Jan 14, 2016

The Artists’ Housing Dilemma

A New Definition of Workforce

When the subject of workforce housing is invoked in any discussion, we tend to think of police officers, fire- fighters, teachers and other municipal employees. But there is a national nonprofit organization with an everexpanding footprint and sphere of influence that is enlarging that definition to another cohort its leaders consider critical to a healthy and complete urban environment: artists.

Artspace is a nonprofit real estate developer headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota that specializes in creating, owning and operating affordable urban spaces for artists of all kinds to live and work. Along with many of their projects are commercial spaces for arts-friendly businesses and those that enhance the neighborhood, as well as for arts organizations. Currently, Artspace has 39 projects in operation across the country, representing both historic reuse and new construction, and more than 1,100 residential units. They open between two and five new facilities each year. Fourteen are currently in development.

Perhaps most significant, Artspace is on the leading edge of defining those involved with the arts as a vital part of a city or town’s workforce. Though each project is unique, on average a project will have between 40 and 60 residential units and 5,000 to 10,000 square feet of retail space.

In an era in which both funding and community support for affordable housing is becoming increasingly problematic in large cities, Artspace’s approach hearkens back to the philosophies and values of such urban visionaries as Jane Jacobs and Lewis Mumford. In seminal works like Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Mumford’s The City in History and The Urban Prospect, social commentators of the previous generation stressed the critical role of art and culture in sustaining a livable metropolitan environment. This outlook repeatedly has been substantiated by Artspace’s own experience.

“You can do all the quantitative analytics you like, but when you ask people what they want, it’s arts and culture,” states Heidi Zimmer, Senior Vice President for Property Development. Artspace began as an artists advocacy group in 1979.

“The Minneapolis Arts Commission went to the city council and said, ‘We need to find artists safe, healthy and affordable places,’” Zimmer explains. “A lot of these people were living in the Warehouse District, in places that were neither safe nor healthy.”

So together, the Arts Commission and the Minneapolis City Council formed Artspace to assist artists in finding livable space in the city’s Warehouse District. By 1986, it was clear that the growing challenge required a more proactive approach, and Artspace began the transformation to actual developer under the leadership of Kelley Lindquist. On-line MinnPost calls Lindquist “a real estate mogul of a different sort.” During his tenure as President and CEO, Artspace has grown from a staff of one (himself) and an annual budget of $60,000 into the nation’s leading nonprofit developer of space for artists, with a staff of 70, an annual budget of $12 million, and stewardship of properties containing more than two million square feet of residential, studio, office, rehearsal, and performance space.

Building with LIHTCs

In 1989, Artspace was the first organization of its kind to use Low Income Housing Tax Credits as the basis for financing its first affordable live/work project – the Northern Warehouse Artist’s Cooperative in Lowertown, St. Paul. The building has 60 residential units and 40,000 square feet of commercial space. Unlike subsequent projects, Northern Warehouse was developed as a coop. “Our first and last,” says Zimmer.

“The area was desolate,” recalls Melodie Bahan, Vice President for Communications. “Now it’s the hippest neighborhood in St. Paul.” Bahan came over to Artspace from another mainstay Minneapolis cultural institution, the Tyrone Guthrie Theater, where she directed communications for ten years.

The second and third Artspace projects were also in the Twin Cities. The first project outside Minnesota, the Spinning Plate Artist Lofts in Pittsburgh, opened in 1999.

The two-to-five new projects each year are winnowed from a sizable number of requests and about 50 in-depth site visits and feasibility studies. The most important single consideration is that there is a strong artist community and that local leaders are eager for this kind of project in their midst.

“We never want to be in a situation where we’re fighting local government,” Zimmer observes.

“For us, the measure of success is when artists who are working two or three jobs to make ends meet can move to our space and begin earning more of their income from the arts.” Nearly all Artspace facilities have long waiting lists, with rents keyed at 30 to 60 percent of area median income.

Creative Placemaking

“Artist” is intentionally defined broadly. In addition to painters and sculptors, actors and directors, musicians, dancers and writers, various Artspace projects house fashion designers and graphic artists, set designers, chefs, jewelry makers, and even a sword maker and canoe builder. The Artspace Lofts of Minot, North Dakota, has developed a concentration in traditional folk arts. All of the various disciplines contribute to what Artspace calls “creative placemaking.”

What the leasing department and selection committees are looking for is a body of work, dedication to, and passion for, artistic endeavor, and individuals who can contribute to the cultural life of the community - what Zimmer calls “an arts community lifestyle.”

Applicants technically need not be involved in the arts as long as they fall within the HUD targeted income range, but artists are given priority. “We have three projects in Seattle with waiting lists into the hundreds,” says Bahan. “In New York, we could work well into our 100s and the need for more housing would still be there.”

The first project in New York City – and winner of NH&RA’s 2015 Timmy Award for Excellence in Historic Rehabilitation for a Large Development Utilizing Low Income Housing Tax Credits – is the El Barrio Artspace PS109 in East, or Spanish, Harlem. When it was announced, it received 53,000 applications for its 89 units, underscoring the acute need for affordable housing in large and dynamic cities. Rents, set by HUD guidelines, start at $495 for a studio and rise to $1,022 for a two-bedroom unit.

The building was originally designed by Charles B.J. Snyder in a neo-Gothic style, with a steeply-pitched terra cotta roof, ornate carvings and window cupolas, Tudor arches and a top spire, all reminiscent of Oxford University’s residential colleges. The five-story structure on East 99th Street opened in 1898 as a public school and was in use for almost a century until maintenance and upkeep became too much of a challenge and the city’s Department of Education finally closed it in 1995.

It sat leaky and decaying, with boarded-up windows, abandoned except for vandals, through the late 1990s and into the new century, until a coalition of community leaders worked to have the school building placed on the National Register of Historic Places. That preliminary effort was enough to save PS109, at least temporarily, from the wrecker’s ball.

Under the design leadership of HHL Architects of Buffalo, New York, the building’s second life was achieved through a partnership between Artspace and El Barrio’s Operation Fightback, a nonprofit community organization dedicated to preserving and strengthening families in East Harlem through affordable housing, human services and community economic development. Now renewed to its former elegance at a cost of $53 million, Artspace PS109 created 14,000 square feet of community space in addition to its artist housing.

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