Groundwork Housing Summit: The Future of Living in Northwest Arkansas

On May 8, Groundwork hosted "Creating Home: A Summit Exploring Policies, Practices, and Promising Solutions" where local architect, infill development advocate and founder of Flintlock Ltd Co, Alli Thurmond Quinlan presented challenges facing Northwest Arkansas and innovative solutions.

Northwest Arkansas (NWA) is at an inflection point.

Historically the region has been regarded as one of the nation’s top regions to live in, with affordability being one of the main attributes.

Over the last five years, the region has seen an exponential rise in housing costs, fueled by a rapid population increase, elevated construction costs, and ultimately the underproduction of homes.

The increase in the cost of living is having a direct impact on how businesses function, recruit and how much our local population spends in our community.... While the outward sprawl is putting our green, natural spaces and waterways at risk.

Though housing is a complex issue, there are elements within the control of governing bodies that can alleviate the financial strain NWA residents are feeling. Northwest Arkansas needs a variety of solutions to address the current housing challenges.

This past May 8, Alli Quinlan, founder of Flintlock Ltd Co presented at Groundwork’s housing summit and outlined key initiatives our municipalities must take on to address the housing challenges.

Population Growth and Housing Demand

One challenge is population growth. As Quinlan stated, “Northwest Arkansas is growing. Whether we like it or not.” The focus needs to be on navigating the growth in a way that preserves the character and charm of the region.

“We can’t control who gets to move here. But we can control how big we allow new homes to be built, how big the lots are, where they’re located and on how much land.”

Currently, 75% of NWA residential areas are exclusively zoned for single-family homes that are typically a traditional 3 bed, 2 bath. However, only 26% of NWA residents are nuclear families.

As a community, land use, city planning, and finances are still thought of as though a household unit needs to cater to a nuclear family of 2 adults and 2.5 children. There is a discrepancy between the sizes of homes being built, the household needs of community members and what is within their budget to afford.

Legalize Affordable Housing

The first step is to legalize housing that works and is affordable. This is not just about considering what is affordable for residents, but zooming out to look at what cities can afford.

Homeowners have to pay a number of housing, infrastructure and service needs, such as sidewalks, curbs, water, emergency services, traffic lights, utility poles and more.

Quinlan explained that denser development translates to a larger tax base, as more individuals contribute property taxes. This expanded revenue stream allows the city to allocate funds to vital services and sustain critical infrastructure, fostering a more resilient community.

Embracing Density and Regional Planning

Additional solutions entail adopting a regional approach to housing and infrastructure to effectively manage the challenges posed by population growth, alongside embracing densification. Furthermore, it was underscored that housing developments structured around density patterns hold greater value per acre compared to sprawling strip malls.

Notice the value per acre of the sprawling commercial space above vs. the value per acre of gentle density residential spaces.

Quinlan emphasized that prioritizing density isn’t just fiscally responsible; it is crucial for sustainable growth. Without shifting zoning patterns, Northwest Arkansas faces the daunting prospect of needing to develop an additional 8.2 square miles annually to accommodate its expanding population, predominately through single-family neighborhoods sprawling on the outskirts of town. Such a growth trajectory will consume valuable natural and working lands.

The slides below represent the scale of growth that will occur in NWA. Existing developments are represented in blue while pink demonstrates the volume of space needed to handle projected growth. It was noted that the pink areas are the land mass that would be required, but not the location we would expect the growth to specifically happen.

Projected land mass growth in 2026

Projected land mass growth in 2031

Projected land mass growth in 2050. The developed land area in NWA would need to double.

Innovative Solutions

While the region grapples with the challenges of population growth and housing demand, it is essential for governing bodies to recognize their role in alleviating financial strain on residents. As emphasized by Quinlan, the current trajectory, dominated by sprawling single-family developments is unsustainable and threatens to consume valuable natural and working lands. As Quinlan stated, “What we have tried hasn’t worked. And it’s not going to get better if we keep doing the same thing that we are currently doing. We have to try new things. No one thing is going to fix housing.” It is only through innovative strategies that Northwest Arkansas can navigate its growth while preserving its unique character for generations to come.

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