For almost two decades, LisaRuth Elliott has lived a colorful, bohemian life in San Francisco — painting murals, making collages and working as a community historian.
She also lived in Seattle, Southern California and Europe, but she says it was San Francisco’s vibrant cultural scene that energized her life and her work.
Not now, though.
“There was a time when artists would get together and say, ‘Hey, what are you working on?’ ‘Well, I’m really inspired by Pluto!’ or, ‘I’m really inspired by this technological creation!’ Whatever that topic might be,” Elliott says. “Now, it’s, ‘Ugh, how long am I going to be able to stay in the city?’ ”
Housing is a major issue for artists in San Francisco. The city does well compared with others around the nation when it comes to funding artists’ work. But the city’s efforts to create affordable live/work spaces for artists haven’t panned out. Many local artists are now worrying the high cost of housing will force them to leave the city and abandon their creative community.
Elliott is one of dozens of artists and community activists who cram into a small courtyard behind a coffee house in San Francisco’s Mission District. A campfire burns before a makeshift stage.
She steps up to the microphone.
“Floating, drifting — I have been living as a sort of ghost for the last five months,” she says. The event is called “Eviction Ghost Stories and Other Housing Horrors”.
As Elliott talks about her eviction from her home in the Haight, a man sitting next to the fire toasts marshmallows and passes out s’mores to the crowd. The event is supposed to be campy, but the storytellers strain to contain their emotions.
If there’s anyone who wants to prevent artists from leaving, it’s Tom DeCaigny, cultural affairs director for the San Francisco Arts Commission.
“I’ve had a couple of artists who are personal friends in the city who have faced eviction and a couple of them have had to leave the city. And on a personal level that’s hard,” DeCaigny says.
It’s DeCaigny’s job to promote and preserve the city’s arts and culture industry, which pumps roughly $1.4 billion a year into the local economy. He remembers the last artist exodus, spurred by the dot-com boom of the late 1990s. He’s asking city leaders to study that era to see what worked and what went wrong.
“Looking back at ’99 and 2000, the city did make some financial contributions to specific shared-space initiatives,” he says.
Those investments gave San Francisco dancers a state-of-the-art performance and training complex in the Mission. Independent filmmakers got a new place to screen their work at a new facility in the mid-Market area.
“So, we know there are solutions by which the city can make investments, and private philanthropy and the nonprofit sector, to foster new innovations in both shared nonprofit space but also developments around artists’ housing,” DeCaigny says.
But the last dot-com boom also hurt rezoning efforts designed to create affordable housing for artists. The new live-work spaces attracted an affluent crowd, and artists were priced out.
“Art is part of the brand for San Francisco,” says Randy Cohen, who researches and promotes sustainable arts policies at Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.
“You know San Francisco has many positive attributes, but, globally, it’s thought of as a great cultural city,” he says. “If your artists are leaving town, you’re putting a key component of your brand at risk.”
Cohen says that while San Francisco searches for solutions to its housing crunch, less expensive cities like Seattle, Baltimore and Detroit are jumping on the opportunity to cultivate their own cultural brand, and they’re offering artists some enticing housing incentives. In Detroit, for example, homesteading is all the rage, says Cohen.
“You know: Live here, move here, work here for five years, and you get the deed,” he adds.
Of course, economic factors have long dictated where artists live and work: Artists priced out of Manhattan have moved to Brooklyn. Boston artists have moved to Rhode Island.
Right now, Oakland is luring artists from San Francisco and beyond, says Kelley Kahn, Oakland’s economic development director.
“I think there’s a sense here that you can come here and actually have a really high quality of life and, at the same time, be able to make a living in fine arts or the industrial art,” she says.
Still, some artists hope Oakland won’t get too popular. Housing costs here are also on the rise.