Dream apartments for US$582 a month – if you’re a starving artist


  • Business
  • Saturday, 21 Nov 2015

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

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 neighbourhoods 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% of the US$8mil cost of its live/work arts building, where Waters’ neighbours include a silversmith and a concert pianist.

The subsidise-artists movement isn’t without some controversy, attracting critics of socalled planned gentrification as widening income inequality puts rents in some places out of even middleclass 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,” says 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’,” says Waters, who has been sleeping on friends’ couches. “I plastered a smile on my face and said, ‘Because I’m homeless right now’.”

Civic leaders like the concept: Poets and painters supply cachet that’s bankable, with studies showing lowincome creativespace 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,” says Jim Kelly, executive director of 4-Culture, 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 US$53.4mil El Barrio’s Artspace PS109 in a Manhattan neighbourhood where rents have gone up as much as 60% since 2002 was funded with federal and state tax credits, grants and private donations.

Tenants pay according to guidelines set by the US 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 non-profit 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. – Bloomberg

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