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There’s Always A Problem, Sometimes there’s a Solution: Internal thoughts from a collective.


Part 1 - Problem1

I have a problem as an artist. My problem is that I cannot afford to pay much more than $2 per square foot for a studio in New York. Really, I can’t afford it at all unless I am selling my art, which also poses a problem because I critique the art market’s unusual economic structures. I also teach high school part-time in order to be able to afford $1,460 a month in rent to live in Bushwick, Brooklyn; which is another problem, since my wife and I are white, college-educated artists in a mixed community with a large Latino population. My primary identity in the art world and this social narrative isn’t ‘public high school teacher’ working within my community (my student Jose lives down the street), but as a white gentrifying artist (even though I earn most of my income teaching). We started paying $1,400 in 2008, which was roughly double the median rent of $795 in 20072 when we moved to Bushwick after our single family home (subdivided into three one-bedroom apartments) was sold in Williamsburg for $840,000 in 2005. It was worth about $400,000 in 2003. Now our landlord, another white, college-educated artist (who is really a union organizer), let us know that we are currently renting our apartment hundreds of dollars below current market value via some Craigslist ads, which brings me back to the first problem.

I don’t own any property.

Perhaps, if my wife and I pool all our savings, raid our retirement, and borrow money from our families we might be able to buy a two family home in Ridgewood, Queens, which is a problem because we come from college educated homes and benefit from intergenerational privilege. Although buying from a long-term resident who will benefit from the increased property values isn’t much of a problem, because it benefits the long-term resident. Potentially, it could become a problem if we were to displace lower-income tenants by becoming owner-occupants.

I’ll pause here for a moment for what isn’t really discussed as a problem: People who sell their properties for a profit after property values rise in a neighborhood. This is generally considered one of the positive aspects of gentrification/urban renewal/neighborhood change in so much as it can benefit long term, middle class residents of a neighborhood like Ridgewood, which borders Bushwick. There is little complaint about a long-term resident of Ridgewood cashing out on the rising property value of their home and moving to the suburbs. In fact, rising property values would seem to be the raison d’être of home ownership. The received wisdom is that you buy a home for one price, pay off the mortgage over time, and then sell it for a tidy profit after thirty years or give it to your descendants (which comes to define the problem or benefit of class privilege). The expectation of perpetual growth of property value is a cornerstone of the American middle-class dream, except, of course when property values nose dive or stagnate and implode the economy.

Rising property values still can be a problem/benefit for homeowners facing higher property taxes (school funding gets increased as it is tied to taxes on property value), but it is really a much bigger problem for lower income renters living precariously from paycheck to paycheck. A sudden increase in rent of a few hundred dollars by a landlord facing higher property taxes can break the budget of a family with little disposable income. I’m facing a similar situation, although I have a safety net (secondary art income) of a few months rent, so with my landlord trying to increase his rental income, I have time to research my legal options and look for a smaller apartment elsewhere. My wife and I rent two studios for about $1,000 a month total and could downsize since we have no children. Other renters I know without rent-stabilization are also facing sudden, dramatic increases of $300 to $400 by their landlords (some who are owner-occupants and some who art not) and are being forced out.

It’s also a problem to talk about any of this as a white, college educated male (and mansplaining is horrible, which I worry that I am doing), because I am one of the successive waves of people with greater income than the previous tenants (mainly a function of my state certification to teach art in a public high school), who were in many cases, non-white, long term residents of the neighborhood. In short, in most gentrification narratives, I am the complicit artist who displaced someone and will be displaced by someone else. In this narrative it’s exciting for some people to thrill at the prospect of the white artist gentrifier being kicked out by another white, non-artist gentrifier with more money.

What many people in similar or worse economic circumstances will think as they read this is "You’re part of the problem, so please stop whining about it." To discuss my own complicity in a market that is currently displacing me is a problem for people. It implies that I view myself and other artists as victims of our own participation, as if we have done this all alone to ourselves, and that we are ignoring or eliding the real victims of gentrification who are the lower-income, long-term residents whose main adversary appears to be other renters, not the landlords who consciously make individual decisions to increase the rents (precisely because they can). What most people won’t discuss though is the function of housing as a personal investment vehicle instead of a basic human right and what that means about gentrification. It’s not so often that the conversation surrounding gentrification shifts not only to the landlords, but also to capitalism, the profit motive, and speculation.

