Paying the monthly rent is probably a pain for everyone but landlords. Asheville’s growing shortage of rental properties — especially affordable ones — only adds to the agony. But hope may be on the horizon: Recently, members of Artspace, a Minnesota-based property development and consulting organization, visited Asheville to explore the possibility of an affordable housing project geared toward local artists.
Why artists? At a community conversation on housing solutions held March 22, Wendy Holmes of Artspace pointed out that artists are a subset of the population, working in hospitality, food service, education and other fields. Plus, Asheville’s vibrant creative scene has long attracted both residents and tourists to the city.
Across the nation — and the world — less desirable areas (think: Asheville’s River Arts District) are often colonized by artists who, through their work, make the areas attractive, only to find themselves priced out by developers and wealthy buyers. Asheville’s goal, said Holmes, should be to sustain both its artists and its creative culture.
Although it’s the new kid on the block among Asheville arts institutions, The Center for Craft, Creativity and Design (which relocated from Hendersonville in 2013) is leading the charge. About two years ago, the 21-year-old center started looking into a development plan for its building at 67 Broadway, including its parking deck, which the organization was considering turning into housing. “That led us to reaching out to Artspace,” says Mike Marcus, assistant director of the CCCD. “Initially, we just knew about them by reputation. … We learned that, rather than come in and look at any one parcel, they really come in and look at a full community.”
The CCCD’s parking deck turned out to be unsuited for conversion to housing, but the nonprofit realized collaborating with Artspace might open other possibilities. The organization “produces a market study in a given place that can inform all kinds of developments that are in service to the creative sector. That data becomes, to us, one of the most valuable outcomes in the due diligence study,” says Marcus.
Sustainable rent ranks high on the list. At the end of 2016, Ohio-based real estate market consulting firm Bowen National Research found Buncombe County’s rental vacancy rate to be 2.7 percent — an increase from the zero percent vacancy reported in a 2015 study by the same firm, but still well below the 5 percent vacancy rate considered healthy. Xpress reported in the Feb. 8 story “Space race,” that, “the median ‘asking rent’ in Buncombe, Haywood and Henderson counties rose to $1,044 in the third quarter, from $1,016 in the previous quarter.”
Few housing options, combined with climbing prices, spell trouble across Asheville’s income brackets and employment sectors but, says Artspace’s Teri Deaver, artists “are doubly burdened with housing because they also have to rent workspace.” The company has constructed about 2,000 live/work units in more than 30 states since 1979.
Existing projects include El Barrio’s Artspace PS109 in Harlem in New York City, an abandoned public school building transformed into 89 live/work units for artists and their families, plus 10,000 square feet of space for artist organizations. Many Artspace buildings include not only home-based studios but also spaces for gallery shows, workshops and short-term living space for visiting artists. All these spaces are necessary for artists and add to their costs; the Artspace buildings help to reduce those auxiliary expenses while increasing arts programming for the surrounding community.
Those success stories aside, why should Asheville engage Artspace rather than tackle its housing issue with local resources? “It’s their track record,” Marcus says. Plus, most of the CCCD’s programs are countrywide, and “we see a lot of value in bringing national best practices to the region.”
One of the main concerns voiced in the public forum was that any affordable housing project must address racial equity. Though few people of color were in attendance on March 22, Marcus says that was just one meeting out of about 10 that occurred while Holmes and Deaver were in town. A cross section of the community was represented in all the focus groups as part of a conscious effort to have an inclusive conversation.
The first part of the due diligence study includes the recent Artspace visit, which served as an “audit of the area’s existing policies and really understanding the philanthropic community, the development community and the arts community here,” says Marcus.
The second phase — where diverse voices are especially important — is an arts market survey to be launched in the fall. “It looks at those who self-identify as artists within the community, who they are, what their income is, what their medium or discipline is and if they’re in need of affordable space,” says Marcus. The recommended number of subsidized units designated for artists proposed in the final report will equal one-third the number of qualifying artists to ensure demand. Income guidelines are the same as those used by an affordable housing developer such as Mountain Housing Opportunities.
The two parts of the study will cost just under $100,000. The project has received support from The Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, city of Asheville, Duke Energy Foundation, and Ted and Terry Van Duyn.
“Our goal, as long as funding stays on track, is at this time next year to have the due diligence complete,” says Marcus. “In many communities that have moved forward with an Artspace project, all that data has led to other projects as well by nonprofit affordable housing developers and for-profit developers.”
That’s the future vision. “Right now, there is no market data on who our creative sector is,” says Marcus. “To us, that’s one of the biggest outputs of this.”