ARTISTS AND AFFORDABLE HOUSING
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- "Affordable housing" is a jargon term that puts most people, including me, to sleep. Affordable to who? Isn't all housing affordable to somebody?
But whether or not the term is sexy, the concept of affordable housing is at the root of Brattleboro's ongoing gentrification problem. As the area continues to reinvent itself as an "arts community" to reap the financial benefits of the "creative economy," many creative people are, frankly, running scared about how they're going to continue living and working here.
In gentrification. a group of poor but creative types move into an inexpensive area and, being creative, create an agreeable lifestyle. Stores follow , and soon other creative types with higher incomes - advertising execs, gallery owners, restaurateurs - want to get in on the fun. Property owners start raising rents. Property values increase. Soon the artists can no longer afford to live in their own scene. The gentry - the wealthy - take over. Hence, gentrification.
Downtown Brattleboro is already in the process of changing, and the fears are real. Remember, Brattleboro may have a thriving arts community, but it is not an "arts community" per se. Like most other towns, it is owned and run by a community of burghers - retailers, property owners and the like. Philosophically, the burghers' main goal, to maximize profits, frequently conflicts with the goal of artists, which is to push the boundaries of the status quo.
It is also important to remember that in Vermont, every town is an island. While it is only a polite fiction that Guilford, Newfane, Dummerston, Vernon, Townshend and Putney are not just bedroom communities - suburbs! - of Brattleboro, when it comes to making - or changing - the rules, someone from Dummerston, creative or not, will have no say in the political life of Brattleboro, and vice versa.
Artists are often regarded as an elite. Why should they be targeted for special treatment, people argue, when there are so many in need of affordable housing? This is true, even though most artists are just poor people with college degrees. But if you want a creative economy, you have to help the artists so they can keep on creating it.
In a capitalist society, the best way to survive is to own the means of production. Artists need spaces to live and work in. At best, artists should own those spaces. At the very least, rentals on apartments, homes and studios should be reasonable. This is where the conflict between art and commerce stops being philosophical. But there are solutions.
For example, 10 years ago, as a poor writer, I couldn't afford much in the way of housing. But I found a small house on a hill, deep in the woods, and partnered with Connie Snow and the Brattleboro Area Community Land Trust to buy it. I sacrificed my equity down the road - and central heating - for the joy of living in a space of my own that I could otherwise never afford. And the land trust added another home to its stock of permanently affordable housing.
The land trust remains open to this "found housing" model, although it is more difficult now for artists to follow it because of the current housing bubble: few available houses and inflated prices. But artists still might want to explore the option; mortgages are surprisingly available, and owning your own home keeps you out of the hands of developers. Of course, then property taxes become your biggest threat, but that's a threat we all live with, whether we rent or buy.
If buying seems overwhelming, then artists should know that the land trust is currently creating studios/offices and living spaces in the fire-damaged Wilder Block. The land trust is not targeting artists - its apartments are for everybody. But Snow told me that they want to encourage artists to get on the waiting list and be eligible when the apartments - eight apartments and six studio/office spaces - become available (construction should start in December or January). In the next few weeks the land trust will be spreading the word to arts organizations. You heard it here first.
Another model was created by Robert McBride of RAMP (Rockingham Arts & Museum Project) in Bellows Falls. McBride is an artist as well as a very savvy arts administrator, and he partnered with as many state funding sources as he could find to create the Exner Block - 10 affordable apartments with studios for artists in downtown Bellows Falls. Some retailers complain that the artists are too poor to be good customers, but they are there, they are working, they are eating and drinking coffee, galleries are opening (and closing), and there's even a small gallery walk now.
Artists co-ops are another interesting idea. Artists get together, buy a property and convert it to living/working space. This approach worked in downtown Burlington, where artists partnered with the Burlington Community Land Trust to create 11 units in the Rose Street Co-op. The artists are paying off the land trust over time. In North Bennington, there's also an artists' cooperative, developed by the Vermont Arts Exchange in partnership with Housing Vermont.
Affordable housing may not be sexy, but it is a problem that can be solved. As McBride says, "Put creative people together and they do creative stuff. Put whiners together and they do whiney stuff."
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.