No matter what happens to my wife and I—we are only two actors in a very large social game—there is another stage of gentrification coming to Bushwick. The old Rheingold beer factory site was recently rezoned and will be redeveloped into luxury housing bringing yet another wave of people, who won’t be artists, working-poor or working-class, but will either be higher income professionals or people of privilege. The entire area was rezoned after a public city council meeting and approved at subsequent closed-door session.3 There were the usual promises of ‘affordable housing’ which has come to mean families making $50,000 a year (Bushwick’s average income is approximately $36,0004), making those promised units less than affordable for the working-poor. In fact, according to a development plan, only 20% of the housing will be available for low-to-moderate income households.5

In 2006, New York City developed 46 units of low-income housing on some of the Rheingold Brewery land.

This kind of unaffordable development in culturally rich and diverse yet economically poor neighborhoods is only a problem for lower income people (the majority) and has become a symbol of gentrification for those who refuse to call it neighborhood change or urban renewal. These luxury homes are an investment opportunity for the upper classes and a way to maximize the economic value of land, as opposed to say, maximize its social value. At the top of the economic food chain, most of the problems I have discussed matter little to anyone since they are simply acting in their own self-interest and working within the legal boundaries of capitalism.

It seems that the issue of housing in New York isn’t about serving the needs of the majority of people in the city, but serving the needs of investors and developers trying to maximize the economic return on a limited amount of land. Any responsibility for providing new, low-income and affordable housing falls on the city, which has thrown open the doors to private development during Mayor Bloomberg’s three terms with generous, long-term tax abatements. Public housing in New York unfortunately is synonymous with housing projects and persistent problems associated with them; drugs and violence. Mayor Bloomberg has been a friend of developers who have transformed neighborhoods like the Williamsburg waterfront into upper-class communities, but hasn’t done much in the way of public housing. In 2006, the city made 46 units of new, low-income housing available on a small portion of the old Rheingold Brewery land, the rest of which will now be developed by Forrest Lots LLC, a subdivision of Read Property Group LLC. Instead of creating more low and moderate-income housing, the New York Community Housing Authority (NYCHA) is routinely derided for mismanagement and waste in the daily papers in New York. The public conversation around public housing is often rooted in the stereotype of "the projects." If anything, updated loft laws have been one of the few supports for people living in commercial spaces—including artists and other creative people—during Bloomberg’s tenure. That doesn’t exactly help working families living in residential homes where landlords continue to do whatever they can to get their units above the rent stabilization limit of $2,500 a month.6

As a private citizen/teacher (not just an artist), the housing situation in New York is deeply troubling, and with some hard work and help, my wife and I may be able to become homeowners and break the cycle of facing increasing rents by obtaining a fixed rate, thirty year mortgage and hopefully, building equity in a property that will be worth much more money in the future. As it is, becoming a homeowner is largely an individual or family responsibility that rewards people who have the persistence and capital to take care of themselves. I don’t have much hope that the city will begin building affordable, rent-stabilized housing in New York, so in the end we will likely pursue our own self-interest and try and buy a two or three family home by ourselves or with another family of artists.

Part 2 - Solution

As an artist, I am much less interested in applying the same logic to my workspace. What I am interested in is addressing the problem of precarious workspaces in New York for a community of visual artists who have specific needs such as space with light and ventilation. I’ve become interested in trying to develop long-term cultural workspace that will be available to visual artists with stabilized rents and an express purpose to remain studio spaces despite the pressures of rising property values and residential housing development. This interest, which came of out discussions with a group of really amazing artists concerned with the economy of the arts, led me to write a short proposal called The Yellow Building which became part of a public conversation about preserving cultural workspace and the constant threat of gentrification or neighborhood change or urban renewal.7 Artists, although a relatively small community within any community in New York, are often discussed as the ‘pioneers’ in a kind of neo-colonial settler narrative of economically disadvantaged areas that is almost as repellent as the developers who then market a neighborhood because, at one time, it had a bunch of ‘cool artist’ types who must really like to drink all the time, since the bars around here are always filled. Somehow, I don’t think all those kids are artists.

