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NWA editorial: Search for affordability

Region pursues collaborative response on housing

Tell some folks Northwest Arkansas is in the early stages of a shortage of "affordable" housing and they might glance over and ask, "Where have you been?"

Perhaps statistically the predicate is true -- the region's housing stock isn't yet in an affordability crisis -- but the reality on the ground demonstrates the growing challenges for many: The hunt for a place to live for those in the lower part of the income spectrum can be daunting. Losing one's place to live can be unnerving as the search for a replacement forces people to spend more of their income or settle for less square footage or poorer conditions than before.

What’s the point?

A collaborative effort of civic leaders, developers, nonprofits and planners will be necessary to address the availability of “affordable” housing as a lack of supply puts pressures on pricing.

Facing such a circumstance is difficult, especially when spouses or kids are involved. One's income doesn't diminish a desire to do better for those who rely on us.

At a recent symposium by the Walton Family Foundation and the University of Arkansas School of Architecture and Design, planners, developers and others discussed a future that, as things stand, will not sustain a level of housing affordable to all in need of roofs over their heads.

"In no way are we keeping up with the rate of population growth that we have," said Matthew Petty, a Fayetteville City Council member and developer. Petty said the region will need 10,000 new living units in the next few years but is on track to build a fifth of that. Low-income residents already pay huge portions of their income for housing and things will get worse if the demand outpaces supply.

Experts told those attending there's no one way to approach a solution, but it will require collaboration of private interests with public leadership and work from nonprofits.

With recent focus on redevelopment of downtown areas in Northwest Arkansas cities, the shortage of options for people who want to live there is becoming more apparent. Between 2012 and 2017, residential sales prices in the downtowns of Siloam Springs, Fayetteville, Bentonville, Rogers and Springdale all rose, according to a study of data compiled by the Center for Business and Economic research at the UA for the Walton Family Foundation. The study showed prices per square foot increased by 207.5 percent in Bentonville, 104.5 percent in Rogers, 47.5 percent in Springdale, 31.5 percent in Siloam Springs and 12.9 percent in Fayetteville.

The foundation recently announced its commissioning of a one-year study of so-called workforce housing and long-term regional housing growth, with a goal of analyzing needs and development of a comprehensive plan that can keep downtown living available for all levels of income earners.

These efforts are welcome if Northwest Arkansas' downtown areas are going to become magnets for more than just people with six-figure salaries. Those are certainly welcome, but our communities will best be served by a diverse population, and that applies particularly in downtown areas.

These challenges are welcome, because they reflect forward-moving progress for Northwest Arkansas. If they're ignored, they will become burdens, but if civic leaders and private interests work together toward a responsible approach to housing, solutions appear to be within reach.

Commentary on 02/14/2018

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