More than 40% of the vacant residential land in the four major Northwest Arkansas cities disappeared in the span of a decade, records show.
That has increased the cost of land and construction in the region. Now, vacant land available for development typically lies on the edges of the major cities and within smaller cities.
The number of vacant residential parcels in Fayetteville dropped 30% from 2010-20, according to the Washington County assessor's office.
Fayetteville had 4,149 vacant residential parcels in 2010 and 2,886 in 2020. Springdale had 1,730 such parcels in 2010 and by 2020 had 928, a 46% decrease.
In Benton County, Rogers went from 3,255 vacant parcels in 2010 to 1,733 in 2020, a 47% decrease. Bentonville saw a 54% decrease, with 3,610 parcels in 2010 and 1,669 in 2020.
The numbers are eye-popping, although there is nuance with the data.
Jonathan Curth, development services director in Fayetteville, said the way parcels are drawn up for tax purposes may not accurately reflect a land's use. For instance, Walker Park in Fayetteville was platted as a subdivision years ago, but the housing was never built. Sometimes empty land is not reflected as a vacant parcel in county records, he said.
Also, Fayetteville may have a lower-percentage drop in vacant residential land compared with the other cities because of large farms at the city's edges, Curth said. Many of those properties are owned by longtime families that have no intention of developing them, he said.
Fayetteville's decrease in vacant land may also indicate the degree of success the city has had in encouraging infill development, Curth said.
For homebuyers, the cost of the land usually accounts for about 30% of a home's sale price, and the market varies widely in Northwest Arkansas, said Sterling Hamilton, a real estate broker with Cushman & Wakefield/Sage Partners in Rogers.
New homes cost an average of $258,273 in Springdale, according to the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. In Fayetteville, it's $265,026.
Schools serve as one of several factors contributing to the market value of land, and subsequently homes, Hamilton said.
Last year, U.S. News & World Report named Haas Hall Academy in Fayetteville and Fayetteville High School the No. 2 and No. 4 high schools in the state, respectively. That makes living in Fayetteville more desirable.
But several factors affect land prices.
Some cities have more stringent zoning and development regulations than others. Topography plays a role. Having to build utility connections such as water and sewer can drive up land costs. Intangible factors, such as the perception of a place, also affect land prices, Hamilton said.
All of the four major cities in the region have comprehensive maps to guide their development and provide "affordable" housing as a way to keep working-class people from moving to the outskirts where housing prices are lower.
Curth said Fayetteville has taken some indirect steps toward that goal, including zoning to increase residential density and allow for different types of homes to be built.
"That's kind of working on a macroeconomic theory of supply and demand," he said. "If we're not making the potential for more supply, then demand is going to stay the same, and prices are going to continue to go up. If we increase the potential for supply, then demand could be adequately met or overly met and potentially drive costs down."
Fayetteville's 2040 plan calls for several measures to support affordable housing. The city wants to set a numerical target to define affordability, for instance.
The federal government defines affordable housing as costing no more than 30% of a household's income for mortgages or rents and the cost of utilities. The Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago defines attainable housing as combined housing and transportation costs not exceeding 45% of a household's income -- 30% for housing and 15% for transportation expenses.
Other measures in Fayetteville's plan include identifying new revenue sources to help build affordable housing and removing city regulatory barriers that prevent affordable housing development. The city also wants to create a database of affordable units for prospective homebuyers and renters, as well as a list of easily accessible incentives for developers.
Springdale updates its land-use plan every two years. Its plan doesn't specifically address affordability, but it promotes a variety of housing types and densities in different parts of the city, said Patsy Christie, planning director.
The Springdale City Council recently adopted a zoning code that allows flexibility on lot sizes and placement of buildings closer to streets, for instance, Christie said.
Rogers' comprehensive growth map identifies three regional centers for commercial and higher-density residential development.
It also designates more than 20 areas near major intersections for commercial uses surrounded by medium-density residential for such development as townhomes or courtyard houses.
The plan seeks to maintain low-density residential areas -- up to six units an acre -- in some regions, while allowing more dense residential development in other areas, said John McCurdy, the city's community development director.
"What we've done is try to open the aperture as wide as it can be to create as much opportunity to increase the housing stock in Rogers as we responsibly can," McCurdy said.
Bentonville's plans have stated goals to support affordability and create development opportunities. Its plan seeks to increase density in certain areas as a way to reduce land costs per unit. The land-use map shows medium- to high-density residential in and near downtown, as well as near Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
One of the city's goals is to provide diversified housing so people can live there their whole lives, said Tyler Overstreet, planning services manager. A young professional may want to move to the city and live in a studio apartment downtown. As that person starts a family, there are plenty of options for single-family homes in the city. When the person downsizes later in life, there will be smaller homes, townhomes or condominiums close to services.
"By providing for a variety of housing options, it can allow people to become a part of the community at a variety of price points," he said.
The Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission often helps area cities develop land-use and growth plans. It uses its own projections on density and population to guide cities on where and what kind of development they should plan for, said Tim Conklin, assistant director.
There is no overall inventory of available land in the region.
Cities should inventory their existing affordable housing and work to prevent those units from disappearing, said Ed McMahon, senior resident fellow with the Urban Land Institute in Washington.
That will help planners advise on what types of new residential development a city needs, he said. Developers in growing regions typically build large and expensive single-family homes or luxury condominiums or apartments that are on the expensive side, he said.
Those types of residential developments typically are the most profitable and pop up in areas where land costs are high, he said. Cities have to get creative to address the "missing middle" -- smaller complexes, duplexes through quadplexes, and townhomes, he said.
One option for cities is the redevelopment of commercial properties. Shopping malls or big-box stores can be converted to housing. Hotels or motels that have gone out of business also can be redeveloped to provide affordable options, he said.
Bill Burckart, a developer and Bentonville City Council member, said it's time for the region to think outside the box. It needs to find an affordable housing solution to retain the workforce it needs to grow.
It's cheaper to build housing than to build roads, he said.