Ignoring SF’s Greatest Asset:
The Crisis of Artists’ Housing
Could SF's Portions of Vacant Downtown Serve as Housing for Artist Communities?
••••••• May 2023 •••••••
Almost immediately after the pandemic hit the west coast, San Francisco was in lockdown. Everything came to a halt except Amazon deliveries. People worked from home. Department stores, small businesses, and restaurants struggled to stay afloat, and many didn't. The Financial District and downtown had a post-apocalyptic emptiness, and the companies that had thrived on the throngs of daily office workers lost their customer base. In so many parts of town, once lively commercial corridors saw more vacancies than survivors, as the opportunity for remote work freed workers who could escape paying San Francisco rents by moving to Fresno. The most recent City report said that we now have over 60K vacant housing units — issued before the massive layoffs in recent months.
Conditions reached the point where government agencies needed help. Commercial corridors were primarily dead, downtown was virtually empty, and despite incentives like eliminating City start-up fees for new businesses, there was no significant resulting revitalization. The Office of Economic and Workforce Development website ran a discrete request for ideas.
In the State of the City address this February, Mayor London Breed said, “We will prioritize arts and entertainment Downtown to bring the streets alive through rezoning efforts and investments, and a new Arts Culture and Entertainment District.” As a city native who grew up in the Fillmore — the Harlem of the West before she was born — the mayor understands that arts and culture bring the streets back to life.
In the 20th century, a new and internationally appealing art form appeared here every decade. To name just a few, we had the golden age of mystery novels, Harlem of the West, Beat poets in North Beach, the Bay Area Figurative Painters on Russian Hill, rock'n'roll in the Haight, Latin rock in the Mission, kung fu movies started in Chinatown, punks and performance artists bloomed in SOMA, and in the Western Addition, the founding of Burning Man.”
Since the gold rush, the City's natural beauty and stunning architecture lured artists to San Francisco, where the physical environment stimulated creative work. In the 20th century, a new and internationally appealing art form appeared here every decade. To name just a few, we had the golden age of mystery novels, Harlem of the West, Beat poets in North Beach, the Bay Area Figurative Painters on Russian Hill, rock'n'roll in the Haight, Latin rock in the Mission, kung fu movies started in Chinatown, punks and performance artists bloomed in SOMA, and in the Western Addition, the founding of Burning Man. The City hummed with the invisible but potent energy of creative people at work and was celebrated internationally for its bohemian charm — charm which no longer exists. Burning Man, the last art movement that originated here, began 33 years ago.
The significant reason for this is that there are fewer and fewer artists left. The exodus began in the '90s, as rents began to escalate. A 2017 Arts Commission survey found that of the artists living here in 2010, about 70% had already left the City or were planning to move away soon. How many have gone since the start of the pandemic? There are no available statistics, but there were nearly two years when the things artists did for money—performances, gallery openings, book launches, events, gigs, and so on—didn't happen. It's safe to assume that there are even fewer artists here than in 2017. To revitalize downtown with an arts district, we need to make it possible for artists to live here again. Otherwise, the arts are commodified, something to be consumed. Not the source of that invisible creative energy that brings life back to struggling districts. Not the vital, invisible force that gave the City its bohemian character.
North Beach was an immigrant fishing village, with three Italian language newspapers, until the Beat poets showed up, and brought the eyes of the world to the neighborhood. The Haight was a boarded up inner-city ghetto until the rock musicians moved in. South of Market was a largely abandoned industrial district until the punks and performance artists arrived. If you want to revitalize depressed areas, the lesson of history says move in artists. In the past, every city neighborhood settled by creative people instantly had the “cool” factor. Then the rents went up and the artists were driven out, which is why permanent housing is essential to retain what made the place attractive to begin with. We need to provide artists’ housing and venues in every city neighborhood that needs revitalization.
In 2019, a group of local artists gathered to investigate the possibility of creating co-op artists' housing and venues in the City. When the City determined that there were 39K empty units in San Francisco at that time, many in buildings that were completely empty, they devised a business plan. It provided affordable housing for tenants and promoted the careers of artists living in their buildings, in the ground floor venues in mixed-use buildings; they got nonprofit status that year under the name ArtHouse SF (arthousesf.org).
The nonprofit considered the reasons an owner might buy a property and leave it empty— evading capital gains tax, showing a business loss, or just for investment purposes. Perhaps a building had been purchased so long ago that paying the minimal property tax was cheaper and easier than requisite repairs or dealing with tenants. They reasoned that if someone’s purposes were served by making no money on a property, even more purposes were served by leasing it to artists at a nominal rent, contracting a future sale to the tenants at the social impact investment rate of return, 5 – 8%. Or perhaps a building owner might partner with the nonprofit and be engaged in its success. There would be an eventual profit, but also charitable donation deductions, immense goodwill, stellar publicity, a fascinating involvement, and a gold-plated legacy: a person who gave the City back its bohemian charm.
During the pandemic, two members of the ArtHouse board were displaced from residences they had lived in for decades. When her building was sold, a third member was Ellis Act evicted. While searching for new places, they discovered a disturbing trend in the local rental market, shared by landlords and developers. It is now impossible to rent in the City unless you can present pay stubs proving you make twice, or three times, the rent. Since the arts are essentially part of the gig economy, there are rarely pay stubs. That means that actors, novelists, filmmakers, studio musicians, sculptors, painters, and freelancers of any kind cannot rent here at all — regardless of their long and stable rental histories unless they also have lucrative jobs. It’s not just people in the arts that are excluded from the rental market; it's everyone who is self-employed. If the City values diverse lifestyles and freedom of choice, we need alternatives to the limitations of the landlord and developer lobbies. Co-ops, well managed, are one time-tested option.
The City’s Office of Economic & Workforce Development, together with the nonprofit SF New Deal, launched a program called Vacant to Vibrant. Its goal is to use the arts and other compelling attractions to draw people into various downtown pop-ups. It's a good start. It doesn't solve the basic issue — keeping the people who attract us by stimulating our imaginations, giving us beauty, and, in fact, increasing our life expectancies — living in this City. Ideally, the success of such temporary “activations” will underscore the need to keep creative people living and working in our midst.
Hundreds of academic studies have examined the value of art in human life. Study after study shows that art is psychologically beneficial, but one 2019 study found that people exposed to fine art just once a year had a greater life expectancy (Steptoe, 2019). Artists make good neighbors, helping us live longer, with a track record for making struggling city districts blossom. With over 60K empty units, and a significant number of office spaces serving no current purpose, we can surely find places for artists to live. Not finding them would be a counter-productive waste of our most charming and beneficial asset.
P Segal is a San Francisco writer and organizer on the board of ArtHouseSF.org. Drawings by Alex Segal.