director of RootED, a nonprofit dedicated to helping parents navigate K-12 education options in Northwest Arkansas. “An effective strategy to address this challenge will need to embrace the obstacles of those most affected, and I look forward to working with the center to elevate the voices of our region’s working families.”
Following a national search that included candidates from 17 states, the Northwest Arkansas Council selected McLarty. Yáñez was one of several individuals who served on a local selection committee that screened and offered feedback on the top candidates.
McLarty said he’ll spend time in December talking to as many people as he can to understand the depth of the problem and gauging the motivation to solve it.
“One of the first tasks on my plate is educating the public, educating political leaders and creating a sense of urgency to solve this issue,” he said. “Fortunately, a lot of this great work is already underway, but it’s going to take education and advocacy to get the word out and build the will across all sectors.”
McLarty said the Northwest Arkansas Council has commissioned TheCaseMade, an organization dedicated to helping leaders intentionally make a case for systems change, to help determine the best way to communicate the housing center’s work.
“The Walton Family Foundation has also commissioned a research study on how best to deploy funding,” he said. “I hope a year from now we can point to some projects and developments that would not have happened but for the workforce housing center.”
The Northwest Arkansas Council was established in 1990 by Sam Walton, J.B. Hunt, Don Tyson, and several other business leaders. It serves as a regional convener for economic and community development initiatives. Council members identify challenges and work to address them to enhance the prosperity of Northwest Arkansas.
Initiatives focus on advancing quality of life, attracting talent, improving the region’s workforce, creating jobs, updating infrastructure, and keeping up with the region’s rapid growth.