Art Space and Race
How did affordable artist housing in Seattle’s least-white neighborhoods end up more than 80 percent white?
At a recent open house at Artspace Hiawatha Lofts, Robert Free Galvan looked around and wondered, "Are there people of color at Hiawatha?"
So he asked.
"One woman said to me, 'Well, I don't see color,'" Galvan recalled. "I said, 'You're an artist—how can you not see color?' And then this black dude did come by from next door. And I said, 'Hey, brother, what color are you?' and he said, 'I'm black,' and I asked her, 'What color is he?' and she wouldn't say a thing."
Rather than letting the conversation end in silence, Galvan, a Native American 30-year resident of Beacon Hill, decided he did want to know the answer to whether there are black, Latino, Native American, and Asian people living at Hiawatha, a four-story building situated in the crease between the International District, the Central District, and Judkins Park—some of Seattle's most racially mixed and rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods.
Hiawatha's neighborhood is 67.9 percent people of color, according to the census. For another perspective, there's a fascinating "Diversity Index" map created by the city in May 2011, available online. Using data aggregated from 1990, 2000, and 2010, the map shows the probability that any two people chosen at random in a given neighborhood would be of a different race. Where Hiawatha is located, that probability is 73 percent.
After that night, Galvan wondered about the racial breakdown of the affordable artist housing across Seattle, not just at Hiawatha. He wrote to the Seattle Office of Housing and asked for the numbers. Communications officer Todd Burley e-mailed him back. The e-mail said:
The Office of Housing funds projects for low-income housing, but does not operate these buildings. We receive annual reports from the nonprofit housing developers that own and operate these buildings, which list racial information on a voluntary basis. The racial stats we have for these projects are:
• Good Shepherd Center (6 units): tenants did not disclose
• LeRoy Helms Center (11 units): 6 White, 5 Other/Multiracial
• Historic Cooper School (35 units): 27 White, 1 Black/African-American, 4 Asian, 3 Other/Multiracial
• Hiawatha Artist Lofts (59 units): 50 White, 4 Black/African-American, 3 Asian, 2 Other/Multiracial
• Tashiro-Kaplan Artist Housing (49 units): 43 White, 1 Black/African-American, 5 Asian
I hope that helps,
Again: Outside Hiawatha, in the neighborhood, the population is 67.9 percent people of color. In the building, the population is 16.3 percent people of color.
Across Seattle, the population is 33.7 percent people of color. Inside the city's affordable artist housing, the known population is 18.2 percent people of color.
Artspace Hiawatha Lofts is whiter than Issaquah, Kennewick, and Medina. Hiawatha is narrowly whiter than the town that elected Sarah Palin mayor. (All information is from the 2010 census.)
Demand for artist housing in Seattle is incredible.
There are a thousand artists on the waiting list for Hiawatha and Tashiro-Kaplan. The TK opened in 2004 in Pioneer Square. Hiawatha opened in 2008. Both were built and are owned and operated by Artspace, the go-to nonprofit developer of artist space across the country. Artspace is based in Minneapolis and has 33 projects nationwide.
Now another Artspace project is about to open: Artspace Mt. Baker Lofts, at 2915 Rainier Avenue South.
The four-story building is already all framed out. Construction is projected to be finished by June. The process of picking who will live there is imminent: Within a month, Artspace will start conducting informational meetings on how to fill out applications. Applications will be available in January or February, then a month after that comes the fateful day when a line will form on the street for the 56 units of first-come, first-served low-income artist housing. (Dates haven't been set yet.)
In some cities, people have slept out overnight for Artspace housing.
If people were to sleep out at Artspace Mt. Baker Lofts, they would find themselves directly in the shadow of the Mount Baker light rail station. They'd be steps away from Franklin High School, where the student population is more than 90 percent people of color, according to a report in the Seattle Times. The population of the neighborhood is 74.6 percent people of color, according to the 2010 census. The Diversity Index map for the neighborhood shows that the probability that any two people chosen at random would be of a different race is 75 percent.
