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San Francisco Looks to Create Low-Cost Housing Preference for Artists

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A housing lottery ticket Ingrid Rojas Contreras and Jeremiah Barber received when applying for affordable housing in San Francisco. The artist couple have lost count of the number of times they reapplied to the lottery. (Courtesy of Ingrid Rojas Contreras)

San Francisco has this thing called an affordable housing lottery. It allows low-income residents to rent or buy homes. The city selects winners at random from a pool of qualified applicants. Though the system is mostly online these days, some of the methods are still decidedly old school.

“They hand you a real lottery ticket, like the kind that you would take to get on a carousel or something,” says Jeremiah Barber. He and his partner Ingrid Rojas Contreras are both artists who have lost count of the number of times they’ve had to reapply for the lottery.

“Every time that we apply we have to clear it with the bank again and get a loan again and then submit the same documents to the apartment,” Contreras says. “It doesn’t make sense.”

Like many arts industry workers, the couple has no fixed income. So the process of reapplying each time is especially onerous.

“We have been making the amount that would clear us for a loan, but it just comes from different places one year, then the next year, it’s just a completely different array of places,” Contreras says. “The bank people say that doesn’t look good. They don’t want to give us a loan for that.”

San Francisco Director of Cultural Affairs Tom DeCaigny
San Francisco Director of Cultural Affairs, Tom DeCaigny (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED)

Many artists aren’t even in the financial position where they’re able to apply for a loan. Many can’t even make rent. Displacement of the creative class has become such a problem, the San Francisco Arts Commission decided to take action – at least for the renters.


The Arts Commission is working on a provocative plan that would designate some affordable housing units specially for artists. “Units specifically earmarked for people who qualify as working artists or cultural workers,” says Tom DeCaigny, the city’s director of cultural affairs. “So it would increase their chances within the lottery.”

DeCaigny and his team at the Arts Commission are trying to make the case that artists should have the same access to affordable housing as other preferred classes, such as veterans and people with disabilities.

To get in, applicants would have to income qualify and prove they’re real, working artists. Because many artists have gigs on the side to pay the rent, like driving for a ride-sharing service or waiting tables, the designation has more to do with an applicant’s artistic resume than how much money he or she makes from an artistic practice.

“Do they have a track record of exhibiting or showcasing creative work as an artist?” DeCaigny says. “So for visual artists, that would mean exhibitions at a gallery or perhaps a stint in a residency or a teaching commitment.”

In 2016, teachers became the first professional class to earn a low cost housing preference in San Francisco. Now the city is developing its inaugural construction project of 100 to 130 rental units earmarked specifically for this group.

Part of the front page of the San Francisco Arts Commission’s online artists’ survey.
Part of the front page of the San Francisco Arts Commission’s online artists’ survey. (Photo: Courtesy San Francisco Arts Commission)

In a first step towards securing the same status for artists, DeCaigny says his team is spending the first half of this year undertaking a multilingual, demographic survey of the local creative population to glean demographic information on race and ethnicity as well as income data for artists’ households.

The aim is to prove a preference to artists wouldn’t negatively impact protected classes. “What we want to do is show that the artist population is on par with the overall population of people who would qualify for affordable housing in San Francisco,” DeCaigny says.

So far, the Arts Commission has received more than 1750 responses to the survey, which is open through June. In addition to English, it is available in Chinese, Tagalog and Spanish.

The city is on track to create or rehabilitate more than four thousand affordable housing units by 2020. Creating an artists’ housing preference is possible during this time. But Contreras fears the process might take too long.

“It’s just so slow moving, you know,” she says. “And we’ve already lost so many artists. How many artists are still going to be here hanging on?”

And even if the preference is approved, artists will still need to jump through multiple bureaucratic hoops to qualify.

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