Fixing the Housing Crisis with Artist Owned Buildings

Apr 24 at 6am

By Noah Sanders  

San Francisco is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis. In a city where residents need to make $30/hour just to afford rent, we’re in danger of pushing out the artists, families, and working class communities that are the cornerstones of this city. The struggle isn’t a black-and-white battle between landlords and tenants, it’s the challenge of maintaining an economically diverse identity in the face of overwhelming odds.

Luckily, there’s an upside to this battle. A small but growing movement is trying to buy and lease property to ensure that populations at risk of being priced out of San Francisco have a place to live. They’re slowly shifting the housing struggle from a free market economy to one that purposefully gives artists, nonprofits, and community groups roofs over their heads. It’s an ambitious goal, but one that could change the way we help keep San Francisco’s creative and civic service class intact.

Solution 1: Neighborhood Groups Housing the Neighborhood

Amy Farah Weiss, the founder of the community-development nonprofit Neighbors Developing Divisadero, is behind one of these neighborhood housing campaigns. Weiss believes in what she calls YIMBY, or “Yes In My Backyard,” the concept that development happens, and it is our role as community members to help shape this growth. “I want to stop this sloppy gentrification term,” Weiss says, alluding to the idea that hipsters and tech workers are the only ones changing the face of our city. Instead, she believes our culture is being eroded by the hasty decisions of property owners and investors who don't give enough thought to the people living in their buildings. “Developers don’t care about existing community or culture, because return on investment is their only thought,” she says. With NDD, she’s putting her support behind “inclusive, enriching, sustainable development,” but that’s much easier said than done.

Weiss’ original plan was to work with her landlord to lease her nine-unit building on Fulton and turn it into three low-income apartment units and a community gathering space called The Living Room. Her landlord, much to her surprise, supported the idea and quoted her a large sum of money she’d have to raise in order for it to work. Weiss started fundraising to pay for the first six months of renting the home. Just as the project started gaining momentum, though, the landlord decided to place the property on the market for a staggering $1.9 million.

Kahle recently worked with a San Francisco foundation to purchase property for the sole purpose of housing employees of nonprofits. A building in the Richmond is the first of what he’s referring to as “Foundation Houses.”

Instead of giving up, Weiss is asking a new question now: “What if we could work together as a community, through the use of the San Francisco Community Land Trust, to purchase this home in perpetuity?” Which is exactly what she is now trying to do. The Fulton home was recently put on the SFCLT’s short list for projects, meaning that the organization will help facilitate fundraising. Working with SFCLT, Weiss will need to raise somewhere between $600,000 and $700,000. And though the future of the project is still up in the air, she continues to tout her belief that community-supported development is the key. “These are solutions,” she says. “You get tenants and activists pitted against property owners and that’s stupid. We don’t need to make that divide.”

Solution 2: Special Housing for Nonprofit Workers

It’s nearly impossible to live in San Francisco on a nonprofit salary, yet this industry is essential to the city. Brewster Kahle is the founder of Alexa and the Internet Archive, a tech nonprofit that seeks to provide a “universal access to all knowledge.” He recently worked with a San Francisco foundation to purchase property for the sole purpose of housing employees of nonprofits. A building in the Richmond is the first of what he’s referring to as “Foundation Houses.”

Kahle’s concept for the Foundation Houses is based on the affordable housing options often provided by universities, hospitals, and churches. He wants to help nonprofit employees live in the multiunit apartment complexes at cost. In an interview with Jessica Conrad of Shareables, Kahle said, “Nonprofits are starting to serve many of the roles government used to serve. The challenge lies in providing a level of stability to people dedicating their lives to service. Foundation housing is an idea. It’s an experiment.”

It supports preexisting, permanent spaces for artists who are on the verge of being pushed out. The organization helps arts organizations own the spaces they tentatively call home. 

Kahle told Conrad that it’s his hope that the Foundation House concept will spread to other small, entrepreneurial nonprofit groups such as Wikipedia and the Mozilla Foundation. That would help facilitate stable housing for those dedicated to a life of service, while furthering the helping-hand ideals of the nonprofit community. Kahle’s first Foundation House was purchased in September of 2013 and has yet to house nonprofit workers – he is waiting for the tenants to move out at their own pace, and in the meantime, he sees the building as a long-term solution.

Solution 3: Dedicated Buildings for Arts Programming

The Community Arts Stabilization Trust, or CAST, seeks to do something similar to what Kahle is doing but with artists and artists’ spaces. Working with government agencies, civic leaders, businesses, funders, and artists alike, the organization“celebrates, promotes, and preserves artistic and cultural traditions and innovations.” It supports preexisting, permanent spaces for artists who are on the verge of being pushed out. The organization helps arts organizations own the spaces they tentatively call home. As of now, CAST has purchased the former porn theater, The Dollhouse, as a future home for CounterPULSE. CAST has also purchased the Walker Building, home to 25-year-old gallery mainstay, the Luggage Store, to provide financial security and stability as Mid-Market goes through the upheavals of development. The idea is that CAST will provide both the financial and organizational springboards for these organizations to become successful enough to repurchase the buildings in 7 to 10 years.

Development is happening all over San Francisco, which means that we’ve been presented the challenge of working within the established system to shape this growth into the best representation of this city we can. Let’s continue the momentum NDD, Brewster Kahle, and CAST have started and come up with more solutions to ensure that our city continues to be a place for the artists, nonprofit workers, and community groups so essential to this city.

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