Santa Ana Arts Collective, a New Community for Artists, is Ready for Occupancy

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The completed Santa Ana Arts Collective. The mid-century, five-story former bank building at 1666 N. Main Street has been repurposed for artist housing.

After an unexpected delay, Santa Ana Arts Collective will finally welcome its first tenants this month. The new 58-unit apartment complex, first proposed in November 2015 and intended specifically for local artists with limited incomes, was originally scheduled to open in December 2019. From the time the project was announced, interest from the arts community was strong: by June of 2019 there were 350 names on the building’s “interest list,” three months before formal applications were due.

The project, which involved repurposing a mid-century, five-story former bank building at 1666 N. Main Street, encountered complications soon after construction began. Major seismic issues were discovered, necessitating substantial seismic retrofitting, which pushed back the construction schedule four to six months, according to city officials. “Upon coring and destructive testing of the existing commercial building and its subterranean garage, structural reserve capacity was found to be inadequate for the proposed residential use, and broad structural strengthening and reengineering of the entire building was required,” Meta Housing Corporation officials explained via email.

The city granted the project its certificate of occupancy earlier this week. Tenants will begin moving in on Monday. A public ceremony is planned, but no date has been set yet.

The Arts Collective was developed by the Meta Housing Corporation in Los Angeles, a company that secures and leverages state and federal tax credits, arranges finance structures, and creates affordable and mixed-income apartment communities throughout the country. Leasing is provided by Irvine’s WSH Management.

Photo by JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC | Rendering courtesy Meta House Corp.

A photo of the building at 1666 N. Main Street in Santa Ana (left) before the start of development, and a rendering of the building’s design as the Santa Ana Arts Collective development (right).

As part of its 2015 proposal, Meta suggested that Santa Ana Arts Collective would act as a catalyst to persuade other businesses and developers to expand the redevelopment footprint of downtown Santa Ana, north along Main Street. Artists’ housing projects have become increasingly popular in urban cores as magnets for revitalizing and repurposing older neighborhoods, partly the result of a growing awareness among city and county governments that stable artistic communities are important to sustainable urban redevelopment.

Advocates for affordable housing in Orange County see the Santa Ana Arts Collective as an excellent example of addressing the needs of a specific population.

“The emphasis on artists is something that was identified as a need in Santa Ana because of the importance of the arts to that community,” said Cesar Covarrubias, executive director of the Kennedy Commission, a community-based non-profit that works to increase the production of affordable homes for lower-income households in Orange County. “We hope it’s a catalyst for the culture (of Santa Ana), and also for entrepreneurship.”

Covarrubias pointed out that housing affordability affects many different local populations, and the Arts Collective barely scratches the surface of a much greater need in a county where the cost of renting a home is among the highest in the nation.

“(Santa Ana) is a city that’s in desperate need of affordable housing. We’re seeing quite a bit of housing being developed at all levels,” said Covarrubias. “But the need (for affordable housing) is great where 60 to 70 percent of the population falls into the low and moderate income categories.”

But Covarrubias praised Santa Ana for its pragmatic approach to the problem. “In general, I think Santa Ana has been more proactive about its housing needs. And they do have a housing (philosophy) that is allowing for development of housing at all income levels.”

Residential Artists’ Communities are a Sign of Civic Health

“The belief that tech and creative industries are the primary drivers of the 21st-century economy has created an environment where arts and culture are seen as important signs of a thriving, growing city. It explains the obsession mayors and city planners have about economic development that can be sold as dynamic, innovative, and collaborative,” said Patrick Sisson in his 2018 article, “Why artist housing is just another kind of affordable housing.”

“The smartest cities acknowledge that in many respects, they’re in competition for energy, for investments, for young families: for their tax base,” Craig Watson, former director of the California Arts Council, told researchers at the Pew Charitable Trust studying the issue of artists’ housing.

Santa Ana Arts Collective will offer a mix of studios, one- two- and three-bedroom units. The ground floor will feature an art gallery and garden that will display the work of local artists and residents of the complex, which includes three buildings, a courtyard and new landscaping.

Applicants have to meet strict rules concerning maximum annual income: Households earning between 30% (21 units), 35% (six units), 40% (six units) and 60% (25 units) of the area median income will be eligible for consideration.

The Arts Collective is part of a larger plan by the city to provide affordable housing to its residents. According to a recent Regional Housing Needs Assessment on its website, there are currently eight affordable housing projects under development in Santa Ana, providing a total of about 500 residential units. They will help address an acute renting crisis in the city. The statistics are sobering:

  • 56% of Santa Ana residents are renters
  • 31% of Santa Ana renters spend more than 50% of their income on rent
  • Since 2010, median rents have increased by 10% while median incomes have decreased by 1.5%

The city has invested a total of $7.9 million in Santa Ana Arts Collective. A tax-exempt bond of $10 million was issued in 2017 to help with financing the project, which has a total cost of $30 million, according to the Meta Housing Corporation.

Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at [email protected].