The Importance of Affordable Artist Housing - Housing Week


Westbeth photo by Dmadeo

The general flow of gentrification goes something like this:

First the immigrants and poor people live there. Sometimes it is government housing, other times it is just old, worn-down structures or facilities that weren’t originally intended for housing. Almost always, it is minority groups. Once these margins of society find a niche to make cool, poor struggling (usually young, fresh out of school) artists begin to move in. You see music-types, fashion graduates, budding designers, and avant-garde debutants of all colors. The artists draw the fringe crowd in, and this is usually led by a hedonistic, drug-indulging, homosexual community. Now the neighborhood is beginning to be noticed as the cool, hip place to hang out. Trendy and cutting-edge, these tastemakers are finding new uses for old buildings and turning them into affordable, chic housing.

Now the Real Estate developers and landlords aren’t going to let this all go unnoticed. Looking to cash in on this organic boom in property value, they will soon jack up rent rates in hopes to get a more affluent class in their buildings who will pay more money and invest into further building/unit improvements. This rent hike drives the artist community out, just like they drove the lower class before them out, and now we have preeminent neighborhood full of white, upper-middle class or high society.

And so went Chelsea, the Meatpacking District, Soho, the Lower East Side, and now areas of Brooklyn (Williamsburg) and Queens are witnessing the same evolution.

So what if the government or specific municipal foundations did something to stop this natural transition? Well, in the West Village, that is exactly what the National Endowment for the Arts and the J. M. Kaplan Foundation did for one artist housing facility, called Westbeth, in 1970. Plainly, “Westbeth Artists’ Housing provides affordable living and working spaces for artists and their families… and the Westbeth Community Room regularly offer works by our resident artists, invited guest artists, as well as other arts organizations.”

For the City of New York, and for the West Village specifically, this is a win-win situation: Manhattan gets to hold on to some of its most cherished artist-inspired communities, saving them from being completely gentrified a la Robert Moses or Donald Trump, and the artists get a chance to maintain their desired profession and stay close to the streets and neighbors that helped foster those inspirations from the beginning.

Places like Westbeth are a vital part to the success of any city. Try to imagine some of your favorite metropolitans without their art and artistic areas. It leaves for a pretty bleak urban space (Just look at New York City’s Financial District as a great example—sure the view of Brooklyn from one of the rooftops kicks ass; but who the hell would ever want to live south of Chambers St.?)

In 2007, Maria Rosario Jackson and Florence Kabwasa-Green coauthored a paper called “Leveraging Investments in Creativity” that was funded by the Ford and Rockefller Foundations. Here is what they set out to learn:

“The development of affordable spaces for artists to live and/or work is certainly an important matter for artists, but it can also be an important issue for people concerned with a range of social issues, including economic development, civic engagement, community collective action, and community quality of life. Intended to provide anyone interested in pursuing artists space development (ASD) projects with information about things to consider in making the case for artist space, this report discusses: 1) How artist space developments have been positioned and the arguments made to garner support for them; and 2) The advocacy strategies pursued; and — The impacts claimed and/or anticipated.”

In their in-depth study, Jackson and Kbwasa-Green conclude that “artist space development has momentum and this is a good time for the field to grow. The number of artist space initiatives is increasing and interest in pursuing projects is on the rise.” What the study teaches us about places like Westbeth is that the “capacity to bring efforts to fruition [while existent], needs to be strengthened.”

Artist space development and housing facilities like Westbeth need to be encouraged and developed in all major cities. “By strategically cultivating more supporters and building the tools–arguments and evidence that artist space is a viable investment” harbors this growth.

While gentrification may be an inevitable part of all urban growth, stagnating it by devoting specific transformative buildings helps keep the spirit of that transformation alive.