Northwest Arkansas Council President and CEO Nelson Peacock shares updates on initiatives during the group’s annual meeting on July 18, 2023 at the Momentary in Bentonville. (Antoinette Grajeda/Arkansas Advocate)
Construction will soon begin on an apartment complex featuring units reserved for Northwest Arkansas workers who’ve been pushed out of the region by rising housing prices and unprecedented population growth.
The 77-unit mixed-income apartment project on Emma Ave. in downtown Springdale will include 30 units permanently reserved for households earning below the region’s area median income. This marks the first attainable housing investment by Groundwork, previously the Northwest Arkansas workforce housing center.
Dubbed “Big Emma” by its planners, the project is supported by a $6.75 million Walton Family Foundation grant.
Officials announced the project and unveiled the center’s new name Tuesday during the NWA Council’s annual meeting at the Momentary in Bentonville. Founded in 1990 by business leaders, including the founders of Walmart, Tyson Foods and J.B.Hunt, the NWA Council has long focused on economic development and community initiatives.
The council launched the workforce housing center in March 2021 with the goal of providing housing solutions for the region’s critical workforce. Attaining that goal will be challenging, NWA Council President and CEO Nelson Peacock said, because he’s yet to find another city with a blueprint for providing attainable workforce housing in a fast-growing region like Northwest Arkansas.
“It doesn’t exist,” Peacock said. “The only thing we have going for us…is we’re starting early enough in our trajectory that we can make a difference and so that’s going to be the goal of the workforce housing center — making sure that our nurses, our teachers, our firefighters can all live in the communities where they serve.”
Northwest Arkansas has added 36 people per day since April 2020, and it became the 100th largest metro in the United States in 2022, according to U.S. Census data. The region is on pace to reach 600,000 residents by April 2024, Peacock said.
According to a 2019 study funded by the Walton Family Foundation, more than 80,000 families are expected to move to Northwest Arkansas’ four largest cities by 2040. The region would need to build 2,900 units a year by then, but the study found the region averaged only 1,400 units annually from 2010 to 2016.
The study also recommended about half the housing units be appropriated for workforce households.
Economic development has spurred fast-paced population growth; however, many of the region’s workers are often forced to seek housing further away from their jobs due to the rising cost of homes.
The average price of a home in Benton County in the second half of 2022 reached $401,875, nearly 76% higher than five years ago, according to The Skyline Report released in March. In Washington County, the average price was $376,018, 71% higher than five years ago.
“Not only have interest rates made it more difficult for buyers to qualify for a mortgage, but the homes they would potentially purchase are historically expensive and the rental market is historically tight, leaving few housing options for those in our workforce,” Groundwork Executive Director Duke McLarty said.
Affordable housing is an issue across the country, not just in Arkansas. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s annual report, the U.S. has a shortage of 7.3 million rental homes affordable and available to renters with extremely low incomes — at or below either the federal poverty guideline or 30% of their area median income, whichever is greater.
The shortage increased by half a million rental homes between 2019 and 2021 as the number of renters with extremely low incomes increased and the supply of housing affordable to them decreased, according to the report.
However, Arkansas ranks among the top ten states in terms of availability, according to the report, with 47 affordable homes per 100 low income renters. Nevada has the fewest options with 17 homes per 100 renters.
The housing challenges that have historically plagued very low-income families are starting to impact families with more stable incomes, McLarty told the Advocate after Tuesday’s meeting. While Groundwork is focused on Arkansans who make 50% to 100% of the area median income, $46,000 to $92,000 for a family of four, McLarty said everyone deserves to have a home.
“I often think of the housing ecosystem as a ladder, and as folks move up on the housing ladder, they open up something for someone else to move into,” he said. “I think in Northwest Arkansas we’re just missing several of those rungs on the ladder and I think those rungs are this middle income workforce housing space.”
McLarty said direct intervention, including supporting regulatory changes and investing in building below market rate homes, is needed to affect change. McLarty said real estate can move slowly, so he’s excited to see the Springdale project inching closer to breaking ground.
“I hope that it’s like a boulder rolling downhill that now that it’s rolling, similar opportunities will surface and we’ll be able to keep the momentum going,” he said.
The “Big Emma” project is expected to break ground in the coming weeks and McLarty anticipates an 18- to 20-month construction period.
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