Of course the ability to stake out roots by buying property, even in collaboration with other artists (the group is also exploring the possibility of attracting investors to create a trust), requires a certain amount of capital. It is a middle-class survival strategy, not a low-income one. It is also unlikely to be a long-term solution, given that there would be no way to stop the artists—or their descendents [sic]—from selling the studios at market rate in the future.8

That’s Kim Velsey of the New York Observer writing about a group I got involved with to try and do something about the rising costs and diminishing amount of studio spaces in the area. The project was tentatively named "Stay in Bushwick" by Paddy Johnson, founder of blog Art F City, who needed something to call a town hall meeting we organized at artist Jules De Balincourt’s studio to discuss ideas of collectively-owned live-work spaces. Velsey’s article was in response to a Wall Street Journal report [Subscription required] by Vera Haller about our small group’s initial ideas to work collectively on the studio problem. Velsey identified two major, immediate problems about our efforts. The first is always of course, capital, while the second is connected to the problem of individual property ownership. Velsey makes an assumption about the types of models we are considering, ones that would result in individual artists owning their own spaces such as co-ops or condos. For me, this is one the major ideas that I hoped to mitigate when I wrote The Yellow Building.

The main thrust of my proposal, which Velsey doesn’t appear to have considered or read, is that the building itself would be the focus of the organization, not the individuals who might end up making use of it. I say this after discussing homeownership and my own self-interest. I am not looking to create a studio situation where individual artists or their descendants will become private owners of property that they can sell for a profit. What I outlined in The Yellow Building is an idea to create an entity such as trust or corporation that would buy a building as an asset and manage the rental of stabilized workspaces to artists in perpetuity. No single individual would own the building and it would have to be managed, now and in the future, by a board representing the primary interest of maintaining the building as studio rentals.

When Velsey says " . . . there would be no way to stop the artists . . . from selling the studios at market rate in the future." it would seem that she has not possibly considered any other kind of model for private property ownership. My proposal—which is not a concrete plan by any stretch of the imagination—is hopefully a way of thinking about alternatives to Velsey’s rather limited notion of what is possible. I don’t mean to single out Ms. Velsey for her opinion, but she states that there is "no possible way" to address the problem of individual self-interest that so often dooms property collectives. I have talked to a number of people who say "It’s a good idea, but then things change, people change, and someone always wants to sell . . . " I started meeting with De Balincourt, Lynn Sullivan9, and Johnson precisely to discuss these issues, some of which I raised in The Yellow Building and thought might be an effective way of dealing with the problem Ms. Velsey deems intractable. While we don’t have an actionable plan yet, we are exploring different possibilities of using the tools of capitalism to mitigate the issue of self-interest that Velsey rightly cites as a barrier to collective ownership. We hope that our ideas might serve a different purpose than simply being an individual asset to be later sold based on personal need or desire.

This brings me back to Ms. Velsey’s first problem, capital. Individually, I don’t have the same means to buy a large commercial property, as I might have to buy a small two-family home. Even collectively, a large group of artists would face significant challenges in coming up with a 20-30% down payment on a multi-million dollar commercial property, considering the results of our informal survey we distributed at "Stay in Bushwick’s" open town hall meeting. Many of the 58 artists who responded have little capital and earn less than $50,000 a year (which is still above the average income of Bushwick of $37,000 a year). To buy a property and build out art studios will require fundraising and possibly private investment. We have been discussing ways to make this not an investment in the property itself, but rather the business entity managing the building as an asset. The idea here would be to provide a modest return for investors (3% - 5%) based on the income generated from the studio rentals, not the increase in the value of the property itself. We aren’t discussing this as a for-profit enterprise, but rather as a way to serve our shared, long-term interest in preserving cultural workspace in New York. As co-organizer Lynn Sullivan said to the Wall Street Journal "The main focus of what we're doing here is the preservation of cultural workspace. We are trying to create a little more security for people who live very precarious lives."10

Remaining warehouse space from the Rheingold brewery re-purposed for wholesale distribution slated for residential rezoning and development.

