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Ventura Seeks to Keep Artists as Residents

Faced with an exodus of talent, the city has hired a firm to draw up plans for affordable housing.

April 12, 2004|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

Sculptor JoAnne Duby was chased out of Santa Barbara by high rents in the late-1980s -- 16 years before they squeezed her out of Ventura.

Now she works at her stone carving in a studio she built on her boyfriend's ranch in the hills outside Templeton, some 150 miles to the north and a world away from an arts community being eroded by the high cost of housing.

"I was really saddened by it," Duby said. "It used to be that Ventura was such a wonderful working town. You could get to the hardware store easily to pick up your stuff, the rents were decent, and you didn't have to live in a house with a hundred other people."

But no more. With even established artists like Duby finding it tough to make ends meet, Ventura's City Council has contracted with a nonprofit group that creates modestly priced rentals for painters, poets and puppeteers across the U.S.

Last week, the city gave Minneapolis-based Artspace Projects Inc. $400,000 to begin work on a plan to provide homes and studios to at least 25 artists and their families. The company, which specializes in carving airy lofts out of abandoned industrial buildings, aims to raise at least $10 million, mostly from state and federal agencies and private foundations.

The concept is not new. A number of California cities have offered artists sweet deals on housing rentals and sales, but speculation has turned some of those well-intended plans into low-cost, high-ceilinged homes for corporate executives.

Chris Velasco, an Artspace vice president, said Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown showed him "project after project that were supposed to be affordable for artisans."

"Now," Velasco said, "they're filled with yuppies."

By contrast, the project in Ventura would be "the first permanently affordable community for artists" in Southern California, Velasco said. Rent would be about half the market rate, and units would go only to artists with moderate incomes. The project would be owned and managed by Artspace, which would raise rents only when maintenance costs went up.

Why the city would give artists special consideration involves more than a desire for nice pottery. Officials say the business of art brings revenue to localities in a way that other businesses do not. They point to studies like one from Americans for the Arts, an advocacy group that contends each dollar of government spending on the arts generates $8 in additional spending throughout the community.

"Arts and culture are big parts of our economic development strategy," said Ventura Councilman Bill Fulton. "The bottom line for the city is more bed tax and sales tax out of visitors."

In Santa Barbara, city officials spent $850,000 trying to stem the flight of artists about 15 years ago. The money went toward a new downtown building called El Zoco, a collection of 17 comparatively inexpensive condominiums with 16-foot ceilings, skylights, and huge windows. It is an impressive building, but lending officers were unenthusiastic.

"We learned that it was hard for artists to qualify for loans because they didn't have years of steady employment with a paycheck," said Steven Faulstich, a Santa Barbara housing official.

Many artists still live at El Zoco, but over the years, some have sold their units to people who make their living in other ways. "I don't know if that was anticipated when we started out," Faulstich said.

Whatever a buyer's occupation, the city caps resale prices to deter speculation, and officials say that income qualifications are rigorously enforced. A unit at El Zoco recently sold for $250,000 -- a bargain in a town where typical two-bedroom condos command at least twice that.

In Ventura, as in other Artspace locales, a panel of artists would choose the project's tenants, who would not have to be city residents.

"It's a spirited process," Velasco said. "Ultimately they decide to evaluate a body of work that demonstrates a long-term commitment to art, rather than judging a person 'good enough' to be in the building."

What the project or its units will look like, and how many there will be, is still unknown. Artspace plans to survey some 12,000 artists from San Diego to San Luis Obispo before coming up with a design.

Funding sources are also uncertain. Revenue from market-rate housing on the site, plus a restaurant or a gallery, might help, Velasco said. But the bulk of the money would probably come from agencies that specialize in affordable housing and community revitalization.

Artspace has developed places for artists to live and work in an old Pontiac dealership in Pittsburgh, a landmark hotel in Reno, and an abandoned Houston hospital located atop a Confederate graveyard. Established in 1979, the company has created more than 500 units for use by artists and is at work on projects in Monterey and Santa Cruz.

With no abandoned industrial buildings awaiting new life in Ventura, Artspace will build from the ground up, Velasco said. The site probably will be in the city's Ventura Avenue neighborhood, where property is cheaper and projects that make use of old industrial land might qualify for federal funds.

The effort has been welcomed by local arts leaders, but for JoAnne Duby, it came a bit too late.

"Ten years ago, I was part of a group that brought to the city's attention the reasons that artists had been leaving Santa Barbara," she said.

"We said please don't push us out of town."

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