Local residents are battling rising housing prices as the population in Northwest Arkansas continues to grow.
The total population across the four major NWA cities is expected to increase by 80,000 households by 2040, according to the Walton Family Foundation. Amid population and economic growth, housing prices in NWA have risen. Median rents increased 1-13% in three of the major cities between 2011 and 2016, and the median price of for-sale homes rose 15-43% according to the Walton Family Foundation.
Jacob Queen, 29, a Tokyo resident, moved to Japan in March 2020 to escape housing costs in NWA.
Queen lived in east Texas, Denver and Seoul, South Korea during his five years in the U.S. Army. His parents moved to NWA in 2018, and after Queen finished serving, he came to Fayetteville to look for a place to settle, he said in an email. NWA housing costs are among the worst Queen has seen, he said.
“I worked several months in NWA while trying to figure something out while staying with my family,” Queen said. “Eventually, I just felt like I had no options to survive in NWA and didn’t want to be a burden on my family.”
Queen received an offer to work at a U.S. Department of Defense navy base in Tokyo as a civilian employee and accepted. He pays $550 in rent per month for a house one mile from his work and the Tokyo subway, he said.
“Here my income and taxes are about the same, but my rent is much lower (than NWA),” Queen said. “I also don’t have to worry about getting a car, paying for gas, insurance, and other fees.”
In 2019, the average median rent across the four major NWA cities was $857.25, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The median value of a house was $192,275.
Kevin Fitzpatrick, university professor of sociology and the director of the UA Community and Family Institute, has studied housing insecurity and found that a major contributor to the housing affordability crisis is lack of housing as a whole, he said. The multi-family home vacancy rate in NWA was 5% in the latter half of 2020, according to the Skyline Report.
“Regardless of what price point you're looking at, the housing stock in the region is relatively low,” Fitzpatrick said. “So, entry into that is really difficult at any level… Affordable housing, in terms of the way we think about access, is so limited for a particular group of people, and the ones that I think are being hit the hardest are the working poor.”
Tiffany Nelson, 42, a Siloam Springs resident, has lived with her parents since 2015 when she became unable to afford her rent.
In 2008, she was working toward an associates degree in Liberal Arts from Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville. As a single mother of three, Nelson was determined to complete her education and provide a good example for her kids, she said.
Nelson and her kids moved while she was in school to a house in Siloam Springs with a monthly rent of $430, subsidized through Section 8 Rental Housing, she said. When she started receiving child support, the rent increased to more than $700 a month, she said.
To qualify as affordable housing, the cost of a monthly rent or mortgage payment should not exceed 30% of household income, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. For low-income households, there are 66 affordable units available per 100 people in NWA, and there are 33 units per 100 people for extremely low-income households, according to the Walton Family Foundation.
“Not only are we looking at the issue of the cost of living alone but also the transportation to move back and forth between place of work and where they live,” Fitzpatrick said. “That is an additional burden.”
The average work commute time in NWA’s four major cities — Fayetteville, Rogers, Springdale and Bentonville — was 17.8 minutes in 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. For Nelson, the drive to NWACC was more than 40 minutes one way, she said.
“I really tried to do it, but with the money, driving back and forth and having to pay for books and classes, it just got to be too expensive,” Nelson said. “I just ran out of money.”
Nelson receives social security disability insurance and working a full-time job would be too taxing on her body, she said. While getting her degree, her disability income was supplemented by child support, food stamps and Arkansas Rehabilitation Services, a program that helps disabled Arkansans prepare for the workforce or pay for their education, she said.
After her ex-husband did not pay child support for a few months, Nelson started relying on her credit card, but she eventually moved in with her parents in 2015, she said.
“My credit card bills were racking up,” Nelson said. “I’m still paying it off now, and it just got to the point where I couldn’t do it anymore. I had to go back home.”
Nelson was in and out of school until she graduated in 2018. However, Nelson does not think she will be able to move out of her parents’ home unless housing prices fall, she said.
Until more comprehensive plans are established, housing affordability will continue to worsen, Fitzpatrick said.
“I just think that we are going to continue to exacerbate what we already have,” Fitzpatrick said. “We are going to see heightened levels of housing insecurity and homelessness, increased transportation costs, and see people move further and further away from their place of employment.”