What does it mean to use creativity in an intentional way for community building and social change? Ebony Noelle Golden, CEO of Betty’s Daughter Arts Collaborative recently visited Atlanta to share thoughts and ideas for using a conscious creative practice to build engage community in a collaborative, constructive way.
There have been many conversations in Atlanta about affordable housing. Atlanta City Councilmember Andre Dickens is seeking policy change to include more affordable housing units in the city. Our building neighbors at the Center for Civic Innovation hosted a well attended session just yesterday evening that focused on affordable housing as part of their Social Studies series. The name of the event was aptly named: “Who can afford to live in Atlanta?” And when we asked artists during a recent survey what concerns they have about Atlanta, affordable housing topped the list (under transportation and in line with [fair] wage).
What is affordable housing? Is it cheap rent? Is it a low mortgage? What if you just don’t make a lot of money? What is affordable then?
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD):
Families who pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing are considered cost burdened and may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care. An estimated 12 million renter and homeowner households now pay more than 50 percent of their annual incomes for housing. A family with one full-time worker earning the minimum wage cannot afford the local fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the United States.
Want to have some more fun? Remember the question about wage? Here is a neat little Housing Wage Calculator for you to play with. As I played with the calculator, I discovered that the average rent within 10 miles of Atlanta is $1376/month (probably for a family?). If I am not spending more than 30% of my income on rent, I would need to earn $26.46/hour or $55,040/year. Now, my family pays about that for our mortgage. But my husband and I earn more than that combined, not just with my salary alone. Ahem. (I know what you are thinking, “but you run an nonprofit, you must be rolling in the dough!”). I don’t make enough alone to afford $1000/month.
The good news is that I get paid these days on salary. Many artists have a combination of jobs that either pay under the table, or the artists are 1099 contractors. This can affect what rental properties are available to them (not to mention money for the deposit and first month’s rent). Purchasing a property becomes even more of a challenge.
Underwriters invest in low risk. If you cannot demonstrate a consistent income, you are not low risk. You may earn more as a freelance artist than a person who works in retail; however, the person in retail is likely a W-2 employee. He/she has proof of regular income.
I know that policy change is sometimes linear. I also know that there are ways in which we as a community can help artists and freelancers find affordable housing. Even better, I know artists who own homes. But it is going to take more understanding on the part of elected officials, lenders, and policy makers to truly understand the connection between wage and housing. I will not get into fair valuation of artists in this blog. I am speaking more about institutions and gatekeepers. And this isn’t an issue that just artists face. In fact, Forbes reported in 2015:
Tucked away in the pages of a new report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office is a startling statistic: 40.4% of the U.S. workforce is now made up of contingent workers—that is, people who don’t have what we traditionally consider secure jobs.
This IS startling. As the Forbes article points out, contingent workers have less access to affordable healthcare, living wage, job stability and access to resources.
Atlanta: thank you for recognizing the need for affordable housing. It will ensure we compete nationally for workers.
So now what?
I have been grappling with this. Perhaps, there are resources we (C4 Atlanta) can help connect artist to that ameliorates the situation. Maybe that is helping artists become aware of the programs that are out there that can assist artists in the search for affordable housing or even home ownership. I think we also need to educate our friends in other sectors about what it really takes to make it in Atlanta as a freelance artist. I am trying. I have talked to anyone who will listen about these issues. I have talked to officials in DC and I have talked to officials locally. They are willing to help. But this isn’t going to be a quick fix.
We are living in the gig economy. It isn’t just artists. Atlanta: we want to live here. Help us do that. Or else…or else you will lose us.
As always, I welcome your thoughts.
Photo – Flickr: “Middle Class Home In Sweet Auburn” by joaquin uy
The C4 team has been attending various panels, talks, sessions around town about planning, culture & development and more. Artists being out-priced in a particular neighborhood has been a hot topic. With “placemaking” initiatives popping up all over the U.S., this issue is not unique to Atlanta. The list below is not intended to be a magic solution. The fact is, gentrification, real estate, education, etc. can be complex issues.
