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San Francisco Artists Struggle to Stay in City as Housing Costs Skyrocket

| March 5, 2014
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A man toasts marshmallows for the crowd gathered to hear "Eviction Ghost Stories and Other Housing Horrors." (Stephanie Martin/KQED)

A man toasts marshmallows for the crowd gathered to hear “Eviction Ghost Stories and Other Housing Horrors.” (Stephanie Martin/KQED)

For almost two decades, LisaRuth Elliott has lived a colorful, bohemian life in San Francisco — painting murals, making collages and working as a community historian.

She also lived in Seattle, Southern California and Europe, but she says it was San Francisco’s vibrant cultural scene that energized her life and her work.

Not now, though.

“There was a time when artists would get together and say, ‘Hey, what are you working on?’ ‘Well, I’m really inspired by Pluto!’ or, ‘I’m really inspired by this technological creation!’ Whatever that topic might be,” Elliott says. “Now, it’s, ‘Ugh, how long am I going to be able to stay in the city?’ ”

Housing is a major issue for artists in San Francisco. The city does well compared with others around the nation when it comes to funding artists’ work. But the city’s efforts to create affordable live/work spaces for artists haven’t panned out. Many local artists are now worrying the high cost of housing will force them to leave the city and abandon their creative community.

Elliott is one of dozens of artists and community activists who cram into a small courtyard behind a coffee house in San Francisco’s Mission District. A campfire burns before a makeshift stage.

She steps up to the microphone.

Floating, drifting — I have been living as a sort of ghost for the last five months,” she says. The event is called  “Eviction Ghost Stories and Other Housing Horrors”.

As Elliott talks about her eviction from her home in the Haight, a man sitting next to the fire toasts marshmallows and passes out s’mores to the crowd. The event is supposed to be campy, but the storytellers strain to contain their emotions.

If there’s anyone who wants to prevent artists from leaving, it’s Tom DeCaigny, cultural affairs director for the San Francisco Arts Commission.

“I’ve had a couple of artists who are personal friends in the city who have faced eviction and a couple of them have had to leave the city. And on a personal level that’s hard,” DeCaigny says.

It’s DeCaigny’s job to promote and preserve the city’s arts and culture industry, which pumps roughly $1.4 billion a year into the local economy. He remembers the last artist exodus, spurred by the dot-com boom of the late 1990s. He’s asking city leaders to study that era to see what worked and what went wrong.

“Looking back at ’99 and 2000, the city did make some financial contributions to specific shared-space initiatives,” he says.

Those investments gave San Francisco dancers a state-of-the-art performance and training complex in the Mission. Independent filmmakers got a new place to screen their work at a new facility in the mid-Market area.

“So, we know there are solutions by which the city can make investments, and private philanthropy and the nonprofit sector, to foster new innovations in both shared nonprofit space but also developments around artists’ housing,” DeCaigny says.

San Francisco artist and activist LisaRuth Elliott tells her eviction horror story at an event in the Mission. (Stepha

San Francisco artist and activist LisaRuth Elliott tells her eviction horror story at an event in the Mission. (Stephanie Martin/KQED)

But the last dot-com boom also hurt rezoning efforts designed to create affordable housing for artists. The new live-work spaces attracted an affluent crowd, and artists were priced out.

“Art is part of the brand for San Francisco,” says Randy Cohen, who researches and promotes sustainable arts policies at Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

“You know San Francisco has many positive attributes, but, globally, it’s thought of as a great cultural city,” he says. “If your artists are leaving town, you’re putting a key component of your brand at risk.”

Cohen says that while San Francisco searches for solutions to its housing crunch, less expensive cities like Seattle, Baltimore and Detroit are jumping on the opportunity to cultivate their own cultural brand, and they’re offering artists some enticing housing incentives. In Detroit, for example, homesteading is all the rage, says Cohen.

“You know: Live here, move here, work here for five years, and you get the deed,” he adds.

Of course, economic factors have long dictated where artists live and work: Artists priced out of Manhattan have moved to Brooklyn. Boston artists have moved to Rhode Island.

Right now, Oakland is luring artists from San Francisco and beyond, says Kelley Kahn, Oakland’s economic development director.

“I think there’s a sense here that you can come here and actually have a really high quality of life and, at the same time, be able to make a living in fine arts or the industrial art,” she says.

Still, some artists hope Oakland won’t get too popular.  Housing costs here are also on the rise.

