Demythifying the Garret: Berkeley explores safe, affordable live/work spaces

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PROMISING A proposed remaking of Allston at San Pablo. (Photo courtesy of Trachtenberg Architects)

The romantic notion of artists living in garrets to support their creative efforts and defy capitalist norms is still very much with us. From Puccini’s starving Bohemians freezing in their Latin Quarter attics, to Jonathan Larson’s poor-but-defiant Alphabet District denizens riffing on La bohème in Rent, to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s salute to Larson’s own life and work in his adaption of Tick, Tick … Boom!, living conditions that include no heat, broken plumbing and rats are depicted as “sacrificing for art.”

This is romantic—if “romantic” means extremely dangerous and unhealthy. “Sacrifice for art” shouldn’t have to include 36 people dying in the Ghost Ship fire of 2016.

Yet artists, especially those young and unestablished, do need affordable spaces to live and work, spaces which are more and more difficult to find in the East Bay. Two initiatives in Berkeley are working to take a closer look at what can be done to create those spaces, stopping the exodus of creatives from an increasingly expensive city and recognizing the intersection of artist/BIPOC/disabled communities. 

Painter/photographer/filmmaker Kim Anno lived in unsafe warehouses for 28 years, breathing in toxic fumes from the propane stove that was the only heat and constantly worrying about fire and explosions. Now a civic arts commissioner for the City of Berkeley, she helps lead the Artists Affordable task force.

The task force, she said, is dedicated to exploring options for “decentralized artists’ housing”—for example, repurposing storefronts that are empty because of the ongoing decline in brick-and-mortar retail into affordable live/work spaces.

Some Berkeley City Council members already support the idea, Anno said, and are willing to consider building code/zoning changes that would permit it. The task force has already collected a large amount of data and research on cities that are exploring similar projects. “Artists need taller ceilings for building large-scale projects or for rehearsals,” she said. This concept would take advantage of spaces that already exist.

Anno pointed to San Pablo Avenue and University Avenue, in Berkeley, as potential sites for this type of redevelopment. Ideally, she said, even artists who have already been displaced could potentially be lured back if affordable live/work units were available.

Of the City of Berkeley’s five strategic goals outlined in its City of Berkeley Arts & Culture Plan 2018-2027, the first reads: “Increase access to affordable housing and affordable spaces for artists and arts organizations. Support the long-term sustainability of the arts and culture sector by expanding the availability of affordable housing and spaces for both artists and arts organizations.”

To that end, the city recently provided a survey for both artists and cultural workers—people working for arts organizations—asking for demographic information and specifics on their expenditures and “sense of risk of being displaced.” This was part of the ongoing cultural planning process, according to Berkeley’s Chief Cultural Affairs Officer, Jennifer Lovvorn.

Data from the survey, which closed Sept. 30, is currently being analyzed, but included questions such as, “If you are an artist, do you work with a medium that requires extra space and/or ventilation? This may include metal welding, spray paint, etc.,” “What percentage of your average monthly income do you spend on housing costs?” and “What are some challenges you’ve faced in the past when trying to access or find affordable housing?”

Some survey highlights and comments were provided for this article. Key findings include that respondents are highly educated but low income, and 77% of those who rent are “rent burdened,” meaning they spend up to 50% of their income on rent—or, in some cases, more.

“My housing is over 2/3 of my income, leaving little to nothing for anything over basic living expenses,” wrote one respondent.

“The only reason I am able to remain in the Bay Area is because I have been in the same unit for a decade and we have rent control. The other apartments in my building go for over twice what we’re paying,” wrote another.

Yet another respondent, who identified herself as a “white ciswoman with an upper-middle class background (i.e. no student loan debt) and a partner with a much higher-paying job,” noted how different her situation was from many artists and cultural workers. “So while my circumstances are just fine for me,” she wrote, “my privileges seem to be a prerequisite for being an arts worker.”

All of this information will help inform City Council decisions on whether to add artists and cultural workers to the list of those eligible for affordable housing, Lovvorn said. She emphasized that Berkeley does not want to become yet another city that just “showcases” art, which will happen if artists continue to be displaced.

Balancing “redevelopment,” which all too often means “gentrification,” with the real need to ensure that live/work spaces are safe, is a complex equation, Lovvorn agreed. The controversial 2005 closing of the West Berkeley warehouse known as the Drayage, which displaced multiple artists, some who had lived there for decades, would now be acknowledged as necessary in the wake of Ghost Ship.

New solutions also include some organizations creating their own housing. In 2020, Berkeley Rep broke ground on a 45-unit building that eventually will house visiting artists, as well as the company’s young professional fellows.

“Berkeley Rep is looking to its future with this project,” Managing Director Susan Medak said at the time of groundbreaking. “The rental units we currently utilize have nearly tripled in cost over the past decade. As we examined how to best steward Berkeley Rep into its next 50 years, we identified this variable expense as one of the major challenges to our long-term stability and committed ourselves to find a way to contain these costs.”

And that future for all of Berkeley, Anno and Lovvorn agreed, will need to factor in the elements of race, economic class, immigration and equity, along with the value of the arts and creativity, as it envisions and builds sustainable live/work spaces.