After years of demands from artists in Santa Ana for more affordable housing to help spur community art, advocates later this year will get to see the fruits of their activism with the opening of a 58-unit downtown apartment complex, The Santa Ana Arts Collective, scheduled to open in December at 1666 N. Main Street.
Orange County’s arts community has shown a healthy interest in the project – currently there are nearly 350 names on the building’s “interest list,” even though formal applications aren’t due until September and the project is only 55 percent complete. The City of Santa Ana is planning four “educational sessions” this month to raise public awareness about the project and explain the application procedure (the dates have not yet been announced).
The Arts Collective is being managed by the Meta Housing Corporation in Los Angeles, a company that secures and leverages state and federal tax credits, arranges finance structures, and develops affordable and mixed-income apartment communities throughout the country. Since its inception in 1993, Meta has developed more than 6,400 residential units. Seven of its projects are arts colonies like the Santa Ana Arts Collective.
Local interest in the project has been very strong, said Michelle Espinosa Coulter, Meta’s director of artist housing. “In Santa Ana, the artists really demanded to have this development. The Grand Central Arts Center and several other members of the arts community have been with us since day one.” Although Espinosa Coulter said the city had made affordable housing part of its 10-year Arts and Culture Master Plan, “the citizenry went out and really pushed for it, which was fantastic to see.”
With an estimated price tag of $26.5 million, the Santa Ana Arts Collective’s living spaces will cost an average of almost $457,000 each to build. This compares to subsidized artists’ housing in other cities, some of which have drawn attention because of their expense. A new artists’ live-work complex in Chicago’s Pullman neighborhood cost $426,000 per unit, well above the median cost of a detached single-family home in many Chicago suburbs.
According to Zillow, the median cost of a home in Santa Ana is $547,800. At Santa Ana’s current cost-per-square-foot average of $401 for residential properties, $457,000 could buy a home of about 1,140 square feet, bigger than many of the units in the Artists Collective.
But other affordable-housing projects in Santa Ana have similar per-unit construction costs. Aqua Housing, a former motel at 317 17th St. with 58 permanent housing units for chronically homeless people, will cost $23.6 million, or nearly $407,000 per unit.
Tragic Fire Changed Civic Attitudes
In the last generation, affordable housing for artists has become a nationwide phenomenon, and many companies have formed to serve the trend. One of the largest is Artspace, a national nonprofit founded in 1979 that specializes in consulting, property development and asset management for artists’ residential and work environments. Artspace has been involved in more than 300 cultural facility projects throughout the U.S. Among its most prominent California endeavors 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.
The push for safe, affordable spaces for urban artists gained new urgency after a fire in 2016 at the Oakland Ghost Ship warehouse – an older building illegally and dangerously reconfigured as a live-work space by a group of artists – killed 36 people. It was the deadliest conflagration in the U.S. since 2003.
In the ensuing three years, many mayors and other city officials in different parts of the country have committed efforts and resources to creating better living and working facilities for artists.
In Baltimore, mayor Catherine E. Pugh formed a new task force to come up with recommendations for “safe art spaces.” In Kansas City, a public development corporation is spearheading efforts to create affordable live-work facilities in the Crossroads and West Bottoms districts, both older neighborhoods in the process of gentrification. In Denver, the Commission on Cultural Affairs is trying to find a replacement for a bootleg artists and music space, Rhinoceropolis, that was closed in 2016 by the fire department over violations and safety concerns.
Espinosa Coulter said the new approach avoids the old retail-based concept of urban redevelopment in favor of projects that aim to pull in specific constituencies such as artists. “Urban planning philosophies have changed and become more inclusive. The arts and culture experience has changed. The retail scene has become oversaturated; people want new and authentic experiences in vibrant neighborhoods.”
Rental rates for the living units are set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. For most units, only households making less than 60 percent of Orange County’s median household income ($86,217 in 2017) will qualify. Around 25 percent of the units will be earmarked for very low-income residents – people who make less than 30 percent of O.C.’s median household income.
Although rental rates haven’t been set, Espinosa Coulter estimated that a two-bedroom unit would rent for $1,600 per month. If you qualify as a very low-income resident, you’re eligible to rent a two-bedroom apartment for about $800 per month. Typically, rents increase about three percent or less per year for artists’ units, Espinosa Coulter said.
Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at [email protected].