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Solving the Gentrification Problem: Giving Artists Their Own Real Estate Developers

The process by which artists cycle through neighborhoods of American cities has become so prevalent it has its own name: the SoHo effect. Historically, poor artists venture into areas where no one else will — typically, these areas are already populated by lower income people or people of color. The artists act as Columbus-type explorers, “discovering” neighborhoods and making them desirable for wealthier classes. Then, as rents go up, the artists — and the historical residents — are forced to leave their homes. Neighborhoods appreciate over time, but an artist’s income rarely does.

This lopsided social contract serves to widen the gap between the rich and poor. Cities count on artists to revitalize neighborhoods, but don’t offer them any stability in return. The result is the gentrification of historically and culturally rich neighborhoods. It is a cycle replicated in neighborhoods throughout the United States, in cities increasingly squeezed for affordable housing. Artists in San Francisco, musicians in Austin and dancers in Seattle are all being forced to relocate.

Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City recently gave his annual State of the City address, during which he spoke exclusively about affordable housing. He noted that New York is slowly becoming a “tale of two cities” and touted affordable housing as a solution to this problem. “We know that New York is the city it is today in part because of the contributions from generations of artistic visionaries who at one point struggled to make ends meet,” de Blasio said during his address. He added that the city will invest $30 million over the next decade to build new live/work artist spaces, partnering with various cultural and philanthropic organizations, which will provide an additional $30 million.

Opponents of de Blasio’s plan assert that it will exacerbate the problem by luring artists to low-income neighborhoods, leading to increased gentrification. But this is simply not the case in cities that have experimented with affordable housing solutions. Giving artists their own space to live and create enhances the cultural fabric of neighborhoods while retaining their historic residents.

At least that is the goal of the Minnesota-based nonprofit Artspace, which has pioneered the ultimate niche idea in tackling the affordable housing problem. The Minneapolis Arts Commission first founded Artspace in 1979 to facilitate connection between artists and affordable spaces in the city’s warehouse district. But the same artists kept being priced out of their homes and studios. So Artspace decided to focus on the only permanent solution: control the buildings. Since then, Artspace has renovated and built 30 live/work developments, with another fourteen on the way. The results have been incredible. Communities have been transformed by the steady supply of art. Over time, these Artspace developments have contributed to a mental paradigm shift in the way artists are valued in society, especially as political, civic, and corporate leaders have come to see the value of artists in creating richer communities.

Artspace’s flagship project, the Northern Warehouse in the Lowertown District of St. Paul, has been a functioning live/work space for artists for more than 20 years. There were very few residents living there, and most of the buildings lay decaying and empty When Artspace scoped out the Northern Warehouse property in the late 1980s, the roof had caved in and the top floors had been lying vacant for over twenty years.

The project was heavily financed by low-income housing credits, grants and private investment so Artspace can charge tenants well below the market rate. According to a recently commissioned study of the area, a two-bedroom in now-booming Lowertown is $1,300 a month, while Artspace charges $500 to $1,000 — depending on income — for spaces up to 1,600 square feet.

Of course, there are qualifications to live and work in one of Artspace’s revolutionary projects. The resident artists must make less than 60 percent of the area’s median income. And they must demonstrate a “sustained commitment to their craft.”

Outside Northern Warehouse, a farmer’s market now runs year-round, and galleries and restaurants have sprung up throughout Lowertown. A once deserted warehouse district has been turned into one of the fastest growing neighborhoods in the city. The Northern Warehouse project seems to suggest that it’s possible to break the SoHo effect, but will the same principle hold up in a city like New York?

Artspace is pioneering a guinea pig project for de Blasio’s artistic affordable housing plan: PS 109 in East Harlem. At the end of last year, the project received an astounding 53,000 applications for the chance to lease one of the project’s 89 units.

PS 109, once a deserted school building slated for demolition, was saved by preservationists and turned into a landmark. It then lay vacant on 99th Street for twenty years. Affectionately known as “El Barrio,” East Harlem has long been a residence for a sizeable — predominantly Puerto Rican—Hispanic community. Now, there is a booming Mexican and Salvadorian population, and a growing number of Asians and Caucasians moving to the area. Although the neighborhood has long been a destination for many people — it was initially populated by German, Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants — tensions have arisen between many longtime residents and the newer residents.

Artspace teamed up with El Barrio’s Operation Fightback, an organization to protect affordable housing for residents of East Harlem. Initially, the thought of turning a potential free school into housing for artists was not well received. But through extensive and incredible community organizing, the two organizations were able to garner public support for the project.

At least 50 percent of units in PS 109 are reserved for current residents of El Barrio, which has an extensive history of artistry. El Museo del Barrio lies just a few blocks away, and PS 109 will include over 15,000 square feet of community space in which residents and members of the community can display their work. Engaging with the community is a crucial component of all of Artspace’s projects, for it garners not only public support but enriches the neighborhoods for everyone involved. The new project will rent massive studios for as low as $494 per month and two-bedrooms for only $1,022. Residents must meet income qualifications in order to apply: $19,000-$35,000 annually for one person and $38,000-$50,000 for a family of four. Like all of Artspace’s projects, the artists must exhibit an extended dedication to their craft.

PS 109 was purchased by Artspace in 2012, and has since undergone a $52.2 million makeover. $24 million of which were federal low-income housing tax credits. This means that applications not only have to be approved by Artspace and El Barrio’s Operation Fightback, but New York City Housing Preservation and Development as well. Artspace and Operation Fightback can only suggest an artist be admitted. HPD makes the final decision based on stringent income and artistry guidelines.

This is the chink in Artspace’s near-perfect armor: When you use someone else’s money, there are strings attached. De Blasio’s housing reform will hopefully take this into account. As the number of affordable units increases, getting an apartment will hopefully become less and less like winning the lottery.

And de Blasio isn’t the only leader seeking sweeping change. Advocates across the nation are trying to carve out room for the “starving artist.” In San Francisco, where the tech industry has rapidly increased rents, groups have sought to find live/work spaces for artists struggling in the changing economy. These groups are turning to places like the rapidly gentrifying Tenderloin District to enact change. An Austin nonprofit recently planned the first downtown affordable housing project in decades, which includes units exclusively for artists, even though the project has yet to come to fruition. And private foundations in Nashville recently organized $200,000 in grants to help artists find affordable housing.

The next step is to wait and see if these projects actually work. De Blasio has already committed to fund programs that keep artists in his city. The effects on gentrification can only be seen over time. Although combining affordable housing with historic preservation is “an expensive way to make life cheap for a miniscule number of New Yorkers,” it is but a small piece in the puzzle. Sweeping affordable housing reform involves intervention on many different levels, but halting the SoHo effect is a creative place to start.

About the Author

Isabella Creatura '18 is a staff writer for the Brown Political Review.