At the Tannery Arts Center, an affordable housing complex designed for artists, Heejin Lee pays $1,224 a month for a three-bedroom unit, something that would cost her two or three times as much on the open market. (Photo: Rachael Myrow/KQED)
In the wake of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland, cities all over the country are looking into what they can do to create more affordable housing for artists that doesn't trade basic safety for cheap rent. One answer lies to the south, with the Tannery Arts Center in Santa Cruz.
When the Salz Tannery closed in 2001, the local redevelopment agency decided the cluster of funky, red-and-white 19th century warehouses near downtown was a perfect place to build affordable housing for artists. The agency then sought out one of the nation’s biggest developers of affordable housing for artists, Artspace.
The nonprofit, based in Minneapolis, has helped develop 43 different projects around the country since it launched in 1979, including three loft spaces in Seattle and five in Chicago. The Tannery Arts Center is arguably its most ambitious project: a $42 million complex on eight acres, including 28 commercial art studios and 100 live/work studios.
Greg Handberg of Artspace, who oversaw the development of the Tannery Arts Center, explains "Artspace lives at the intersection of affordable housing needs, economic development needs, cultural facility needs, historic preservation needs. When a community is grappling with those issues, they find us."
Artspace helps cities pull together the local, state and federal funding required to develop affordable housing for artists. Handberg says every project is different, but the financing works in much the same way.
"The most important tool in the Tannery financial picture was something called a federal low income housing tax credit," he says. That means companies like US Bancorp and Washington Mutual paid for much of the project in exchange for tax breaks. Grants covered the rest – and a city like Santa Cruz got a multi-million dollar complex for a fraction of the cost and a low debt load going forward.
Eligibility for the units is federally proscribed by US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Applicants must be making less than 50 percent of the area median income for Santa Cruz County, which was about $67,000 in 2015, according to the US Census.
Visual artist Heejin Lee pays $1,224 a month for a three-bedroom unit, something that would cost her two or three times as much on the open market. "This is very safe and also peaceful place for concentrate your art," she says.
A space space for creative artists
Lee, a soft-spoken Korean-American, has lived in Santa Cruz for 14 years and the last three have been spent at Tannery. Her studio, filled with paints and easels and work up on the walls, looks out over the San Lorenzo River. She loves that she’s surrounded by art inside her studio and outside. "We have painter, writer, dancers, musicians. We share all our thoughts and our passion together," she says.
Lee sells her work at a gallery over in the commercial studio complex across the way. Like most residents here, she survives on a diversified economic portfolio that includes, in her case, teaching and a part-time job at a sushi restaurant.
Given the way real estate developers have co-opted the phrase “artist loft,” it’s easy to forget what real artists want in a live/work space. It’s not a fancy kitchen or plush carpets. A real artist’s loft is the kind of space you can make a creative mess in.
Spare units, filled with creative possibility
"They’re very simple," explains Warren Reed, who works for the John Stewart Company, the firm managing the Tannery Arts Center. "Hard surfaces on the floor. Easy to maintain for the residents, but also gives them the flexibility to design their space however they want to use it."
"Of course, here being a lot of the residents are visual artists, they hang their art out in the hallways and it changes," Reed says. "It’s like an open air gallery. So it’s kind of exciting to walk through the halls and see what’s happening."
Now, why prioritize artists over other people who need help, like veterans, seniors and disabled folks?
Bonnie Lipscomb, Director of Economic Development for Santa Cruz, says it's not a zero sum game. "We’ve housed over 1,200 units of affordable housing in our community in the last 20 years. So we are concerned about everyone. What we saw here was that a very specific, vital part of our community was leaving, cause they couldn’t afford to live here anymore, and that’s part of our whole cultural identity," she said.
A model for others to follow
So is Tannery a model for the rest of the Bay Area, and beyond? Absolutely, says Lipscomb. "It’s a matter of leveraging the various sources. I think it could happen today. It might be a slightly different path, but the funding is there."
Tannery was the first Artspace project in California, but two more are in the works, one of them in Monterey. That said, supply will probably never meet demand. It took nearly 15 years to develop the Tannery Arts Center. The units filled as soon as they opened, and now, there are around 300 people on the waiting list.
For arts stories you won’t read anywhere else, come to KQED’s Arts and Culture desk.