1) Advocate for fair wage
Much of the discussions I have heard over the last week centered around the rising costs of real estate. A number of solutions have been researched and presented by people way smarter than I. However, as Ryan Gravel pointed out during the Future of Atlanta panel(audio available here) hosted by the Museum of Design Atlanta, there is another economic player in the room: wage. Affordable housing may be a relative term if you are living at only 200% of the Federal Poverty Level. Arts workers: we have got to demand fair pay. Also, stop working for exposure.
I would challenge every working, semi-established artist in Atlanta to join the W.A.G.E. coalition. W.A.G.E. stands for: Working Artists and the Greater Economy.
Founded in 2008, Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) is a New York-based activist organization focused on regulating the payment of artist fees by nonprofit art institutions and establishing a sustainable labor relation between artists and the institutions that contract their labor.
Non-profit producing/presenting organizations: become W.A.G.E certified. We have to be part of the solution. It isn’t always easy, but paying artists a livable wage should be a priority. Arts administrators are often woefully underpaid AND over worked. Funders can help by lifting tight restrictions on project dollars in regards to indirect costs, or more funders can offer general operating support.
W.A.G.E. Certification is a program initiated and operated by Working Artists and the Greater Economy that publicly recognizes non-profit arts organizations demonstrating a history of, and commitment to, voluntarily paying artist fees that meet a minimum payment standard.
2) Fight for equity across the board
This is something I heard Chris Appleton from WonderRoot mention at the Culture Over Condos meeting hosted by the Center for Civic Innovation Atlanta and Creative Loafing. I also heard a community organizer from the Queens Museum stress this same point at a convening in New York City (same issues exist there too!). If we align ourselves with other cross-sector causes, then we have strength in numbers. Housing, insurance accessibility, transportation, etc. are not issues that solely belong to any one community. They affect us all–whether directly or indirectly.
3) Connect with organizations
C4 Education Manager, Audrey Gámez, wrote about this point in her last blog post about getting involved in community. I don’t want to harp on this too much…what the heck, I do want to harp on it! Community organizations and nonprofits provide a myriad of direct services, but they also act as a clearing house for relevant information to your trade or area of interest. WonderRoot, Alternate ROOTS, C4 Atlanta, and others are often your direct line to issues affecting the arts community. If you have a question about a particular issue, reach out to a local arts service organization. If we don’t know the answer, we will do our best to find out. At the very least, check out their social media presence. C4 shares blog posts, articles, videos and more that are relevant to our mission. Interact with us. We like it.
4) Familiarize yourself with policy
I know. Yawn, right. But sometimes it is necessary to lobby for top-down change. Grassroots efforts and community building can help influence positive change, but sometimes that isn’t enough. Think about funding for the arts or housing. It may take policy change to interrupt the status quo.
As applied to a law,ordinance, or Rule of Law, thegeneralpurpose or tendencyconsidered as directed to thewelfare or prosperity of the state or community.
So this is an area I am still navigating. The best place to start is by doing some research. What are the issues that are important to you? I have been working in nonprofit arts for over ten years, and I learn something new every week. I have learned to enlist the help of mentors and advisers. These are informal relationships with people whom I can call when I have a question about existing or proposed policy changes.
In San Francisco, the Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST) is a public/private supported fund to help arts organizations remain stable (not be out-priced) in a volatile real estate market. When you know about other efforts in other cities, you can pull research, best practices, or even a model to help bring to elected officials or decision makers in your community. I learned about CAST by through an RSS feed aggregate about arts and culture. This is part of my daily research. I spend about an hour every day researching trends that affect arts and culture and, more specifically, arts workers. Always having an ear to the ground helps stay abreast of all the issues and changes that happen constantly and to be aware of any relevant case studies that may provide insight.
I guess I don’t have the best advice when it comes to navigating the murky waters of public policy other than it takes time. Democracy is work. The day you are born, you have entered into a social contract with other human beings.