Opinion

OPINION | GREG HARTON: When it comes to affordable housing, what people earn makes a difference, too

One of this newspaper's editorials on Page 2-H today provides perspective on an effort to develop so-called "affordable" housing in Bentonville that seems to have gone down in flames last week, thanks to four members of the Bentonville City Council.

Of course, affordable in generic use is a relative term. What's affordable to Doug McMillon, who reported making $24.1 million in fiscal 2023 as Walmart's CEO, is starkly different than what's affordable to the local firefighter or police officer he would call if there was some kind of emergency. I'm not saying the jobs are equivalent. But it is pretty important that every community has housing available and affordable to workers making all kinds of salaries.

The truth is, affordability isn't just a function of the price of a home. More on that later.

I remember visiting last year with a individual who was working on the issue of affordable housing in Northwest Arkansas. It was a great conversation about the myriad ways being dreamed up to build so-called "workforce" housing, whether it's construction using prefabricated components or custom "printing" a home in just a matter of days by dispensing concrete through a pre-programmed robotic arm. There are a lot of innovative ideas, but from a financial perspective, I can't fault developers for being drawn to whatever methods and home sizes produce for them the most profit.

Encouraging developers to switch to affordable housing construction is going to take some external influence. It's not unlike the enticements the federal government uses to energize, so to speak, the electric vehicle market. Eventually, as more people enter that market, prices will become more affordable, but to get there, public policy has to provide some encouragement.

Fayetteville has devoted considerable time and energy to addressing its shortage of affordable housing, though it has a long way to go just like all the other communities. Its leadership seems to approach the issue with a bit more urgency than others. It has developed one program, under consideration by the City Council, in which the city will offer to provide preapproved house designs and regulatory incentives to developers. By reducing the up-front costs to developers, the hope is resultant prices for those homes will also be reduced. Voila, affordable housing! Or at least, more affordable.

Back to that conversation I had: After all the discussion about mechanisms to make housing more affordable, I asked about the responsibility of employers, whose success can at least partly be credited with making Northwest Arkansas attractive to people who live or lived elsewhere. Don't they have a role in making housing more affordable by paying employees better salaries, especially on the lower end of their pay scales?

My conversation partner declined to engage on the subject, which was understandable. He's in the business of promoting affordable housing, not telling companies how much they should pay employees. Fair enough.

I was intrigued, though, the other day by Fayetteville Mayor Lioneld Jordan's comments as he formalized his run for a new term. He faces opposition from Molly Rawn, who heads Fayetteville's Advertising and Promotion Commission and its tourism bureau, Experience Fayetteville.

"When we talk about affordable housing, I think we need to look at living wages," Jordan said. "Instead of building cheapskate houses for cheapskate wages, let's raise the wages so that everybody can afford a good house."

That's probably enough to make an economist's head explode. But I can't say Jordan's off the mark.

Northwest Arkansas' image as the land of milk and honey paved with golden streets can't last long if people can't find decent housing at an affordable cost. The region cannot afford to become a world of haves and have nots, any more so than it already is.

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