Meet the Trust Devoted to Keeping the Arts in a Gentrifying San Francisco

On November 3, San Franciscans will vote on Prop F, which seeks to curtail the use of short-term rental sites like Airbnb and cut the number of allowable rentals to 75 nights per year, among other restrictions. Proponents argue that Prop F will help to stem the tide of rising rents that have priced working-class residents out their neighborhoods.

Needless to say, these are tense times in a rapidly gentrifying San Francisco. Two years ago, protesters vandalized a Google bus taking employees from Oakland to its Mountain View headquarters. In May, protesters vandalized a bus carrying Facebook employees. And the upheaval continues to spread to other areas of the city, from the Mission to the Tenderloin district. Margaret Russell, a law professor at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, sums up the zeitgeist succinctly, noting, "A lot of people think that San Francisco is becoming a rich person’s city."

So what does it all mean for the city's artists? They're fleeing in droves across the Bay Bridge to cheaper cities, which are themselves gentrifying, or leaving Northern California entirely. What's more, the narrative has a richly cinematic element to it—the battle between starving artists and rapacious techies.

Can common ground be found?

News out of the city suggests cause for cautious optimism. On San Francisco's KQED, architect and theater design consultant Adam Shalleck argues that tech can be part of the solution to the city's arts exodus. But the solution isn't exactly rocket science. You need to keep rents down for arts organizations and residential tenants. If arts organizations are priced out, they'll leave. If they can afford to stay, they'll stay—at least initially. However, if an organization's target audience is also priced out, then the organization doesn't stand much of a chance. Both elements—the affordability of venue and residential spaces—are interrelated. Nothing revelatory about this.

What's difficult, of course, is coming up with a tangible, real-world strategy to address the problem. Well, we found one, and it comes to us from the Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST), which owes its existence, in part, to $5 million in seed funding from the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, an outfit committed to nothing less than saving San Francisco's soul.

The mission of the trust is predicated on the inverse of the interrelation challenge. Affordable rents can keep residents in their apartments, but that alone won't address the lack of affordable performance spaces or an organization's ability to optimally run these spaces.

And so CAST acts as a broker, matching organizations with lease challenges to landlords who want to sell. The arts organization, of course, can't buy the property outright, but CAST can and does. It then rents it out to the arts organization for seven to 10 years while it raises the money needed to buy the building at its original sales price. This model serves the dual purpose of providing an organization with a roof in the short-term while ensuring that the next unicorn start-up won't swoop in and buy the place at double the asking price. We can't see why such a model can't be employed in other gentrifying U.S. cities as well.

The trust provides a critical lifeline to San Francisco organizations like CounterPulse, a performance arts nonprofit. Thanks to CAST, CounterPulse's new home is a former porn theater, The Dollhouse, in the quickly gentrifying Tenderloin neighborhood. For Artistic Director Julie Phelps, the partnership was a life-saver—and then some. "When we began to consider what our next move was going to be," she said, "it was beyond our wildest dreams that we would purchase a building, do a $3 million renovation on it, and have our dream home at the end."