Lone director casts vote against city’s proposed affordable housing plan

A file photo of the front of Hot Springs City Hall as seen from Convention Boulevard. - File photo by The Sentinel-Record
A file photo of the front of Hot Springs City Hall as seen from Convention Boulevard. - File photo by The Sentinel-Record

District 4 Director Carroll Weatherford said he won't pay out-of-state consultants $63,550 to tell the city what it already knows.

He cast the lone vote Tuesday night against the resolution hiring RKG Associates Inc. to develop an affordable housing strategy for Hot Springs. The city's general fund will pay for half of the work, with Community Development Block Grant funds the city receives as one of more than 1,200 U.S. Housing and Urban Development entitlement cities picking up the other half.

Weatherford told the Hot Springs Board of Directors the city can take steps to expand housing access without hiring consultants. Reducing minimum lot sizes in areas zoned for residential use is one step, he said, allowing more units to be built on a parcel and maximizing builder profits.

He got the resolution moved from the consent agenda to new business, allowing it to be debated Tuesday night.

"I've seen all the studies we've paid for," Weatherford, who owns a construction company, told the board. "They come in and tell us something and a lot of it doesn't come to fruition. I would hate for us to pay them $65,000, and they come in and tell us the very same thing I'm telling you right now. I can't vote for this."

Mayor Pat McCabe said RKG's strategies could be novel to the city and its policymakers. Expanding affordable housing is one of five goals the board established for 2023 at its midyear planning session in August.

"When I read the proposal it was much broader than what you're suggesting," he told Weatherford. "These are things I think outside consultants have a better handle on and a better understanding and how it's been applied in other communities and what works and what doesn't work. We don't need to go down a path and trip and fall when we can receive the appropriate guidance."

RKG will be one of two firms doing work related to the city's zoning code. The board awarded a $229,000 contract to Camiros Ltd. of Chicago in July to implement the long-range land use plan Design Workshop of Austin, Texas, was hired to write in 2019 for $274,870.

Weatherford told the board the city failed to show how RKG's work will differ from other consulting work the city has commissioned. He said suggestions should've been solicited from a panel of local developers, builders and lenders before a consultant was hired.

Planning and Development Director Kathy Sellman told the board the strategic plan isn't another study. She said the firm will provide an "actionable road map and unified vision" for housing in the near term and over the next 20 years. The timeline RKG submitted calls for strategies and recommendations to be made in March, with the final product delivered in April.

"This is different from other plans we've done in the past and presents something that represents a commitment by our city to do certain things," Sellman said. " ... This is to help assess the feasibility of different strategies to get us pointed in a direction where housing is available for all of the people in Hot Springs that would like to have access to housing. That is an enormous task."

The lack of affordable housing has complicated efforts to find an operator for the resource center/shelter for homeless people the city has talked about building with its American Rescue Plan Act allocation. The city has said tight housing and rental markets have made local nonprofits reluctant to commit resources to the proposed facility.

"They have identified the main issue affecting their ability to end homelessness in Hot Springs is a lack of housing into which homeless individuals can transition," Sellman told the board. "Providing more affordable decent rooms, more houses, more apartments in the city will only improve the city's response to homelessness."

Weatherford asked if RKG was tasked to address homelessness or the lack of affordable housing, two issues District 5 Director Karen Garcia said are related. She told the board families evicted from long-term rentals after their landlords converted the properties into vacation rentals have been unable to find housing.

According to court records, about 140 civil evictions have been filed in Garland County Circuit Court since the start of the year, roughly the same amount as all of last year and doubling the numbers from 2018 and 2019.

"They couldn't find other housing to go to," Garcia told the board. "That creates trauma for them and their children. They're working people trying to do the best they can, and they can't find a place to live."

Sellman said housing for workers in the city's tourism and hospitality industries is at a premium. A report the board received in August from the city's Community Development Block Grant administrator said the $807 fair market rent for a two-bedroom home in Hot Springs makes it difficult for renters to save money for a down payment on a home.

According to the 2020 census, 46.4% of the city's housing units aren't owner-occupied. The national average is 35.6%.

"Affordable places are unavailable to rent or purchase, or what is available and affordable is not the kind of housing people need," Sellman told the board. "Neighborhoods that are safe, walkable, near transit and with other life necessities nearby are unavailable, especially for people who rent."

She said RKG's strategic plan will advance fair housing and equal opportunity, which HUD requires from its entitlement cities. The obligation includes an Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice. The city's 2018 analysis identified the poor condition of area rental stock as the top impediment.

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