If "Stay in Bushwick" is going to raise money to buy a studio building, we aren’t looking to create personal nest eggs for individual artists or asking for a "free lunch," but to found a self-sustaining model that acts like a business without being driven to maximize profits. It is an idea of cultural and social investment in a specific area of activity that will only help with one small problem facing lower-income communities. Personally, I’m not interested in engaging in work that would use the property to generate profits on the speculative market. I am much more interested in trying to convince people that they can do exactly what Sullivan suggests, preserve cultural workspace for artists now and in the future in New York. When I retire from art making or die, whichever comes first, I want to be able to walk or wheel my way out from the studio and make way for another artist struggling to pay rent on an apartment and maintain a studio practice. I’d like to help make that possible at a cost significantly below market value. If there is an economic benefit from the models we are considering one is that artists wouldn’t be paying rents that increase with the market, which could result in significant savings over ten to twenty years. Also, every artist paying rent in the building would know where the rent is going and for what any future profits will be used; keeping the rent low and eventually creating more studio spaces. Another idea I proposed in The Yellow Building would be to use any profits generated from the building to try and expand the project and buy another commercial property. While stabilized rents will not increase the income relative to the market, it could be possible to borrow against the equity of the building to acquire another commercial property to expand and provide more studio space in New York. Basically, I imagine The Yellow Building as a self-replicating entity managed by people to help expand its interests, which are few: Preserve studios for artistic practice. Instead of using the property to extract money, it would be used to grow and serve more artists over time. I think this is one of the primary ideas that gives the project the potential to do more than serve our own peer group and become an intergenerational project.

If we can start to even envision workspace as a shared, long term interest for artists, perhaps society can start to see property and housing as something other than a speculative, profit-generating system. While there is growing interest in ecologically sustainable housing, it also has to be seen as a basic human right from a class perspective. The development of luxury housing at the expense of affordable, sustainable housing and industrial and commercial spaces in New York seems to reflect the broader trend of income and wealth inequality in New York, where fewer people accumulate more income and wealth. I hope that The Yellow Building and the work of "Stay in Bushwick" are only part of a larger conversation about the way we view property in New York City and America in general, as something integral to the quality of life of the people who live and work in it, not merely the economic interests of landlords, developers, and investors. It’s only a radical concept in a society that has so oriented itself towards the ‘efficiency’ of privatization (with profit as evidence), where other values—human dignity, security, and culture—have come afterthoughts to profit. It’s not even remotely radical when viewed through a Marxist or socialist lens and that is what is deeply frustrating.

I’d like to see more people having conversations about alternatives to the status quo that involve ways of removing property from the speculative market and give it renewed social or cultural purpose like the quality and security of people’s lives. There are always going to be problems, particularly when the problem is as fundamental as housing, but when raising ideas about how to do something differently—besides perpetuating the status quo—becomes a subject of ridicule, it’s clear why there are so few challenges to the interests of the ruling class in America. There is always some other problem raised rather than the one right in front of us—that anyone who struggles to pay rent, struggles to save for a down payment, struggles to pay a mortgage would understand that this divides people into competing stakeholders; rather than suggesting ways to work together in solidarity or in coalition to challenge what ownership means and who is benefitting from the kinds of gentrification/neighborhood change/urban renewal occurring around us that inspire anger and division; which allows the people with the money to put up that next gleaming condo where very few of us will live, let alone own.

[1] The opinions reflected here are my own and do not represent those of the collective working group I am part of.
[2] http://furmancenter.org/files/204.pdf
[3] http://therealdeal.com/blog/2013/09/20/city-planning-stays-mum-on-shady-bushwick-rezoning-vote/
[4] http://www.census.gov/epcd/www/zipstats.html
[5] https://www.pdffiller.com/en/project/11493752.htm and http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/pdf/env_review/rheingold/eas.pdf
[6] http://www.housingnyc.com/html/resources/faq/rentstab.html
[7] https://docs.google.com/document/d/1dLl0V_7AejNr2eSPgZyZ5Vd3IrSZPgvROMlEW5Jd-EI/edit?usp=sharing
[8] http://observer.com/2013/08/crown-heights-vs-bushwick-whose-anti-gentrification-fight-is-more-futile/
[9] Both of whom are artists and fellow Hunter College alumni
[10] http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324136204578641892168697664.html

About Author

William Powhida is an artist living and working in Brooklyn. Currently he is working with artists Jules de Balincourt, Lynn Sullivan, Shawn Gallagher, and ArtFCity editor Paddy Johnson to preserve cultural work space and art studios in New York City.

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