Affordable Housing for Artists: Santa Cruz Shows Bay Area How It’s Done

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.

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.

The Salz Tannery closed in 2001. It was the oldest operating leather tannery West of the Mississippi – quaint, completely out of step with 20th century safety codes, but Santa Cruz saw it as a redevelopment opportunity.
The Salz Tannery closed in 2001. It was the oldest operating leather tannery West of the Mississippi – quaint, and completely out of step with 20th century safety codes. Santa Cruz saw it as a redevelopment opportunity. (Photo: Rachael Myrow/KQED)

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.

Artist tenants at the Tannery Arts Center are enthusiastically encouraging to install art in the hallways.
Artist tenants at the Tannery Arts Center are enthusiastically encouraging to install art in the hallways. (Photo: Rachael Myrow/KQED)

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.”

Greg Handberg of Artspace says affordable housing projects for artists are "a little more complicated" these days because of Governor Jerry Brown’s decision to dissolve the state’s redevelopment agencies in 2011. "The Tannery project really was led by the redevelopment agency of the city of Santa Cruz in the 2000s. But that’s not a challenge we haven’t faced in places like New York, or new Orleans, or Hawaii or Minneapolis. We just have to figure it out."
Greg Handberg of Artspace says affordable housing projects for artists are “a little more complicated” these days because of Governor Jerry Brown’s decision to dissolve the state’s redevelopment agencies in 2011. “The Tannery project really was led by the redevelopment agency of the city of Santa Cruz in the 2000s. But that’s not a challenge we haven’t faced in places like New York, or new Orleans, or Hawaii or Minneapolis. We just have to figure it out.” (Photo: Rachael Myrow/KQED)

“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.

Affordable Housing for Artists: Santa Cruz Shows Bay Area How It’s Done 18 January,2017Rachael Myrow

  • virgil

    This report fails to ask several critical questions most importantly who is an artist? What is an artist? Do the housing for artists residences like in Santa Cruz have some criteria for who or what is an artist? Do you have to have a BFA? MFA? Represented by a gallery? Is a right rope walker an artist? A clown? Can a homeless dude claim panhandling is performance art? Need I go on? What about ‘out sider artists”? How about chefs? Etc? Post modern world has expanded the definition of artist to mean so much it hardly means anything anymore….the kind of questions Myrow might have asked.

    • annjohns

      I believe the answer is the so-called criteria is malleable. A child was murdered at the tannery by the son of a woman who, at least as far as I know, was not an artist. She was simply another low income qualifier for subsidized housing. In any case why should certain categories of lifestyle EVER be subsidized by the rest of us?

      • virgil

        I agree that the general public should not subsidize folks who choose a certain life style they know is economically very very risky. If someone wants a career as an artist I say more power to them but that is there choice and they know the odds are very long they will ever make a living at being an artist or if they don;t know they are too stupid to live. I have a friend who is an artist MFA and used to teach art at some local colleges. He know lives in his run down van. I tell him he should park in front of art schools and in the morning announce to the arriving art student this will probably happen to you too.

        • Trashapple

          calling it an “artist colony” is a hidden term to keep out low income latinos.. Most of the low income housing in SC county is occupied by Latinos.

  • jskdn

    Taxpayer-subsidized welfare housing for government officially-certified artistes: what a notion? Feel like going to a job you don’t like that pays the rent is beneath you? Feel like you are entitled to pursue an artistic avocation and those holding jobs they do because they need the money should have to subsidize your chosen lifestyle? Well then go to Santa Cruz, where perverse Progressives rule.

  • Anonymous

    Oakland has artist housing already. It’s at the Malonga Casquelord center.

  • denia

    The question of how “artist” is defined is a good one.

    But, in general (although it depends on the type of public funds used), publicly subsidized housing cannot exclusively house “artists” because that would be a violation of most Fair Housing laws. These projects are strictly intended to house lower income (the gradations of which are specifically defined) families, special needs populations (ie. individuals with mental and/or physical disabilities, currently homeless, etc.), and seniors. “Artists” could be targeted thru marketing and outreach efforts but my understanding is that publicly funded units cannot be set aside for them as a designated group.

Author

Rachael Myrow

Rachael Myrow is KQED’s Silicon Valley Arts Reporter, covering arts, culture and technology in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz Counties. She regularly files stories for NPR and the KQED podcast Bay Curious, and guest hosts KQED’s Forum.

Her passion for public radio was born as an undergrad at the University of California at Berkeley, writing movie reviews for KALX-FM. After finishing one degree in English, she got another in journalism, landed a job at Marketplace in Los Angeles, and another at KPCC, before returning to the Bay Area to work at KQED.

She spent more than seven years hosting The California Report, and over the years has won a Peabody and three Edward R. Murrow Awards (one for covering the MTA Strike, her first assignment as a full-time reporter in 2000 as well as numerous other honors including from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Radio Television News Directors Association and the LA Press Club.
Follow @rachaelmyrow

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