When I ask people who live and work in Northwest Arkansas what they love about this region, some common answers top the list.
A thriving economy with expanding opportunity. Abundant access to trails and the natural beauty of the Ozarks. High-quality schools. A growing, increasingly diverse entrepreneurial sector. Vibrant and inclusive cultural spaces.
It’s a place people want to be – and feel they belong. Those are also the reasons I am raising my family here.
But as I listen to my friends and neighbors, I also hear concerns about the costs of living in a rapidly growing region that is consistently ranked among the nation’s best places.
Because of rising land, construction and home values in Northwest Arkansas, the region we love is becoming increasingly unaffordable for people to find well-located, quality housing. People are looking farther and farther out from our downtowns, our high-opportunity neighborhoods and our workplaces to find housing that fits their budget.
In turn, that is driving up the cost of transportation and making it more expensive for residents to get to the places they work, learn and find community with each other. If you don’t own a car, your challenges (and costs) are magnified by a lack of transportation alternatives.
Here’s a few sobering facts.
According to the National Association of Realtors, the median price of single-family homes in Northwest Arkansas grew faster year over year than any other place in the country. The H + T Index, which measures affordability based on both housing and transportation costs, places Northwest Arkansas above the national benchmark.
A 2019 study showed that more than 80% of Northwest Arkansas residents want more and better-funded public transportation options, underscoring demand for something better.
What’s the impact of these challenges? And why do they matter?
Housing and transportation are, on average, the two largest household costs faced by every household in America. As families in Northwest Arkansas spend more just to put a roof over their head and get to work, they have less to spend on things like childcare, food, healthcare and the recreational and cultural activities that improve quality of life.
What hurts individuals in a community inevitably hurts the health of the broader community.
Rising housing and transportation costs have the greatest impact on low and moderate-income families. Simply put, that's most people in the region. It’s our workforce. Firefighters. Police officers. Librarians. Teachers. Public sectors workers. Folks in the hospitality industry.
True inclusion depends on peoples’ ability to have an affordable place to live and the ability to move freely within the region – and access everything it has to offer.
At the Walton Family Foundation, we’re committed to helping make Northwest Arkansas one of the most inclusive places in the nation. But true inclusion depends on peoples’ ability to have an affordable place to live and the ability to move freely within the region – and access everything it has to offer.
The foundation believes the challenges can be solved by actively listening to the communities we serve. We want to better understand from residents what Northwest Arkansas needs – and hear their ideas for solutions. That means listening to community leaders and organizations working to solve these challenges.
We’re listening. And we want to lead, together, on solutions that make diverse, affordable housing and transportation accessible to all.
It also means listening to longtime residents – people who raised their family here but whose children can’t afford to purchase a home. And to newcomers facing the same problems.
For example, the foundation has funded efforts by Community Development NWA to learn what best-in-class, affordable housing looks like in downtown Bentonville. As part of this work, the nonprofit is conducting a series of listening sessions and community meetings to hear from residents about affordability and how to develop the “missing middle housing” that the city needs.
The foundation also helped launch Groundwork, a new organization focused on workforce housing for Northwest Arkansas. The organization founded much of its work on a series of community listening sessions. Groundwork heard from residents about a growing lack of access to housing at every level, a desire not to get priced out of housing close to downtowns and amenities, and the fear of growing commute times.
The organization is working on best planning practices with cities across the region, bringing housing experts to the region for educational lectures and building out financing strategies to bring more affordable housing to the region.
Partners for Better Housing is doing deep engagement with potential first-time homebuyers to build credit and confidence as they explore homeownership and other wealth-building strategies like shared equity.
Municipalities across the region are also removing obstacles to housing creation, like allowing more accessory dwelling units or “backyard cottages.” These units provide homes for single residents, students or aging parents and family members.
We believe there’s a growing consensus, too, for a coordinated regional approach to infrastructure that embraces and enables multiple forms of transportation.
People across Northwest Arkansas want to walk places. They want to be able to bike. They want to ride transit.
To that end, the foundation has supported efforts by the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission to create a Safe Streets for All regional plan.
We’re also working with several cities to ensure more equitable access and use of bike lanes, and on projects that make it easier for people to walk in their communities.
The best way to bring these ideas to life is through deep, inclusive community engagement and collaboration. We’re listening – and we want to lead, together on solutions that make diverse, affordable housing and transportation accessible to all.