Affordable apartment complexes, tailored for artists, are blossoming in New Orleans
5 June 2011
Affordable housing, tailored specifically for artists, attract the creative class to neighborhoods in New Orleans. Developments such as the Bywater Art Lofts, Bywater Art Lofts II and the Blue Plate Artists Lofts are spurring economic development and community revitalization across the city. These projects help to maintain the cultural richness that is a way of life in New Orleans.
Affordable apartment complexes, tailored for artists, are blossoming in New Orleans
5 June 2011
Dara Johnston’s Bywater Art Loft is brimming with color downstairs and bursting with light upstairs.
Painter and sculptress Dara Johnston, sitting in her apartment, credits the Bywater Art Loft complex with reinvigorating her creative life. ‘Being surrounded by artists motivates me to complete projects I start. You feel like you have to keep up with everyone else who’s working here.’
The painter and sculptress’s 1,085-square-foot split-level art enclave is home to her bulbous glowing mushroom commissions, her impressive superhero action figure collection, and her undeniable creativity.
Even with her teal-colored hair and bright pink lipstick, Johnston, who pays $730 a month in rent, blends right in with the other artists at the Dauphine Street apartment community, which caters to low-income artists.
“I have gotten more art work done here than I have the whole rest of my life,” said the 25-year-old, who on Saturday will hold an art show at the complex’s loading dock, which doubles as a gallery with track lighting. “Being surrounded by artists motivates me to complete projects I start. You feel like you have to keep up with everyone else who’s working here.”
Johnston isn’t the only one recognizing the value of a housing complex specifically designed for artists. In the two-and-a-half years it has been open, Bywater Art Lofts has proved successful enough that developer HRI Properties Inc. has begun construction on a second phase with another 30 units. Like the original 37-unit development, the second phase will be carved out of a structure that was once part of the old J.H. Rutter Rex Manufacturing Co. factory complex.
Meanwhile, three other artist-focused housing communities are either taking shape out of the ruins of dilapidated properties or are already standing in New Orleans.
The St. Joe Lofts in the Warehouse District, which has 61 one- and two-bedroom units, brands itself as an artists community offering a mix of market-rate rents and affordable rents for low-income artists.
The Blue Plate Foods building on South Jefferson Davis Parkway is undergoing an extensive renovation. The 72-unit housing complex for artists is due to open in February.
The new Blue Plate Artists Lofts, a 72-unit housing complex due to open in February that HRI and JCH Development are building in the old Blue Plate Mayonnaise factory on South Jefferson Davis Parkway, will give leasing preference to low-income artists.
And Artspace, a Minneapolis nonprofit that develops live/work spaces for artists around the country, is pursuing the Andrew J. Bell Junior High School Property in Treme in hopes of turning it into a $40 million 65-unit housing complex for artists.
In addition to keeping rents low and stating that they have a leasing preference for artists, many of the developments offer amenities that appeal to artists such as onsite art shows and gallery spaces for exhibitions. The bathrooms in Bywater Art Lofts come equipped with utility sinks where paintbrushes and other tools can be washed. Blue Plate Artists Lofts will have a soundproof music rehearsal room and a business center.
A national trend
“Artists bring a lot to the table,” said Wendy Holmes, senior vice president of consulting for Artspace. “Artist communities re-energize neighborhoods. And even though we’re all business people it’s not always about the bottom line. It’s about community engagement.”
Developer HRI Properties Inc. has begun construction on a second phase of its Bywater Art Lofts complex. Like the original 37-unit development, the second phase will be carved out of a structure that was once part of the old J.H. Rutter Rex Manufacturing Co. factory complex. The second phase will contain 30 units.
Holmes explained that city officials around the country are increasingly green-lighting artist developments because they increase their tax base, and neighborhood leaders say they transform rundown areas into safer environments. She also said arts communities want affordable spaces for their organizations to flourish in, and individual artists benefit from living in tight collaborative quarters, while stabilizing their income in a rent-controlled environment.
