Northwest Arkansas can build more, and more affordable, housing by embracing the resources it already has, including commercial corridors with ample infrastructure, housing and infrastructure experts said at the second annual Place Summit last week.
Fayetteville and other cities, for example, are looking to gradually redevelop the Highway 71-B thoroughfare to allow housing and more efficient transit, not just parking lots and stores.
Britin Bostick, long-range planner and special project manager for the city of Fayetteville, said the city expects to need roughly 50% more housing units in the next two decades. Thousands of households are burning through more than 30% of their income for housing.
“Our community is really stressed,” Bostick said, and part of the solution lies along College Avenue. “We have an area that doesn’t allow housing that could allow housing fairly quickly.”
The cost of housing has become an increasingly urgent concern for Northwest Arkansas, where home prices have soared over the past few years faster than in Austin, Texas, North Carolina’s Research Triangle and other high-performing regions. And the area’s home sales and construction skew toward higher incomes and further away from employment centers, Mervin Jebaraj, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas Walton College of Business, told summit attendees.
The Place Summit is organized by the Urban Land Institute Northwest Arkansas, which aims to improve the quality of urban areas to better serve more people. Hundreds of attendees from around the country heard city planners and other experts talk about social infrastructure, active transportation facilities and, of course, housing.
New methods of housing construction could utilize local materials, shorten the building process and reduce other costs, according to a panel convened by Groundwork, the Northwest Arkansas Council’s workforce housing initiative.
Mass timber, for instance, could put Arkansas forests to work in an economically and environmentally sustainable way, said Peter MacKeith, dean and professor of architecture at the University of Arkansas’ Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design. He was joined by B.J. Siegel, who co-founded the modular multifamily manufacturer Juno, and Zachary Mannheimer, founder and chairman of the house 3D printing firm Alquist 3D.
“Housing is the problem everywhere we go,” said Mannheimer, whose company has partnered with Groundwork to build a demonstration project in Rogers. “It doesn’t matter how cool your town is if you can’t find a place to live.”
Groundwork is also partnering with developers and officials to improve development codes and finance workforce housing projects such as Big Emma in downtown Springdale.
The push to increase housing opportunities will never meet universal acceptance no matter how well-reasoned, said Christian Dorsey, chairman of the Arlington County Board in Virginia. His keynote focused on the county’s recent experience with upzoning single-family areas to allow a handful of housing units per parcel in order to support teachers, first responders, nonprofit workers and other moderate-income residents.
A vocal minority remained unmoved by the county’s search for a compromise policy and the personal stories of residents who loved the community and couldn’t afford to live there, Dorsey said. Pursuing a solution was nonetheless essential, he added, and most people supported more housing after leaders faced the need head-on and fostered constructive dialogues.
“Once we did that, it was amazing,” he said. “We know we’re right about this being a benefit to our community and not a burden.”
Written by Dan Holtmeyer, NWA Council