February, 15, 2015
By Brigid Bergin
For Heather Hart, her career as a working artist in New York City has reached a tipping point. Over the past 13 years, since leaving her home in Seattle, she’s cobbled together the means to live here and do her work: large interactive sculptures and drawings. In 2012, that work was featured in the Brooklyn Museum’s Raw / Cooked exhibit for under-the-radar Brooklyn artists.
The 39-year-old has an apartment in Bedford Stuyvesant, and a studio space in Bushwick two bus rides away. She can barely afford them now and come April 1st, the lease on her apartment will expire. If her landlord raises the rent too much, and she’s not able to find a grant to pay for her for work space, she may have to leave the city.
“You know, I don’t want to. I love it in New York. It’s my home,” said Hart. “But it’s that tipping point where it just becomes ridiculous and not sustainable.”
In his second State of the City address on Tuesday, WNYC has learned that Mayor Bill de Blasio plans to unveil an initiative that may give Hart some hope. As part of the administration’s broader affordable housing agenda, the city aims to build 1,500 new affordable live-work spaces for New York City artists by 2024.
It’s part of the city’s overall goal to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing over ten years, detailed in a plan released last May. In the same way pre-kindergarten dominated the city’s policy agenda in 2014, Mayor de Blasio has called affordable housing his “number one priority for 2015.”
“We just can’t allow artists to be priced out of New York City,” said Tom Finkelpearl, Commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs. “They’re important for the soul of the city, they’re important for neighborhoods, they’re really important for the economy.”
Under the plan, the city will build 150 units of live-work space for artists each year. Those developments are also expected to include gallery and performance spaces open to the public.
The new live-work units will be built with capital funding through the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development along with a $3 million annual commitment from the Department of Cultural Affairs and an additional $3 million from private foundations.
The developments will include income requirements based on the HPD funding program used for the project. The City will also partner with third party organizations — likely nonprofits — to develop the criteria for qualifying an artist.
At PS109 Artspace in El Barrio in East Harlem, for example, the project’s developer participated in the interview process and considered an artist to be anyone who can demonstrate consistent participation in a creative pursuit.
Finkelpearl said the city’s new program is designed with “hard-working” artists in mind.
“We’re not talking about right now giving affordable space to the Jeff Koons of the world, like the superstar artist making millions of dollars. We’re talking about those artists that could qualify for low income housing, ” said Finkelpearl.
The first request for proposals for the new live-work project will be issued by the end of this year, according to city officials. The units, while mostly new construction, may also involve the rehabilitation of existing spaces.
On Tuesday, De Blasio is also expected to announce the development of 500 new below-market, work spaces over the next ten years in a bid to keep artists and makers from leaving the city. Those work spaces will also include shared community space and will be created with an eye towards creating communities that are cultural hubs. The city plans to identify 1-2 city owned spaces for this project by the end of 2015.
For Hoong Yee Lee Krakauer, executive director of the Queens Council for the Arts, said she hopes these programs provide artists with more stability and at the same time engages them in the city’s future “on the land level.”
She’s also optimistic that organizations like hers will increasingly become part of the planning process for new projects, as opposed to an “afterthought” once a space has been built.
Finkelpearl said he still believes artists are coming to New York in large numbers, but his plan is intended to address what he called the “impending crisis” — meaning the risk that the city will lose the next generation of artists.
“I think they’re still here,” offered Finkelpearl, “and if we give them a cheap place to work and an affordable place to live, I think they’re going to stay.”