Artists say they’re being squeezed out of a building that was created specially to provide affordable live-work space for artists in Vancouver.
That’s something they say demonstrates a flaw in early efforts to create low-cost housing and work space for the city’s arts community — and that they hope won’t happen again.
Photographer Wendy D lived in the Artist Resource Centre building in Vancouver’s port-area industrial zone for 10 years. Last year, she was forced out because of rising rent, as well as what looked like management’s lack of concern for people trying to run art businesses. In her case, the landlord didn’t fix a broken elevator for weeks — a serious problem for someone in a seventh-floor unit who sells her art by having clients visit her studio.
She said most of the original group that moved into the 80-unit building in the late ’90s — attracted to one of the few places that allowed artists to both live and do work that is often loud or semi-industrial — left in the last five years as rents began to increase more than in the past.
“They didn’t care about artists any more,” she said, “it was all about the money.”
That’s a disturbing end to what was a laudable effort from the city to find space for artists as they were forced out of downtown warehouses in the post-Expo downtown boom, as city inspectors cracked down on fire and safety hazards in then-derelict buildings.
The ARC is zoned industrial and as a result does not fall under the purview of the B.C. Residential Tenancy Branch, which restricts rent increases for units that are used for residential purposes only.
Vancouver council granted special zoning for the ARC in 1993, as a way to create new affordable artist live-work spaces. The city continues to struggle with that issue.
In June, the city announced it would lease out 26,000 square feet of new creative space on two city-owned properties. The new studios will be rented out at $7.5 to $15 per square foot, but are only intended for work.
Those spaces will likely be managed by a non-profit, which should forestall drastic rent increases. But, says Vision Vancouver Coun. Heather Deal, that doesn’t give the city any power to dictate what happens in the earlier generation of private buildings that got zoning dispensations.
“There are a few different models of live-work and there are limits to how much the city can impose price controls in privately owned buildings,” said Deal. “We have made this a high priority so are working to use all of the limited tools available to us as a municipal government.”
The city tools include operating its own live-work studios, using community amenity contributions from developers to generate new spaces, and using zoning or taxation to encourage the construction of artist spaces.
The ARC, at Commercial Drive and Powell Street, is one the few live-work buildings in Vancouver that allows industrial activity like welding and woodworking, as well as amplified music and dance. It is one of five live-work buildings owned and operated by Reliance Holdings Ltd., which owns and manages a wide variety of commercial and residential properties in the city.
Roy Mackey, a current resident and former manager of the ARC, said when he first moved into the building over 10 years ago, “rents wouldn’t go up until tenants moved out.”
Over the past 10 years, studios similar to the one he first moved into have increased 65 per cent, rising to $1,300 a month from $850. The smallest and most affordable studios in the building now cost $1,000 a month, while some of the larger suites cost around $2,000.
Doris Siu, a staff member in accounts receivable at Reliance Holdings, said the company is “not aware of any prevailing pattern of complaints related to rents,” adding “the building remains full of artists.”
History of live-work studios
The ARC studios are part of almost 1,500 live-work spaces approved at a time when many Vancouver artists were being pushed out of the cheap warehouse spaces because of fire and safety violations. “In the mid ‘80s and early ‘90s, we were all being evicted from our studio spaces,” said Esther Rausenberg, former president of Artists for Creative Spaces, a group that came together to lobby the municipal government in response to the evictions.
The average artist in Vancouver makes $27,000 a year, compared to $36,123 for the average Vancouverite. Affordable housing is usually defined as housing that doesn’t cost more than about a third of household income. For the average artist, that would be $675 a month.
Although live-work studios were meant to provide affordable space for artists, they have attracted other residents over the years, according to a University of Toronto report on creative spaces in Vancouver and other cities. As a result, artists say competition from other creative sectors is increasingly squeezing them out of these trendy spaces.
Rausenberg said it tried to work with the city to develop spaces specifically designated for artists, but instead it zoned studios as live-work, without specifying the type of creative work.
Despite the rent increases, many artists still live in the building. Erica Babins, a 22-year-old actor and singer who has been living in the ARC for almost a year, shares a $1,300 open studio apartment with a roommate.
For privacy, the two roommates erected a plywood divider to separate their sleeping areas. Babins said that although she couldn’t afford to live in the space on her own, the arrangement is still cost-effective because her rent gives her access to the building’s shared workshops. “I rehearsed my entire Fringe Festival show here for free.”