“There are so many artists and so much creative talent so embedded in the daily culture in New Orleans,” Joe Butler, a local Artspace project manager, said. “It’s more than fertile ground.”
Larry Schedler of Larry G. Schedler & Associates Inc., said using old buildings in old neighborhoods lends itself to niche developments like artists housing.
“I’m not surprised it’s being received so well, and I think it’s a phenomenon you’ll see more of,” he said.
Specializing exclusively in the representation of buyers and sellers of multifamily properties, Schedler also produces the biannual Greater New Orleans Multi Family Reports. His spring 2011 data shows occupancy is at 95 percent in the Historic Center that includes the Bywater.
“We’re clearly seeing a shift around the country of more people moving toward the center of activity,” he said. “And after Katrina all that growth just exploded driven by demand and financing programs. These types of developments bring creative people together, and there’s a need and a market for it.”
Tax credits, grants
The new Blue Plate Artists Lofts is scheduled to open in February.
The success of such projects, though, depends not only on the artists themselves, but on a mosaic of funding outlets including low-income housing tax credits, historic tax credits, cultural facility grants and philanthropic gifts.
Designating affordable apartments for artists like Johnston was sanctioned by legislation signed by President George W. Bush in 2008. The bill was signed after many civic leaders and community-based developers, who see artists as catalysts for economic development, banded together to fight for the right to use federal low-income housing tax credits to finance affordable housing for certain targeted groups, including artists.
“Tax credits provide 50 to 60 percent of the total equity for projects we do,” Holmes said.
In fact, affordable housing developments in historic properties and districts can attract federal, state and city tax credits, said Josh Collen, vice president of development for HRI Properties.
The Blue Plate Artists Lofts project is benefiting from a tax break. Because the $25 million project is located in a Louisiana cultural district, certain art-related projects created in that perimeter are not subject to sales tax.
Collen said HRI’s navigation of the tax credit spectrum, coupled with developing within the St. Claude Corridor Cultural District, yielded a fixed-rent structure they can offer artist tenants of Bywater Art Lofts for 35 years. The $11.5 million Phase II of the Lofts will offer tiers of affordability from $160 for a one-bedroom to $1,100 a month for a townhouse. The property will be rent- and income-restricted, Collen said.
The Blue Plate Artists Lofts will have an additional tax benefit. JCH president Tara Hernandez said because the $25 million project is located in a Louisiana cultural district, certain art-related projects created in that perimeter are not subject to sales tax.
“Artists help create the community,” Hernandez said. “And the financial structure provided by these types of developments allow artists to stay when the community takes off, so they’re not priced out.”
“There’s an opportunity in New Orleans to create economic development, and build on the existing structures and culture,” she said.
“After Katrina the rents skyrocketed, but artists weren’t making any more income,” said Molly Gardner, the property manager at Bywater Art Lofts who is already taking names for apartments in Phase II. “Now artists get to live in a culturally significant neighborhood, and it’s the best bang for your buck in terms of square footage in the Bywater.”
“It’s making use of underdeveloped properties, and it attracts more community-minded folks that add to the neighborhood fabric,” said John Guarnieri, the Bywater Neighborhood Association’s board of directors chairman. “Phase I was such a good model we’re happy to support Phase II with no questions.”
A utopian environment
Karina Nathan, a resident of Bywater Art Lofts, has also been pleased with the complex. “It’s an absolutely utopian environment to learn art in,” Nathan said from her 621-square-foot, $270-a-month Bywater Art Loft. “This environment fast forwards your art talent when you have that much more time to commit to it.”
Nathan, who’s been a Loft resident for more than two years, said her low rent allowed her to quit her bartending job to concentrate solely on creating her art, including her popular, eco-conscious, papier mache mini Mardi Gras bicycle floats used in parades like Muses, Tucks and Orpheus.
“Your art gets better, it becomes more valuable and you can live on it full time,” she said.
“That’s what’s unreal,” she said. “I’m also a hair stylist, and I only have to work four days a week now. I can afford to stay home and work most of the time. I want to live here as long as I possibly can.”
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