To get the word out about Artspace Mt. Baker Lofts to people of color, a group of "community members and artists for social change" circulated a mass e-mail. It was written by Juanita Unger, a white Canadian-born dancer/musician:
If any of you have driven down Rainier Avenue past Mount Baker light rail you surely have seen the massive construction project right next to the train station... this is the future site of Artspace, an organization that develops affordable work/live artist studios and apartments starting at under 400 per month. The problem is that there is a gross under-representation of minority populations within these developments. This new space in Rainier Valley deserves to have its residents be representative of the diverse and dynamic community in which it is located. Please spread the word...
On the official website for Artspace Mt. Baker Lofts, the very first project goal listed is "To create permanently affordable artist housing serving a multi-ethnic community."
Artspace project manager Rebecca Morton, herself a poet, was one of the people Galvan reached out to after his initial experience at Hiawatha. She e-mailed him about Artspace's commitment to promoting diversity and work in Rainier Valley for the past four years. She's in contact with about 20 organizations, including Franklin High School, the Vietnamese Friends Association, and the Ethiopian Community Mutual Association. She also listed six Rainier Valley events where she'd be giving out information in August and September alone.
In a recent hard-hat tour of the construction site on a windy, cold weekday afternoon, Morton stood out on the top floor of the building, overlooking what seemed like the entire city: the skyscrapers to the north, the forest immediately to the west, mountains to the south, and the elevated light rail track so close to the building that it looks like you might step right onto the train car from one of the lofts. It's a beautiful Seattle place.
"We can't preference one tenant over another," Morton explained. "We're first-come, first-served. The important part for me and my partner Cathryn [Vandenbrink, Artspace vice president of properties] is outreach. I wish that this explanation of this process was sophisticated. It comes down to having a lot of coffee, and going to a lot of community meetings, and always answering my phone, and always asking people who else should I be talking to."
There's lots of misinformation about how to get a spot at Artspace. The facts are simple. For a new building like Mt. Baker, there is no waiting list. Everyone must get in the actual physical line on "intake day" to be considered. After that, Artspace has only two qualifications: income eligibility and artist selection.
To income-qualify, an artist's income must be 60 percent or lower of the area median income as measured by HUD, which for King County is $86,700. (Note to HUD: Um, you sure?)
Then, to artist-qualify, Artspace's policy is: "One adult member of each family must be actively engaged in an art form." The artist does not have to make any money from their art, only to demonstrate ongoing commitment to it. The panel of volunteer artists making the determination do not judge "quality."
"Show a body of work, show that you're actively engaged in that work," Vandenbrink explains. "It's not about judging whether the committee thinks it's good or not—it's are you passionate about what you do, is this how you define yourself. You may not make a dime out of it—artists are working in hospitals, schools, restaurants all over the city, and they're coming back and spending a big chunk of their time doing the creative work that makes our city interesting."
Artspace is against homogeneity in more than skin tone, but skin tone is related to cultural diversity, Vandenbrink elaborated. "If you are interested in Somali music or Eritrean dance forms, yes, you are an artist in our eyes," she said. "That's what's important: in our eyes. Even the whole white artist community thinks, 'Oh, artist housing, that means it's for painters.' This is for all creative people and cultural practitioners. Music and dance and performance and arts and crafts. We include curators and stage managers. We err on the side of inclusion, not exclusion."
Spread the word. E-mail Morton at email@example.com to receive notification of applications, workshops for help applying, and advance notice for when it's time to camp out.
In other words, Mt. Baker does not have to be a repeat of Hiawatha.
Galvan, the man who started this conversation with his question at the open house, said people have suggested that Artspace might consider tapping him for a volunteer panel on intake day. He wants to do whatever he can.
"I don't have any friends here [on Beacon Hill] anymore, because all my friends of color have left, they don't live here no more," Galvan says. "Even my son moved to Kent. I mean, I see the strategy that's going on at the city, turning all the low-income housing into mixed-income growth, turning people out of the city. Even Rome had its slaves living in Rome."
This article has been updated since its original publication.