Get Social

Neighbors Shape the Conversation On Housing in Northwest Arkansas

September 28, 2021
Keaton Smith
Partners for Better Housing is expanding sustainable, mixed-income housing to build inclusive communities

Sometimes, making a difference in your community is as simple as showing up.

For me, it’s a journey that began in 2008. As a recent graduate of the University of Arkansas, I had a serious interest in sustainability, and when newly-elected Mayor Lioneld Jordan announced the Fayetteville Forward Summit, a series of community visioning sessions to chart out the future direction of the city, I was encouraged.

Northwest Arkansas was home to major global corporations, many of which had made commitments to sustainability. And while smaller and less well-known than larger coastal cities, I knew we could play an outsized role in solving one of the great global challenges of the 21st century.

Keaton Smith. Partners for Better Housing
Keaton Smith, board chair of Partners for Better Housing, with Tenisha Gist (right),
manager of stewardship, safety & trust, and Tiffany Hudson, director of real estate and construction.

I participated in a listening session with my neighbors, brainstorming about what a more sustainable future could look like for Northwest Arkansas. It was a transformative moment for me, knowing that my ideas - my input - mattered.

As board chair of Partners for Better Housing, I bring a collaborative mindset to work every day, knowing that some of our best ideas often come straight from the community.

Partners for Better Housing is a nonprofit housing developer that sees neighborhood design as a foundational building block to creating community. Currently, our group is developing the 80-home Willow Bend in diverse Southeast Fayetteville, an attainable, walkable and sustainably built neighborhood designed explicitly to bring people together.

The research is clear: mixed income communities lead to the development of more social capital. To achieve this at Willow Bend and any future developments, our plans encourage interaction among neighbors. Rather than driving into a garage, residents park on the street. Instead of isolated backyards, homes have large, welcoming front porches and communal green space. To put homeownership in reach for residents with a broad range of income levels, we’ve created the Pay it Forward program, which offers assistance for homebuyers with modest incomes through reduced purchase prices and shared equity.

If we want newly developed neighborhoods to reflect the broader community, we have to set more realistic goals on what all residents can afford.

We’ve already built several homes and we're excited to demonstrate this proof-of-concept and continue scaling up.

But to see these types of developments truly come to life will take more community buy-in. Throughout the development process, we’ve received vital input from our neighbors through focus groups, tours and more.

While they like the idea of a mixed-income community and traditional neighborhood design, leaders from communities of color have also illuminated some of our blind spots. In Northwest Arkansas, the median income for Black households is 61% that of white households. It’s a reminder that if we want newly developed neighborhoods to reflect the broader community, we have to set more realistic goals on what all residents can afford.

To lead this ongoing outreach effort, we hired Tenisha Gist as our first manager of stewardship, safety and trust. A former director of a local community center in Southeast Fayetteville, Tenisha is not only helping us spread the word through her extensive local contacts, but painting a fuller picture of what our community wants and needs to make this project a success for everyone who calls this place home.

As Northwest Arkansas continues to grow, I know from first-hand experience just how powerful community-led change can be. Not only does it instill in individuals a greater sense of agency over the type of future they want to build, but it also creates more successful, lasting solutions for the greatest challenges of our day. At Partners for Better Housing, we are grateful for those who continue to show up, ready to shape new kinds of housing opportunity.

Partners for Better Housing is a Walton Family Foundation grantee.

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