(Amy is an artist and housing activist posting for the first time at Janos.nyc)
During this Tuesday’s State of the City speech, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a 2.0 upgrade to his ten-year affordable housing plan, Housing New York, released last spring. One interesting feature is his goal to “provide 1,500 units of live/work housing for the artists and musicians who make New York culture so vibrant …. as well as 500 dedicated affordable workspaces for the cultural community.”
I gulped a bit upon hearing this. After eight years serving low-income families through housing programs and advocacy, I have given a good deal of thought to the roles and responsibilities of local, state and the federal government in urban crises.
In a housing market like New York City’s, where everyone feels the crunch, a mayoral goal to provide artist housing just doesn’t sit right with me.
Full disclosure: I’m an artist and always have been. I know that it is financially challenging to make artwork in NYC. Many artists live with roommates to keep their rents low so that they can afford studio spaces where they make their work. They work day jobs or freelance to pay rent and then have to squeeze in time for their own work. Many are comfortable without health insurance. They often have student loans. But most artists don’t seek the path for its comforts and convenience. Most would acknowledge it’s a wild and risky business—a dream pursuit, really. The risk of not achieving that dream is usually not…well, homelessness. Being an artist is a privilege as well as a pain.
It is true that society reaps great benefits from the risky pursuits of its artists. This is why government funding for the arts is usually funneled through city departments charged with supporting arts and cultural affairs, like the one de Blasio’s housing department will work with to achieve this initiative. So why not call this what it is—a cultural affairs initiative?
Historically, the mission of government housing programs and initiatives has been to provide housing that the real estate industry will not voluntarily provide and to help those that the market has no interest in serving—usually families living in poverty. This mission couldn’t be more critical now, as federal funding and focus on deeply affordable housing programs has steadily decreased in the past decade.
At a time like this, de Blasio needs to focus on housing programs that are least likely to be jump-started without his support. The public sector has the ability, motivation and financing to respond to the needs for artist housing. El Barrio’s Artspace in East Harlem, financed with Federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC), just opened its doors after receiving 58,000 applications for its 90 units of affordable artist space, 50% of which is designated for El Barrio residents. These types of real estate projects are attractive for community development financing and non-profit real estate groups. More can, and most likely will be, built without de Blasio’s edict.
As a housing initiative, the plan raises questions even my artist friends were asking today: How does the property owner determine if you’re an artist? Isn’t almost everyone in NYC an “artist”? In a hot real estate market like NYC’s, this self-identified group very well may swell. Additionally, the artists who respond most actively to these opportunities might be from the most organized and affluent parts of the artist subculture. De Blasio may want to steer clear of singling out specific types of New Yorkers that deserve tailored affordable housing initiatives.
The nature of artist housing and other developments marketed to certain types of tenants like Miller’s Court in Baltimore, for teachers, has always raised fair housing questions for me that I have yet to hear solid feedback on. Artspace’s description of their tenant selection process at El Barrio’s in East Harlem is murky to me. If federal policy prohibits discrimination based on protected classes like race, color, religion, sex, national origin, familial or disability status, how are preferences for “artists” justified when federal financing is involved?
It’s true that 1,500 units in ten years is a drop in the bucket, but for scale, that could be about sixteen buildings of 90 apartments each. He also must caution against creating housing initiatives that could accidentally run counter to his anti-gentrification platform.
Perhaps an alternative is to create broader measures to ensure that non-profit community developers can more easily pursue projects like these. (Until recently, the City’s webpage featuring requests for proposals for developing City-owned property stated that proposals requiring the least amount of subsidy will get priority consideration, which has inevitably stacked the deck against community development non-profit groups in the past.)
Another alternative is to steer clear of housing subsidies and to bump up the focus on affordable studio spaces in tandem with existing initiatives to revive light industry in areas like Sunset Park.
I would love to see de Blasio assure New York’s low-income families that the attention of Housing Preservation and Development won’t be hijacked by sexier projects.
The artist housing goal is a great introduction to the affordable housing and planning quagmires that our mayor faces. He has no easy task ahead. 21st century housing policy leans on the private market to fill gaps historically covered by government, a strategy that comes with both potential benefits and risks. Artists have long been an important part of New York City’s cultural landscape, and will find a way to live here, with or without the mayor’s new artist initiative.