Dream Apartments for $582 a Month -- If You're a Starving Artist

  • Cities are eager to lend them a hand to keep them around
  • `You can create a community that has a broader impact'

Mary Waters’s application for her dream apartment included lots of the usual stuff: a couple years of tax returns, her passport and proof she has a Social Security number. Oh, and several necklaces strung with Tibetan turquoise and Ugandan paper beads.

She had to prove she was a struggling artist, and the struggling part was easy. Waters makes less than $28,000 a year from sales to a handful of customers and part-time work as a massage therapist. But to score a $582-a-month studio in the Artspace Loveland Lofts, she also had to answer questions about her devotion to jewelry making and fostering the arts. It’s a screening process that sculptors, writers and musicians across the U.S. are going through in a new spin on affordable housing.

Artspace Loveland

Photographer: Matthew Staver/Bloomberg

Cities from Seattle to New York are tapping tax dollars to give rent discounts to artists -- sometimes broadly defined to include chefs and welders -- in bids to keep creative types from being priced out of gentrifying neighborhoods or to give boosts to depressed ones. As a rural community, Loveland, 51 miles northwest of Denver, is on a new frontier of the trend. Low-income housing-tax credits covered about 60 percent of the $8 million cost of its live/work arts building, where Waters’s neighbors include a silversmith and a concert pianist. 

The subsidize-artists movement isn’t without some controversy, attracting critics of so-called planned gentrification as widening income inequality puts rents in some places out of even middle-class reach. “It is disturbing to see city governments choosing who has access to low-income housing based on a factor unrelated to actual household income,” said Nancy Kwak, an associate history professor at the University of California at San Diego who studies the evolution of cities.

Waters has a response to that, which is that her hardship is no less real just because of her profession. “The last question in the art committee interview was, ‘What makes you seek affordable housing?”’ said Waters, who had been sleeping on friends’ couches. “I plastered a smile on my face and said, ‘Because I’m homeless right now.”’

Mary Waters

Photographer: Matthew Staver/Bloomberg

Civic leaders like the concept: Poets and painters supply cachet that’s bankable, with studies showing low-income creative-space in cities like Reno, Nevada, has raised property values in surrounding blocks and lifted property and sales taxes.

“By targeting artists, you create a community that has a broader impact on a city. Not every affordable housing project has that,” said Jim Kelly, executive director of 4Culture, a King County cultural facilities agency that works to preserve buildings in cities including Seattle, where the 50-unit low-income Tashiro Kaplan Artists Lofts opened 11 years ago.

Competition for such spaces is fierce. In New York, more than 52,000 people applied for 89 units in a 19th-century renovated school house in East Harlem in July 2014. The $53.4 million El Barrio’s Artspace PS109 -- in a Manhattan neighborhood where rents have gone up as much as 60 percent since 2002 -- was funded with federal and state tax credits, grants and private donations. Tenants pay according to guidelines set by the U.S. 

Department of Housing and Urban Development; the project’s backed by El Barrio’s Operation Fightback, a community group, and Artspace, a 36-year-old Minneapolis-based nonprofit real-estate developer that pioneered the use of tax incentives for artist housing, and has helped develop 1,390 units in 16 states and the District of Columbia.

Congress created the federal low-income housing credits that are crucial to the projects in 1986, and developers can sell them to investors to generate financing. In 2008, Congress specified that low-income complexes can set some preferences, including for renters “involved in artistic or literary activities.”

Only 5,000 of the applicants for PS109 were qualifying artists, according to Artspace. A panel of East Harlem residents and an Artspace representative interviewed more than 200, to determine if they could show bodies of work over time and were willing to give back to the community through teaching or volunteering.

A weaver, dancers and visual and graphic artists were among those who made the cut. So did Sybille Bruun, 38, a mother of 18-month-old twins who with her husband runs the Shakespeare Forum, which provides free after-school programs and workshops.

The family moved into the building in March, paying $1,022 for a two-bedroom and using office space in the basement; Brunn said they left an apartment with lead paint, mold and a landlord threatening to raise the rent to $2,650. “Without this space we would need two full-time careers and have to put the kids in full-time care,” Bruun said.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio envisions 1,500 affordable spaces for artists, not even a ripple in a city where 270,201 families are on a waiting list for subsidized apartments. 

“Low-income housing specifically for artists -- that’s never happened before,” said City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who represents East Harlem. “A lot of artists are being displaced. If we don’t deal with this we could have a large sector of our city’s cultural economy disappearing.”

In Colorado, Artspace is working with state and city officials and private foundations to build complexes in rapidly expanding Denver. Colorado’s also the testing ground for rural areas, such as Loveland and Trinidad, a former mining town that has the state’s highest concentration of historic buildings. A collaboration among Artspace, the Colorado Office of Economic Development, the Boettcher Foundation and nonprofit History Colorado is searching for space in Trinidad and reaching out to artists -- including salsa makers.

Loveland Feed & Grain

Photographer: Matthew Staver/Bloomberg

Downtown Loveland got a boost from the lofts that went up next to an abandoned 123-year-old grain mill, which is now being rehabbed. The new construction spurred $14.5 million in other residential and commercial projects and a rise in sales-tax collections.

“Creativity breeds creativity,” said Loveland Mayor Cecil Gutierrez, a retired high-school band director. “We’ve seen additional arts-related businesses move downtown. It brings people down there, and that’s the key.”

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