Are Artists Being Pushed Out of the Arts District?

As rents in the Arts District rise, Art Share L.A. has become an affordable housing oasis for local artists.

The Arts District has undergone rapid changes in recent years, and as upscale lofts and restaurants are built, visitors and longtime residents of the Arts District lament the loss of a mysterious sense of "edginess" in the community.

According to art critic and curator Shana Nys Dambrot, a typical Friday night conversation in the "edgy" Arts District back in its heyday in the 1990s might have gone like this.

"So what do you want to do tonight?"

"I don't know, let's build a bunch of robots out of cardboard and set them on fire, then see how far up Traction Avenue we can drag them before the cops come."

According to U.S. Census Bureau data, rents in the Arts District rose by 140 percent in some cases between 2000 and 2014. As low-income artists are priced out of the neighborhood, some fear the character of the Arts District will change.

To keep the spirit of creation present in the neighborhood, nonprofit organization Art Share L.A. serves artists by providing affordable housing and performance space for artists.

"Artists who have been living in buildings across from us or down the street from us who have lived and worked there for 10, 15 or 20 years have been leaving," Art Share L.A.'s Executive Director Cheyanne Sauter said. "There is a sadness to see that exodus of artists leaving, and it has been really trying on us. That is what keeps us so firm in trying to keep that art in the Arts District."

Upstairs, one artist's Art Share loft is a tiny space nearly bursting with a hodgepodge of materials that enable his many pursuits. Guitars casually lean against the walls, drums are stacked on top of shelves nearly to the ceiling, a Crock-Pot of candle wax is parked on the counter and a makeshift sound booth imposingly takes up most of the room.

Calvin Winbush is a musician, actor and entrepreneur who lives in one of Art Share L.A.'s affordable housing units. Winbush said his unit allows him immediate access to the Arts District's abundant performance venues and networking opportunities that accompany the neighborhood's high concentration of artists; one morning, he casually booked a business deal casually walking out of a coffee shop.

"I could live in cheaper areas, but I'm going to be further away," Winbush said. "I'm not going to be around and on the ground and hear about stuff and have access to stuff."

But for every Winbush, there are scores of other artists who haven't been fortunate enough to secure a spot designated for affordable housing.

Art Share L.A. provides 30 affordable housing units that are specifically reserved for artists to rent out in their building. The lofts are in high demand; the current waiting list has around 80 artists on it, and the list grows longer every week.

The new, massive One Santa Fe development project is controversial in the community because it is a symbol of the encroachment of development of what artists felt to be a sacred space. As a Los Angeles Times reporter pointed out, the building is as wider than the Empire State Building is high. It contains 438 new units, 88 of which are set aside for general affordable housing. Los Angeles Downtown News reported that more than 700 people applied for just those 88 units. Even with these new apartments, there still aren't enough designated affordable units to meet demand.

For those who don't get affordable housing spots, they have to compete in an increasingly pricey market. Revived downtown development and a housing shortage in Los Angeles have contributed to an overall increase in rent prices. Analysis conducted by the rental site Zumper found that downtown rents increased 16 percent in 2015, more than the rest of Los Angeles, where rents rose 11 percent.

For some artists, that means they can't afford to stay in the Arts District.

However, some maintain that rising rent prices in a neighborhood aren't necessarily a bad thing because it means new amenities are increasing property values.

Gary Painter, the Director of Social Policy at the USC Sol Price Center for Social Innovation said that although some people may have to move out because of rent pressures, having a neighborhood with rising rent prices is still a desirable thing.

"People don't want to live in a place where rents are falling, because the neighborhood is becoming poorer in terms of services … They need to confront honestly that they would love for their neighbors' rents to go up, but not theirs," Painter said.

Regardless if the change is perceived as good or bad, the demographics of the Arts District are changing drastically. The Los Angeles Times calculated that the amount of residents necessary to fill just two of the new housing developments will increase the Arts District's population nearly 40 percent from 2010 levels.

Sauter said the Art Share building, covered with tendrils of vibrant rainbow color, is sitting on an intersection of its past and finding a new approach for the future. At some point, Art Share will have to choose whether to "curate cool" for the influx of new residents, or to hold true to the edgy, experimental, raw Arts District spirit.

Sauter said she isn't sure which way the organization will go, but that it will always be a safe place for artists to come back to.

"As the gentrification kind of peaks out, and they have built as many condos and lofts as they can build, Art Share will always be here steady. It will always have 30 spaces, always have a kiln for a ceramic artist to explore her craft, and will always have a stage that feels like home and feels comfortable," Sauter said.

Local painter Kate Hungerford, who attended a gallery opening at Art Share, said she felt that the high quality of the work displayed challenges the perception that the Arts District has been completely gentrified and that "it all goes to the highest bidder."

Hungerford said, "I came in and saw the kind of work that is happening here, and thought, the artists are still here." Her mouth curved into a small smile as she repeated, "The artists are still here."