It Just Might Work: Cheap housing for artists

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_D5C5045brianby Brian Clarey

A recent trip to New Orleans exposed an astonishing snapshot of a city on the rapid rise. Home prices have tripled and quadrupled in the last couple years, causing a gentrification issue in what was once one of the most affordable cities in the country.

But New Orleans thrives on its culture, a living thing made manifest by the creatives who live there and take inspiration from its unique vibe. And because the artsy-fartsy types are usually some kind of broke, many of them can’t afford to live in the city anymore and are moving out to the exurbs.

In response to what amounts to a crisis, private developers are cobbling together what the Times-Picayune lists as “low-income housing tax credits, historic tax credits, cultural facility grants and philanthropic gifts” to make affordable housing for artists, or as one such project puts it, “leasing preference for artists.”

They’re already doing it in New York, Minneapolis, Nashville, Boston and Seattle. It’s working in New Orleans, too.

There are three of them in the city right now. The one I saw was built inside the old Blue Plate Mayonnaise factory, an industrial architectural gem from 1941 with glass-brick corners and an intact neon sign.

Among the usual amenities are three large pieces of commissioned outdoor art, a rehearsal space for musicians and a community gallery in the lobby where residents show — and sell — their work. Also, pets are “welcomed and adored.”

I found a two-bedroom, two bath in the Blue Plate for $1,200 a month with a $300 deposit, about 1,000 square feet. Not bad for a spot right near downtown.

But the very thing that makes affordable housing for artists an important reality in New Orleans is perhaps the reason it might not work in the Triad: That city understands that it cannot exist without its indigenous culture, a culture actively supported with time and dollars. Our cities are still realizing the power that the arts bring to economic development.

But it could work. Think about the historic industrial properties on the south end of Elm Street and the eastern fringe of Winston-Salem, waiting for new life that gives back in cultural cachet more than what it asks in return.

We don’t have a boom happening here, not yet. But when we do, we will be ready.

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