New Report: Housing Affordability in Northwest Arkansas 

Northwest Arkansas (NWA) is experiencing a significant and fast paced population growth, and, as a result, housing supply is constrained. A regional approach is needed to sufficiently address this housing crisis and develop a plan to accommodate the population growth throughout the region.  Smart Growth America (SGA) partnered with ULI Northwest (ULI NWA) in a multi-year effort to increase capacity for housing affordability in Northwest Arkansas. Supported by the Walton Family Foundation, the project builds on work the Form-Based Codes Institute at SGA conducted in 2020 with Dover, Kohl & Partners to 1) assess land use policies in the NWA region, and 2) propose recommendations on how to address the most urgent housing challenges the region faces in the coming decades. The results of this regional mindset culminated in the production of a roadmap to address these concerns: Aligned for Affordability: A Roadmap for Local Government Policy and Practice in Northwest Arkansas.

FBCI-SGA and ULI NWA worked together to expand upon the recommendations provided by FBCI-SGA and Dover, Kohl, & Associates by assembling the Northwest Arkansas Planner Community of Practice, which is made up of planning staff across the region’s municipalities. The primary purpose of this Community of Practice was to convene to discuss the regional issues they are facing and develop solutions. The Community of Practice was convened over 18 months—activities included facilitating dialogue among the residential developers in NWA and city and county officials; co-hosted seminars featuring national thought leaders and local housing affordability experts and practitioners; and a two-day workshop to establish priorities and action steps.

Aligned for Affordability: A Roadmap for Local Government Policy and Practice in Northwest Arkansas is the capstone Roadmap explicitly designed to help the region’s city planners take the lead in achieving more attainable housing and livable communities, as well as serve as a national example of how regions can collaborate to develop solutions to housing crises.

Marin County’s Regional Approach to Housing Affordability with Form-Based Codes

FBCI’s 2022 FBCI Form-Based Code Award winner honored Opticos Design, Inc. who collaborated with Marin County to create a Toolkit of Objective Design and Development Standards—an exemplary model of multi-jurisdictional cooperation.

Marin County and its participating jurisdictions worked collaboratively to create a form-based code that encourages much needed housing development, complying with state regulations. The toolkit was the result of careful analysis of over 700 sites in the County that had potential for multi-family housing development and detailed studies of existing placetypes that demonstrated good urban design. Ultimately, jurisdictions will use these standards to create form-based codes that streamline the development process.

By pooling their financial resources, Marin County communities have created a shared form-based coding platform that aligns the county-wide regulatory language and provides more accessible, fair, and transparent ways for guiding development. The toolkit provides a menu of calibrated standards (especially helpful for communities with limited institutional capacity) with options for further customization through place-based approaches. This innovative and design-forward open-source toolkit provides a clear path for communities to confidently move away from time-consuming review processes, facilitate greater housing capacity and diversity, and achieve higher design quality outcomes.

The Marin County form-based code and its exemplary inter-jurisdictional approach provide promising new ways for regions across the U.S. to cut through restrictive regulations and complicated approval processes that limit housing supply and increase housing costs.


Key takeaways

Aligned for Affordability: A Roadmap for Local Government Policy and Practice in Northwest Arkansas (the Roadmap) outlines strategies and provides an array of tools and policies for the city planners of Northwest Arkansas to address the steadily rising land values and construction costs the region is facing, as well as the rapidly growing population (the NWA metropolitan area population is projected to nearly double from 2022 to 2045). The Roadmap addresses the barriers to increasing housing supply and provides strategies to overcome those barriers; for example, restrictive zoning and time-intensive permitting processes can be addressed by adopting form-based coding elements.

Check out the Roadmap

The recommendations in the Roadmap—which include innovative “Checklists for Change” and lists of resources to help outline next steps for policy advances—incorporate planners’ insights from a two-day workshop and address the rapid growth pushing housing production to the suburban edges of cities, where public infrastructure, service, and amenities are limited or non-existent. The Checklists for Change are innovative because they provide explicit instructions and a list of actions that planners need to follow to implement these strategies; potentially eliminating the friction of “not knowing where to start” that can hamper housing affordability activities.

The Roadmap centers around three goals:

  1. Increase the supply of affordably-priced, market-rate housing
  2. Ensure that affordably-priced housing is close to jobs, services, and amenities
  3. Make it easy to do the right thing

Achieving these goals will also help improve transportation choices, enhance public health, and address environmental protection, as offering diverse housing in walkable neighborhoods creates well-connected street networks that are vital to encouraging more walking and biking and to reduce car-dependency.

Taking into account current housing conditions and market demand in Bentonville, Fayetteville, Rogers, and Springdale, the Roadmap acknowledges that all NWA communities must address housing issues together, as aligned approaches are more powerful. For example, the Roadmap lists measures that NWA local governments can take to incentivize more diverse housing options and lower development costs, for example, allowing more by-right development and less discretionary review in the zoning code and eliminating downtown parking minimums that require a certain number of parking spaces per dwelling. And when communities adopt these measures in a coordinated effort, it is more consistent for developers, making the process easier and more efficient to deliver diverse housing types.

The Aligned for Affordability roadmap is an example of the type of work that FBCI-SGA can support within your community to adopt sustainable and equitable land use policies that allow for healthy economic growth, more attainable housing, and more livable places. Contact [email protected] if you’re interested in exploring SGA’s technical assistance offerings to find solutions that may work for your jurisdiction.

How a regional approach can be applied to other contexts

FBCI-SGA and ULI NWA partnered to take a regional approach to planning in Northwest Arkansas for the preservation of and increased production of affordably-priced market-rate housing in neighborhoods with convenient access to jobs, services, and amenities that promote a variety of transportation options.

Through organized collaboration, participants of the Northwest Arkansas Planner Community of Practice were able to discuss priorities, alignment with other regional plans, and how to make zoning consistent across the region by developing common terminology and drafting model ordinances. Taking a regional approach can help communities create space for talking through potential challenges and barriers of creating quality places, such as political and economic implications, leveraging resources, administrative hurdles, and community buy-in.

“A regionally coordinated approach to growth and development is especially important for fast-growing areas … particularly in a region like Northwest Arkansas where there is not one core jurisdiction, but 31 individually governed municipalities in a two-county area.”

Communities interested in taking a regional approach to addressing housing challenges should consider engaging in dialogue with key decision makers, such as planning commissions, city councils, and mayors, as well as other city staff and developers. Coming together to learn about the housing and transportation needs, opportunities, strategies, and tools for a regional growth plan for decades to come can support your community’s continued growth of livable places.

Read the Roadmap Here