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  • 12.17.14

In Gentrifying New York, Can Affordable Housing For Artists Change A Neighborhood?

A new building in East Harlem will be incredibly cheap–as long as you’re a creative person. Can keeping artists around change the normal trajectory of a city’s sky rocketing rents?

Sunlight streams through the tall windows and warms the spotless wood floors at PS 109, some of the most coveted apartments in Manhattan at the moment. No, these aren’t new luxury skyscrapers or hipster lofts. The apartments are inside a former elementary school in East Harlem, and an incredible 53,000 people applied for the chance to lease one of the new affordable housing project’s 89 units.

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At a time of skyrocketing rents in New York, that absurd level of demand isn’t at all unusual for a new affordable housing project. What is unique are the lucky people who will soon move into the space, where massive studios will rent as low as $494 a month and two-bedrooms for only $1,022: All future residents will be artists.


El Barrio’s Artspace PS 109 is the first New York City project for the Minneapolis nonprofit Artspace, a 35-year-old organization that owns and develops affordable housing for artists at the invitation of cities all around the country, with projects financed largely by federal low-income tax credit programs and some charitable gifts.

Often the group works in struggling cities or neighborhoods that are seeking an economic facelift and think artists might help; Artspace describes itself as a leader in “artist-led community transformation.” But with properties in 30 cities, it is also sometimes working on the flip side to that mission—helping to keep working artists living in their own rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods—in very expensive cities such as New York.

The premise is interesting. Artists are the leading edge of gentrification, aren’t they? They move to cheaper neighborhoods and help make them hip, and soon, along come trendy coffee shops, rising rents, and new well-off residents who displace long-time ones (See: SoHo in the 1970s, Bushwick in 2014). As a neighborhood gets more expensive, they move again; paradoxically, artists are symbols of gentrification, and its victims all at once (though it’s very far from clear that they actually are the cause). This is a cycle that is being repeated in neighborhood after neighborhood, not only in New York, but in other cities becoming more and more squeezed for affordable housing. Musicians in Austin, dancers in San Francisco, and painters in Seattle all struggle to stay in places they helped revitalize.


Artspace’s main mission in New York is, in a small way, to break that cycle—to preserve the cultural fabric of a small corner of Manhattan that’s starting to change quickly.

“The danger of a gentrifying New York is that every community starts to feel the same. The cultural ecosystems become not only less diverse, but the culture of New York as a whole becomes less vital,” says Shawn McLearen, Artspace’s vice president of property development and project director for PS 109. “Today, you can go in any community, and it feels like it’s a community. That’s the sort of thing we need to invest in.”

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East Harlem, also known as Spanish Harlem or El Barrio, is the traditionally Puerto Rican neighborhood where these fears are playing out. Steeped in a rich artistic heritage, the area is a comparatively poor part of Manhattan that lies just north of the ritzy Upper East Side; housing prices have been rising there for at least the last decade.

Groups like El Barrio’s Operation Fightback, Artspace’s local partner for the PS 109 project, once worked to claim the neighborhood back from drug dealers. Today, they are working to keep this area affordable for long-time residents amid an influx of newcomers. With the PS 109 project, the two organizations are trying to choose artists from the neighborhood as much as possible: They’ve promised that at least half (if not more) of the new building’s residents, who start moving in as soon as this week, will be drawn from applicants who already live nearby. More than 500 local artists have applied

Artist Gloria Duque is among those who hope to win an apartment. Originally from Colombia, she has lived on the Upper East Side/East Harlem border for 27 years and has watched rents rise all around her, working as a freelance designer and caterer to make ends meet. As with many artists, her most important currency is her space and her time— the time to be creative and make art. PS 109’s large live-work apartments, and the artistic community that will soon flourish there (the building will have a gallery and community space), are what attract her to the building. “With my art, I am in a stage where I need more space to grow,” she says. Her sculptures and objects, she says, require large work areas that she doesn’t have right now.

