ArtHouseSF: A Nonprofit For Artists’ Housing and Venues
Fresh Tactics, Better City:
Introducing ArtHouseSF, a Nonprofit for Artists’ Housing and Venues
When I was growing up in San Francisco, the city was full of artists of all kinds. Every decade of the 20th century, there was some new arts movement flourishing, and often starting, here. Dashiell Hammett changed mystery fiction when he worked in the Flood Building for Pinkerton and wrote The Black Falcon. The Western Addition had the Harlem of the West. The Bay Area Figurative Painters gave canvases a new look on Russian Hill. The Beat poets turned the eyes of the world to North Beach. Rock exploded in the Haight, Latin rock in the Mission, Bruce Lee dreamed up the kung fu film in Chinatown, Francis Ford Coppola wrote The Godfather in Caffe Trieste. Then we had punk, performance art, and machine art. In 1990, the last major art movement in San Francisco started up in my living room: Burning Man. The only new thing to happen here since then is the steady exodus of artists from San Francisco.
A 2017 Arts Commission survey discovered that about three quarters of the artists who’d lived here in 2000 had left, or were planning to leave—and that was before the pandemic, when most people in the arts had no work for a couple of years, and even less money than usual. And to make sure they’d never come back, the city’s landlords had a new policy, requiring potential tenants to show pay stubs, proving they made three times the rent, to get a lease. Artists could only do that if they also had a full-time job. The arts are quintessential gig economy.
I watched nearly all my artist friends leave town, and about 7 years ago, I started to think about a solution. We started a nonprofit and approached city government. Not one City official would even speak to me, even though the National Endowment for the Arts said they’d fund our project—if we could partner with the City. This is disturbing because, historically, the only governments that don’t take care of their artists are fascist dictatorships. San Francisco, with its glut of FBI indictments for corruption, no doubt preferred to see us go.
Traditional philanthropy was no help, either. Every foundation has guidelines, and many of them support the arts, but none of them seem to care if artists have residences. Our fiscal sponsor said that the only place to find support was in the private sector. The ArtHouseSF board spent the pandemic devising a plan, while three of us coped with displacement from places we’d lived for years.
A 2019 City report said that there were 39K empty units in San Francisco, The estimate now is nearly twice that. We know that many of those empty units are distributed in otherwise occupied buildings. But we also know there are many buildings in the city standing empty, purchased to offset capital gains taxes, show a business loss, or just for investment. And with a vacancy tax looming in the November local election, a lot of property owners will be wanting tenants. We have an offer for them.
ArtHouseSF says that if investors can buy buildings and leave them empty until they can be sold at a profit, we’d like to lease them at a nominal rent, with the agreement to buy them at the 5-8% social impact investment rate of return at some future date. We particularly want mixed use buildings, where we can have galleries, bookstores, cafes, and performance spaces on the ground floor. We offer a variation on the co-op format: We lease housing at really affordable rents, but ask residents to work a certain number of hours each week in our businesses. We use the profitability from the businesses to buy the buildings, and not egregious rents, and if we already have the lease on commercial spaces, and mostly free labor, it’s much easier to make a profit quickly.
We choose tenants based on how much we love their work, and what other useful skills they have. We support their careers in our galleries, performance spaces, publishing wing, and other public access spaces. We build and support community, and invite the world in–especially the immensely lucrative international art market. We’re loving the possibility of a musicians’ building in the Financial District, where the noise at night won’t bother anyone, and performance venues have plenty of street parking and easy access to public transit.
This project is good for everyone. Wherever we open, we’ll bring fresh life to depressed commercial corridors, and foot traffic to neighboring merchants. We’ll give people great places to go, and increase art tourism, which is great for so many city industries, while restoring that creative vibrancy that made this city so appealing. It’s good for landlords, because any long-time city resident knows that wherever there are lots of artists, the neighborhood gets trendy. And it’s especially good for investors, because it’s a legacy investment and a source of immense goodwill. Imagine being the person who made San Francisco arty again. We’re hero-makers.
ArthouseSF starts with taking care of our creative community, but it offers a model that can be adapted for other nonprofit housing projects. How long have we waited for the City to produce housing for our pathetically underpaid teachers? They have allowed landlords and developers to make sure creative people, self-employed people, or gig workers can’t rent here, perhaps because they know that most people in the arts have paid half their income for rent since forever—and without those pay stubs, forget renting here at all. We can only rely on government to take care of some people. ArtHouseSF is a way for people to work together, in a fantastic win-win, to restore our fabled bohemian charm.