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Why artist housing is just another kind of affordable housing

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To support priced-out arts communities, cities look to housing and studio support

Big Car Lead
In Indianapolis, the Big Car Collaborative has created an innovative land trust program to help create low-cost artist housing.
Big Car Collaborative

The brightly colored pinatas in Dallas’s Oak Cliff neighborhood, known as the Casita Triste, or “sad little houses,” would be more playful if their aim wasn’t so serious.

The cartoonish papier-mache dwellings are the work of local artist Giovanni Valderas. And—complete with googly eyes, stunned expressions, and lanky legs—they make a statement about how rising property values are changing the neighborhood and pushing out its Latino community. It’s Valderas’s contribution to a larger, artist-led movement to raise awareness of and, ideally, disrupt displacement.

“The project will exist as long as the city continues to neglect its community,” Valderas told Dallas Magazine. “My hope is that Casita Triste will resonate with individuals and create a dialogue that will lead to advocacy and action.”

In issues of neighborhood change and displacement, and the potential lack of affordable homes and studios such change can cause, artists have a lot at stake. Past articles have suggested that artists can be the “shock troops” of gentrification. But new research and reporting finds that the relationship between the arts and real estate isn’t that simple. As Valderas’s work argues, they’re most often the victims.

Cities also have a lot at stake. As the economic impact of arts and cultural programming has become better documented, the connection between a city’s economic growth, its artist community, and its ability to provide housing and studio stock to support that community becomes an increasingly pressing issue.

The big business of art and culture

The belief that tech and creative industries are the primary drivers of the 21st-century economy has created an environment where arts and culture are seen as important signs of a thriving, growing city. It explains the obsession mayors and city planners have about economic development that can be sold as dynamic, innovative, and collaborative.

The smartest cities acknowledge that in many respects, they’re in competition for energy, for investments, for young families: for their tax base,” Craig Watson, former director of the California Arts Council, told researchers at the Pew Charitable Trust studying the issue of artist housing.

But beyond influencing industries like advertising and tech, arts and culture, which include museums, galleries, and cultural institutions, as well as a variety of industries including film and theater, are by themselves big business, and a boon to cities that can support a critical mass of creative talent.

This broadly defined arts and cultural sector contributed $763.6 billion to the U.S. economy in 2015 and employed 4.9 million Americans, according to a Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) and National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) study. And that’s just direct contributions. Arts patronage creates high levels of event-related spending, like dining out before seeing a concert, second-order economic activity that supports 2.3 million jobs and provides $15.7 billion in government revenue, according to research by the nonprofit Americans for the Arts.

These national figures do include sizable contributions from the film, media, and publishing industries, but the impact of independent creatives more widely affected by affordability pressures is significant by itself. Independent artists, writers, and performers added $22 billion to the nation’s economy in 2015, according to NEA research, a figure that grew an average of 2.8 percent the previous three years. More than 144,000 Americans fit this category, twice the number of coal miners.

Data also suggests this creative workforce isn’t being completely driven from expensive major cities, despite the fact that New York City and others often get slammed for pricing out artists. According to Creative New York, a study by the Center for an Urban Future, the city’s artist population grew to 56,268 in 2015, an all-time high, jumping 17.4 percent since 2000. It’s also gaining on the rest of the nation: Between 2003 and 2013, the report noted, the city’s share of the national creative workforce increased from 7.1 to 8.6 percent.

But rising rents, for both housing and studio space, threaten continued creative growth. A recent survey conducted by the Downtown Brooklyn Arts Alliance asked artists about their needs, with 76 percent saying cost and space had become their primary barriers to creating art in New York. The stats support their anecdotal evidence: In New York City, rent rose at least 32 percent between 2000 and 2012 in the 10 neighborhoods most associated with the current arts boom, outpacing the city’s already astronomical rent increases.

How neighborhoods in New York City known for their arts community have seen rent rapidly increase.
Creative New York: Center for an Urban Future

Commercial real estate developers’ continued obsession with a certain type of office space—open-plan converted warehouses—has also put pressure on studio rents and availability: In 2002, tech firms occupied 9 percent of the city’s office space, but by 2012, they had taken over a quarter of the city’s commercial space, especially industrial loft buildings. And New York City is far from alone. The 2016 Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, California, reinforced the difficulty of finding affordable artist housing in increasingly expensive cities.

