Subsidized lofts let artists follow their dreams

Houston Chronicle, October 8, 2015                                       

Merry Nolan devotes half of her studio loft apartment to storing art supplies in bins crammed with papers, paints and other crafts. Brightly colored artworks adorn her hallway walls, while decorative vines hang from exposed pipe in the ceiling.

Likewise, the common spaces on each of the building's four floors resemble an eclectic art gallery, which makes sense given that Nolan's neighbors over the past 10 years have included painters and fashion designers, as well as theater set designers, professional chefs, dancers, disc jockeys, comedians and florists. After Hurricane Katrina, a jazz band from New Orleans called the renovated space home.

"There have been the spiked and tattooed, senior persons like me," said Nolan, who describes herself as a hobbyist and has lived in the complex, now known as the Elder Street Artist Lofts, since it opened. "Musicians, dancers, a couple chefs. They interpret 'artist' loosely here."

She and her kindred spirits live on a prime piece of real estate near downtown, with skyline views but reasonable rents, thanks to a $6.3 million renovation of the building that once housed the old Jefferson Davis Hospital. The project was funded specifically to provide an affordable enclave for an artistic class that often doesn't have a lot of means.

Maintaining diversity

At the project's decade mark, the difference between what many people can pay and what market forces command is more stark than ever. Continuing the long-term gentrification of the inner-city, construction has picked up in the surrounding First Ward, just north of Washington Avenue, where three-story townhomes are now jumbled together with bungalows, shotgun houses and old Victorians. Average home prices have soared and are now approaching $500,000.

Rents in the neighborhood, one of the closest to downtown, mostly range between $2,000 and $2,750 a month. But rent for most of the units is set as a percentage of the renter's income. Seven others go for a "market rate" of about $1,000, still well below the area average. Advocates say these types of projects are important for maintaining the "social fabric" of neighborhoods even as economic pressure forces many people out.

"You want a neighborhood to have diversity," said Raj Mankad, editor of Cite Magazine at Rice University. "Diversity is a huge strength. That means income, ages and building types," he said. "We have to figure out a way to keep a mixture of people in these communities."

The Elder Street Artist Lofts project was financed, with low-income housing tax credits, by the city of Houston, Harris County and philanthropic sources. Avenue CDC, a local economic development group, and Minneapolis-based Artspace converted the space into a 34-unit apartment complex. Eighteen current tenants signed on at the beginning.

"It's a great example of adaptive reuse," Mankad said. "It's not just preserving the building, but the social fabric and the mix of people in the neighborhood. If we only protect buildings, we could easily end up in these situations where the look of the neighborhood remains, but none of the actual community that made the neighborhood is there anymore . . . "

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