If you rent a home, condo or apartment in Orange County, you’re painfully aware that you live in one of the most expensive markets in the country.

According to RentCafe, which tracks the price of rental properties all over the U.S., just 31 percent of Orange County’s rental units are classified as “affordable” – in other words, they cost less than 30 percent of a typical renter’s household income. In 2018, the average O.C. tenant paid a median rent of $1,786 per month, almost 35 percent of the average monthly gross income of $5,125. Nationwide, about half of all rental units are affordable.

Most artists scrape by on far less than O.C.’s median income. If you’re a painter, writer, dancer or musician, simply paying the rent on a modest place is a sign of considerable success in your field.

In its continuing effort to attract the creative professions to its redeveloping downtown core, the City of Santa Ana, in partnership with several private companies, will soon provide affordable housing for artists and their families. The Santa Ana Arts Collective, a 58-unit apartment building at 1666 N. Main Street, is scheduled to open in November.

The renovated five-story commercial structure will feature a mix of studios, one- two- and three-bedroom units. The ground floor of the former bank will be dominated by an art gallery and garden that will display the work of local artists and residents of the apartment community. In addition to the renovated structure, the project includes three new buildings, a courtyard and new landscaping. L.A.’s Meta Housing Corporation is the developer, with leasing provided by Irvine’s WSH Management.

“We have other affordable housing projects, but to my knowledge this is the only one that is targeting artists specifically,” said Daisy Perez, senior management assistant for the City of Santa Ana. Perez added that artists who already live in Santa Ana will be considered first, although non-residents are invited to apply. Applicants must meet strict rules concerning maximum annual income: Households earning between 30 percent (20 units), 35 percent (6 units), 40 percent (6 units) and 60 percent (25 units) of the Area Median Income will be eligible for consideration.

Perez said the city had invested a total of $7.9 million in the project. “They are in the final stages of construction, and my understanding is that they are on schedule.”

Financing for the Santa Ana Arts Collective project includes $2,219,760 in HOME Investment Partnerships Program funds, $500,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds, and $5,275,000 from the City of Santa Ana Inclusionary Housing Fund. A tax-exempt bond of $10 million was issued in 2017 to help with financing the project, which cost a total of $26.5 million.

Santa Ana Joins a National Trend

There’s a growing belief among many mayors and city planners that tech and creative industries are the principal growth engines of the 21st-century economy, and a city’s health can be measured partly by the vitality of its cultural community.

“The smartest cities acknowledge that in many respects, they’re in competition for energy, for investments, for young families, for their tax base,” said Craig Watson, former director of the California Arts Council.

In many ways, the Santa Ana Arts Collective is a reflection of this innovative new approach, which doesn’t stop at merely providing a roof over artists’ heads. Considerable resources are being directed toward improving its residents’ quality of life. In addition to its public gallery, the project will provide a digital and media lab, music room and performing arts room. According to santa-ana.org, EngAGE, the project’s service provider, will be responsible for after-school tutoring, computer training, creativity programs and other services.

In local terms, this considerable degree of civic largesse seems like a daring experiment. But Santa Ana is merely following a growing national trend.

In New York City, America’s perennial cultural Mecca, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to provide 1,500 affordable housing units for artists and musicians by 2025 through partnerships with nonprofit organizations.

Nashville, a respected capital of the music industry, has seen a dramatic uptick in real estate and a tourism boom in recent years. Its city council recently introduced a program that will help creative professionals access low-interest loans to purchase property.

In Indianapolis, the Big Car Collaborative subsidizes artist housing through a local land trust. Participating artists are asked to contribute their time and resources to community-revitalization projects.

Artspace, a nonprofit that develops real estate for the arts, has opened 43 different artists housing projects since it launched in 1979. Among its most prominent California successes is the Tannery Arts Center in Santa Cruz, a $42-million complex that includes 28 commercial art studios and 100 live-work studios, as well as several projects in San Francisco.

Robert L. Lynch, the CEO and president of Americans for the Arts, sums up the new attitude that drives civic governments to be more attentive to their community’s artistic vitality: “Strategic investment in our arts and cultural organizations is not an extra; it’s a path to prosperity.”

The growing strength of the trend begs a question in Orange County, where there’s no shortage of civic competitiveness: how many other local cities will soon follow Santa Ana’s lead?

Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at phodgins@voiceofoc.org.

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