San Francisco Artists Struggle to Stay in City as Housing Costs Skyrocket by KQED

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About the Author ()

Stephanie has been a radio news anchor and reporter at KQED since 2005.  She often marvels at the remarkable places her career has taken her -- from Maya Angelou's art-filled living room, to the dark basement copy room of the West Wing, to the windswept Iraqi desert.  Since early childhood, she has loved travel and exploration.  So far, she's been to 46 states and about 40 countries.  She lives in San Francisco with her husband, David. Reach Stephanie Martin Taylor at smartin@kqed.org.
  • HappyHighwayman

    In the end it doesn’t matter what your societal contribution is if you can’t pay your rent. Artists do not, and should not, get a pass simply because of their selected profession. A retirement plan of dying in your rent controlled apartment is a poor life choice. Living somewhere a long time does not entitle one to ownership. Also, Detroit is empty and needs people to fill houses San Francisco has too many people…there would never be a similar program here.

    • Emily Moses

      One doesn’t chose to be an artist. ;)

      • HappyHighwayman

        BS. One chooses one’s profession to some degree. Many artists hold other jobs. I love to cook as my hobby, is cooking not an art form? Am I an artist? When one decides that one’s art will also be one’s source of food and shelter, one needs to acknowledge that without commercial success your life will be a lean one.

        • Gallantgoofus

          Actually dufus, cooking is a craft, not an art, so, no, you’re not an artist.

  • Hilary J Macatangay

    People think I am crazy for leaving SF. I am an artist and so is my husband. We left in 2003 to move to Michigan to raise our family in a place that we could afford. There are galleries and artisan baking shops, unique stores, and music halls that have opened all over the University district in Detroit. New lofts, and many buildings are undergoing massive renovation. Alternative energy companies adapting their car technologies to wind power generation, large wind installations near the Great Lakes….I live in a small town, and hour north of Detroit; where else could I afford a 1600+ sq. ft. house with a huge back yard 10 minutes from the shores of Lake Huron, for under $100,000 with low taxes? We even have a light house, and we can swim almost all summer long, and tan on a beautiful sandy beach. We have green spaces, and dedicated bike paths…I love living here, and while I miss the cultural aspect of SF, I can drive two hours to Toronto, 6 hours to New York, or Washington D.C., or take a quick train trip to Chicago. I can sail a boat, walk my dogs, and hike through beautiful hardwood forests. This is a huge country, and there are so many different areas to enjoy all over it! I love to travel, but I don’t miss the stress of living in SF and East Bay. I don’t spend the majority of my day looking for parking, or hiking back to my apartment up insane hills past swearing, pungent, Tenderloin folk, or from parking my car a mile away at a car park. I don’t miss being stuck in traffic with Type A silicon valley types, or trying to get decent health care or education for my kids. This is the first year here (out of nine) that I miss the weather, but I do like seasons, just not mini-ice ages. Artists will seek out places that embrace them, instead of allowing themselves to be folded under the corporate yolk that much of SF has been forced under as prices rise and the cost of living continues to be unaffordable to many. It is not easy task to bring culture back to a place like Detroit that has been bereft of it for so long, but each city has a culture, buried under the rubble of failed enterprises, it’s shining (or filthy!) history that remains and can be built upon again. Detroit is no exception, and from ruin so many new things can be built if there is creativity and innovation. Flowers can burst up from beneath broken and cracked sidewalks…

    • Michael Andrade

      You lost me at owning a car in S.F. (ever heard of public transportation , bicycles or walking?) and the line about pungent Tenderloin folk. Your heart and soul belong in the burbs.

      • Hilary J Macatangay

        The car was inherited, so we were required to maintain it. We would rather have lost it at a BART station, and took bus and Muni everyday. The Tenderloin was a creepy place to get lost back then (and still is now, from last summer’s visit there). I don’t live in a suburb, I live in a small city, which has a soul. Admittedly, my general feeling on living in the SF area, is that to be able to afford it, one must do something exceptional. I enjoy visiting this exceptional place, however I am not ready to sacrifice my soul (artistic or not) to corporate profit for the sake of being privileged (or gifted enough) to live in SF. I think gentrification kills creativity, when profits are paramount to afford habitation.

  • Emily Moses

    I think there should be an artist exchange between SF and Oakland. I have been living in Oakland since I moved to California 7 years ago, and it’s my favorite place in the world. I would welcome artists of all types to this city, but as for people in other tech jobs or medical or business people, they should stay in SF. Oakland is a city of and for artists already, it needs to stay that way.

  • GalantGoofus

    Whoever wrote this is out of touch with rents in Oakland which have skyrocketed too. Try finding a market rate 1BR in a neighborhood where the sound of gunshots aren’t a daily occurrence for under $1200