Leaders jettison city’s chance to join affordable housing development

Bentonville city councilwoman Beckie Seba thinks government investment in affordable housing is “socialism.”

After lengthly monologues imbued with shallow compassion and self-defensiveness, council members voted down a proposal for the city to join a workforce housing project by a vote of 5-3.

On November 28, municipal leaders took up whether or not Bentonville should pay impact fees for a development known as McAuley Place. The program is run by the group Excellerate, who moved forward with the understanding that Bentonville would cover the impact fees.

Before the final vote, councilwoman Seba said that the issue of affordable housing is susceptible to “emotional manipulation” and that she opposes the proposal based on ideological reasons. Seba is a realtor in the area.

“Does the city belong in the [affordable housing] space or are we heading into socialism with these projects? … I have to stand firm on my personal beliefs.” 

Bentonville City Council Member Beckie Seba

Two years ago the city formed a housing work group consisting of citizens, stakeholders, and council members. It was tasked with determining how the city should address exorbitant housing costs and shortages.

The city’s planning commission gave Excellerate the green light to move ahead with the Southeast Bentonville project, in which Mercy Health and Strategic Realty are also partners. Excellerate has worked to dramatically lower development costs for one reason: keep expenses at a bare minimum so future McAuley tenants can pay the lowest rent possible. The project aims to offer rent that’s $800 cheaper than market price for the region.

The group’s recommendations are timely; Bentonville is one of the most expensive cities in Arkansas for housing, with average home prices hovering at half a million dollars. Sky high prices means those in certain industries, like public safety or education, can no longer afford to live where they work. The McAuley project will provide affordable workforce housing for residents who need it most.

Earlier this fall, the council passed a resolution that affirmed the working group’s findings:

  1. Affordable housing was a critical need for the city; and
  2. The council should consider ways to alleviate the crisis — like covering impact fees for McAuley.

The latter would have created the city’s first public-private, affordable housing partnership. Note that Bentonville has never had a designated body to provide affordable government housing.

But at the November 28th meeting, the majority of the council waffled. Seba’s socialism comment was out of touch. Another member pontificated about how no one cares more about people than her; she voted no. The mayor was defensive and veered off course to harp about angry constituents and FOIA requests.

Members rejected the proposal despite the nominal $180,000 price tag and Bentonville’s current budget surplus. Republican State Senator Jim Petty tried to convince the council members to do right by residents, arguing that it’s sound fiscal policy to prioritize affordable housing for a city’s workforce, but nay-voting members were unmovable.

Savvy residents will read between the lines. Do leaders want Bentonville housing to remain unobtainable to certain people and families?

For the record, affordable government housing is not socialist. Some council members may believe it’s not the role of government to provide housing and that the private market will right every wrong. But there is good reason affordable housing has been part of American public policy for over 85 years, which is notably older than McCarthyism. Maybe someone should relay this to councilwoman Seba.