She first has to snag an apartment. The initial step is meeting the income qualifications (applicants must make from $19,000-$35,000 annually for one person to $38,000-$50,000 for a family of four), and then interview with a committee that determines whether she meets the artist preference criteria. (This involves demonstrating a “sustained commitment to her craft,” regardless of her work’s artistic merit or the income earned from it). The committee also considers an applicant’s enthusiasm for participating in the community both in and outside of the building. Duque, who exhibited an installation in an end-of-construction celebration Artspace held this fall, is full of nervous energy as she waits to hear whether she’ll get a spot.

Artspace pioneered the idea of building affordable housing for artists in the late 1980s with a project in St. Paul, Minnesota. Unlike many for-profit developers, it intended to keep its buildings affordable permanently rather than jack up rents in 15 to 20 years, after the requirement to keep prices low in return for receiving federal tax credits expires. By 2007, it had already developed 14 projects when the IRS, in an audit, told the organization that its artist preference policy violated the tax credit law because the buildings weren’t available for general public use. In response, a national coalition successfully lobbied to revise housing law in 2008, including a new clarification that allowed preferences for tenants involved in “artistic or literary activities.” Today, being an artist is the only specific occupation specifically singled out in the law.


With affordable housing in New York in such high demand, it seems like it would be controversial to set aside a building for artists. Instead, there is relatively little community opposition—a credit, Artspace’s vice president of communications Melodie Bahan says, to the careful community engagement that went into the 10istration hop-year project. It took many meetings to convince local citizens and politicians that the organization was dedicated to the community and didn’t want to bring in “hipsters from Brooklyn.” Eventually many supported the project. It helped their case that the dilapidated PS 109 school, which had been saved from demolition by the community and preserved as a historic landmark, had already sat empty and crumbling for 10 years when the Artspace development was first proposed in 2004. The gut renovation cost $52 million, financed by a combination of federal, state, and city tax credits, and some loans and donations from private foundations.

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McLearen thinks other housing developers should try to replicate the success of the project. “The innovation of this project is in its community engagement,” he says. “I hope we’ll see more developers agreeing that community engagement is not a risk but a benefit.”

The bigger question, however, is what impact the project will make in forestalling more sweeping changes to the culture of the neighborhood. Even if it doesn’t cause gentrification, it could still be “playing a zero-sum game,” says Nathan Newman, an affordable housing advocate with the group MORE NYC. “If Artspace is one-off, it might not have a big splash either way,” he says.

“You get so much conflict and effort expended to build one building—and then you get 52,000 applications for 100 apartments. You basically have to win the lottery, and everyone else loses out,” he says, speaking of the way new affordable housing tends to work in the city. Policies that tackle the systemic barriers to creating and funding more affordable housing at a much larger scale should be the bigger focus, he argues. (NYC Mayor De Blasio’s new administration hopes to build or preserve 200,000 affordable units in the next 10 years).

As Artspace’s experience shows, the demand for affordable housing, for artists or otherwise, is growing in many cities, not just New York. Its current or recent projects include building in neighborhoods like the historic Treme neighborhood of New Orleans, a center of the city’s music culture that is becoming more expensive. It recently built a project in Seattle. Unrelated to Artspace’s work, in Austin, Texas, the first affordable housing community in the city’s downtown in 45 years will reserve 10 apartments for artists and other creative types. But, there too, advocates for the creative community view it as just a drop in the bucket.

As New York becomes a more exclusive city for those who have already made it, Newman fears the loss of the experimentation and dynamism that make the city what it is. “We should be cultivating affordable housing in general, and there will always be artists who come,” he says.

Artspace, of course, wouldn’t disagree that bigger ideas are needed. “We could spend the rest of our lives working just in New York and Seattle,” says Bahan.

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[Photos: Courtesy of Artspace, Greg Foley, Greg Handberg, HHL Architects, Christopher Lopez, Shawn McLearen, Gustavo Rosado, Gary Santana, James Shanks, Emily Taylor]

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.

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