New Orleans, too, exemplifies how arts and culture can be a draw that eventually pulls in forces that push out artists. The city, famous as a birthplace for jazz and a cultural capital of the U.S., made $7 billion from tourism in 2015. But, at the same time, steeply rising housing costs have turned local artists into commuters, forcing to do the “double-zip thing,” a term New Orleans guitarist Deacon John Moore, president of the local musicians’ union, uses to describe performers living in one place and playing elsewhere.

“If you don’t get musicians and cultural artists affordable housing and rents, it’s going to have a negative impact on the cultural economy,” Deacon told Pew researchers. “We’re going to kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”

The relationship between gentrification and the arts

Conventional wisdom suggests that artists are, in effect, victims of their own success, creating the draw that then creates the price bump that drives them out. But new research recently covered by Richard Florida finds that relationship doesn’t function the way most people expect.

Researchers looked at 30 cities between 2000 and 2013, and catalogued the growth of the arts world in a variety of neighborhoods, including in what the researchers defined as affluent and gentrifying ones (based on an increase in the millennial population and housing values).

Due to the high cost of living, making it as an artist in New York City is increasingly difficult.
Creative New York: Center for an Urban Future

Their conclusions, initially published in the journal Urban Studies, found that fine arts and commercial arts establishments were much more concentrated in what they considered affluent areas. Gentrifying neighborhoods had the smallest concentrations of, and growth in, arts establishments.

Many of the spaces and symbols we see as signs of artist-led gentrification, such as a block full of art galleries, often come well after the real shift: neighborhood real estate prices accelerating past the point of being able to sustain housing and studio space for artists.

Artist housing is workforce housing

These observations suggest that the real estate we associate with the arts, like performing spaces, galleries, and concert venues, aren’t necessarily the true catalysts of pricing pressure impacting artists. The infrastructure for the arts at the center of the true cost crunch is housing and studio space.

A few decades ago, when someone rented a space, they had the impression they could have it for 10 or 20 years,” Hrag Vartanian, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic, said. “Now, people feel like they’re only getting spaces for two to three years at a time. Cost is an issue, obviously, but instability is negatively affecting how communities organically grow.”

The constant need to find new spaces makes it harder to create the kinds of close-knit communities that foster artistic development. And with the arts and creative industries playing such a large role in city economic development, local leaders see artist housing as an investment in workforce housing and their cities’ economic futures.

How cities are finding new homes for their artists

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to provide 1,500 affordable housing units for artists and musicians by 2025 via partnerships with nonprofit organizations.

Nashville, a longtime center of the music industry and a city that’s seen a real estate and tourism boom in recent years, introduced a program targeted toward creative professionals to help them access low-interest loans to purchase property. In Indianapolis, the Big Car Collaborative created a new housing model that subsidizes artist housing via a local land trust, and asks artists to contribute time and effort to community-revitalization efforts.

The national nonprofit Artspace, a nonprofit that develops real estate for the arts, has opened 43 different artists housing projects since it launched in 1979, including the Tannery Arts Center, a $42 million complex in the San Francisco Bay Area that includes 28 commercial art studios and 100 live-work studios.

In San Francisco proper, the Minnesota Project uses high-end art storage warehouses to subsidize studio space for artists. Spaceworks, an organization seeking to create low-cost studio and artists spaces in New York City, has looked at converting libraries into public creative spaces.

This grassroots approach, a more holistic one that supports working artists, adds a dimension to the traditional way cities, wealthy donors, and foundations view art funding, often focusing on the organizational and educational levels.

“Strategic investment in our arts and cultural organizations is not an extra; it’s a path to prosperity,” says Robert L. Lynch, the CEO and president of Americans for the Arts.

As the value of the arts, both its incalculable cultural and aesthetic power as well as the vast bottom-line impact of the creative industry, becomes more clear, it seems even more obvious that places, as much as programming, need more public support.