Housing crisis task force won’t include any new members

(Flyer photo/File)

FAYETTEVILLE — If the Housing Crisis Task Force wants to focus on renters, it will need to form a subcommittee to address the issue.

The City Council on Tuesday voted 5-3 to reject a proposal that would have required Mayor Lioneld Jordan to select two new members from the renter community – something he said he was hesitant to do at this point.

The proposal, sponsored by council members D’Andre Jones and Sarah Moore, came after residents criticized the current makeup of the task force.

Jordan last month appointed nine community members to the newly-created task force, which is charged with recommending strategies for increasing the supply of housing and exploring innovative ways to address housing insecurity. The members include Josh Carson, Tommie Flowers Davis, Bo Diamond, Henry Ho, Jessica Lewallyn, Eleanor Parizek, Robert Sharp, Keaton Smith and Nick Thorn.

Moore explained her reasoning for co-sponsoring the proposal by drawing a parallel to institutional review boards used in clinical research. She said those types of groups include not only experts but also a lay person from the target population to ensure proper representation and ethical decision-making.

Councilmember Bob Stafford said he saw the discussion about the task force blow up on Facebook after someone discovered that all the members are homeowners. He said he found it surprising, given the city’s large renter population, that none of the members turned out to be renters.

Stafford said he spoke with some task force members who expressed concerns about the group’s legitimacy due to the lack of renter representation, and said he agreed that it’s important to have someone on the board who can speak from personal experience as a renter.

“I could be the most understanding person in the world and have great empathy and I could know the subject, but the one thing I can’t do, and I don’t believe any of us could do is speak from somebody else’s lived experience,” said Stafford.

Mayor Jordan said he was uncomfortable selecting any new members for several reasons. For starters, he said that he followed the original ordinance language closely in making his appointments, and also chose five members recommended by council members and three that were recommended by Arkansas Renters United (see below).

Note: After this story was published, Billy Cook with Arkansas Renters United contacted the Flyer to say that ARU did not send the recommendations, rather they were sent by the Fayetteville Housing Action Coalition. And while ARU is a part of the coalition that submitted recommendations from various member groups, ARU did not exclusively offer all the recommendations.

After his initial appointments, Jordan said he received numerous specific requests from residents regarding the type of renter that should be added to the group.

“Some said ‘Mayor, you should select a student renter because the majority of the renters in this city are students,'” he said. “Others said ‘Are you going to pick a veteran? Are they going to be single? Is it going to be a man or is it going to be a woman?'”

Jordan said the influx of opinions makes him cautious to appoint any further members without clear parameters, and expressed concerns about another potential backlash and accusations of favoritism if he were to pick the new members without reopening the application process. Tuesday’s proposal called for selecting the new members from the existing list of 99 applicants, but the application they submitted did not include a question asking whether they were renters or homeowners.

Jordan said that if additional members were to be added, the council should make the selections themselves to ensure fairness and transparency.

Councilmember Scott Berna said he can’t support adding any new members to the task force, partially because the organization that initially helped author the resolution to form the task force had their recommendations accepted, with three of their suggested members now sitting on the board.

“So I struggle with them now coming back and saying that renters are not being recognized,” said Berna. “If that were the fact, then why did they make the recommendations of the three people that are on the task force?”

Berna warned against “governing by Facebook,” and said he was concerned that constant scrutiny and criticism on social media could undermine the task force’s efforts and set it up for failure.

“I don’t want to see that happen, especially in a situation that is this critical for the community,” said Berna.

Jones said his intention when co-sponsoring the proposal was simply to correct an oversight in the selection process, and said his push for renter representation was not influenced by social media but by direct feedback from residents.

“People talk to me, they reach out to me and they email me,” said Jones.

Councilmember Mike Wiederkehr said many current homeowners, including himself, have previously been renters. He said he spent the majority of his life renting and that it’s likely many of the task force members have significant rental experience as well. Their current homeowner status, he said, does not preclude them from understanding rental challenges.

Councilmember Sarah Bunch said it’s important to let the task force establish itself before making changes. She said the group is still in its early stages and has yet to form its structure, policies, or goals.

She said the task force is allowed to form its own subcommittees and could create a panel that focuses on renters or any other group, such as low-income individuals, veterans, seniors, families or marginalized communities.

“I think let’s let them do their job and let them come up with this decision,” said Bunch.

Moore moved to amend the resolution to require the task force to appoint its own new members instead of the mayor. That amendment passed 5-3 with Berna, Wiederkehr and Teresa Turk voting against.

Berna said mandating the task force to pick new members could muddy the waters of the group’s task, and said they be allowed to operate without interference and micromanagement to ensure they can effectively focus on their mission.

Turk agreed. “We need to let them do their work,” she said.

In the final vote, only Stafford, Jones and Moore voted in favor of the proposal.

Correction note: A previous version of this story mistakenly stated that the task force was allowed to add its own new members, when in fact, it is only allowed to form subcommittees. It could, however, make a recommendation to the council to add two new members.