Feb 21, 2024 - News

Bentonville teacher-housing project in limbo

Illustration of a key suspended in mid-air by pieces of taught red tape.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

An attainable-housing project designed in part to help Bentonville Public Schools employees afford to live in the city has been delayed at least a year — if it still happens at all.

Driving the news: The City Council voted 4-3 last week against rezoning 7.8 acres of land on Southeast J Street from office and public/semipublic to medium-density residential. The school district owns the land.

Even if the district appeals the decision and the council approves it, it'll be too late for the nonprofit planning to build and operate the housing to apply for a low-income housing tax credit from the federal government, Excellerate Foundation president and CEO Jeff Webster told Axios. The deadline is March 4.

What they're saying: "We're confused on how the City Council can vote no to a simple zoning request that is voted by the Planning Commission and presented favorably by the planning department," Webster told Axios, noting that the land borders property of the same density requested.

The other side: Some City Council members expressed concerns over possible flooding and questioned whether residents had been given enough opportunity to weigh in.

  • Council members Gayatri Agnew, Chris Sooter and Bill Burckart voted in favor. Beckie Seba, Octavio Sanchez, Holly Hook and Cindy Acree voted against. Aubrey Patterson, a Bentonville teacher, abstained.

The big picture: Housing costs have skyrocketed in NWA in the past few years, with the median price of a single-family home rising 55% from 2019 to $328,400 in 2023. Residents had to earn 48% more in 2022 than just a year earlier to afford a median-value home.

  • Bentonville schools have had people turn down jobs because they can't afford to live near where they work.

Background: More than 1,000 school district employees on a single income would be eligible to apply to live in the proposed housing, superintendent Debbie Jones told the City Council at its meeting last week.

  • Excellerate's work in housing has largely focused on people who perform necessary jobs in NWA who are at risk of being pushed out because they don't qualify for most federally funded housing but can't afford market rates.

Details: The proposed project is to include 100 units, 40 of which would be designated for Bentonville Public Schools employees. The others would be for people whose household income is $27,000 to $75,000.

  • The planned units are a mix of multifamily and single-family homes —some for rent and others for purchase.
  • Rent for a two-bedroom dwelling would be $750 a month. NWA apartments rent for $1,214 on average, according to RentCafe. The project would offer those who want to purchase a program to make it easier to afford, including no down payment or closing costs.
  • Project cost is estimated at $25 million. The nonprofit would cover $5 million and expects $10 million in federal tax credits. The remaining $10 million would come from philanthropy and loans.

What's next: Webster said Excellerate is weighing its options.

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