Oct 28, 2022 - News

NWA's boom demands bold planning, experts say

Illustration of a door knocker in the shape of a dollar sign

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Northwest Arkansas' economy is growing, and its skyrocketing home prices — an increase of about 75% in Benton and Washington counties in the past five years — have some community leaders warning the region needs to build more housing and strategically plan for the burgeoning population.

Driving the news: The Northwest Arkansas Council published its annual state of the region report and hosted a luncheon to discuss it Thursday in Fayetteville. The report gives an overview of the region's economy in comparison to six similar metropolitan areas, such as Austin and Des Moines.

  • Mervin Jebaraj, director at the University of Arkansas' Center for Business and Economic Research, and Rick Cole, executive director of Washington, D.C.-based Congress for the New Urbanism, spoke.

By the numbers: NWA saw 7,500 new jobs between 2019 and 2021, and its median household income grew 16.4% to $71,767, the fastest-growing median income of any of the other six metropolitan areas, according to the report. The poverty rate also fell from 12.6% to 9.8%.

  • Yes, but: NWA still has the lowest median income compared to the other metros, which Jebaraj and Cole attributed in part to a lower rate of people with college degrees.

Yes, and: The median home price of existing single-family homes increased by about 33% between 2019 and 2021 to $271,200. Typically, NWA residents spent 52% of their income on housing and transportation.

Context: Jebaraj said part of the reason NWA has seen an increase in home prices is because people from the coasts moved to the area during the pandemic, and, simultaneously, not enough new housing was built.

What they're saying: Nelson Peacock, president and CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council, said the region will have a hard time preserving the kind of community people love if people like teachers and first responders can't afford to live here.

  • Cole recommended eliminating conventional zoning, which generally separates types of housing, commercial areas, etc. and has historically been used to segregate Black and white people.
  • Instead, cities should opt for form-based zoning that allows them to establish walkable, bikeable neighborhoods with various types of housing, businesses and green space, he said. Leaders should also involve the public in planning.

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