Displacement Fears: Arts Funders and the Dilemma of Urban Gentrification

Mural art in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Christian Mueller/shutterstock

Mural art in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Christian Mueller/shutterstock

Bay Area funders like the Kenneth Rainin Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation have allocated millions to helping working artists survive in the ridiculously expensive San Francisco real estate market. But recent news out of the city flips this narrative on its head and underscores just how fraught the question of arts-driven gentrification and displacement has become in some major U.S. cities.

In 2008, Carlie Wilmans, founder of the arts nonprofit 500 Capp Street Foundation, purchased the house of conceptual artist David Ireland, who passed away a year later, to preserve his legacy. “I knew if it went on the market, a developer would come and snap it up. I’m familiar with the gentrification process” in the city’s Mission District, she told the San Francisco Chronicle at the time. Wilmans also owns a duplex adjacent to the David Ireland House.

Fast-forward to 2019. According to Hyperallergic’s Emily Wilson, Wilmans has started proceedings to evict the six tenants from the residence—a woman in her 80s, her adult child, adult grandchildren, and some of their spouses. In April, Wilmans’ attorney Scott Freedman told the San Francisco Examiner that Wilmans aims to donate the building’s use, “free of charge, for temporary lodging by artists, curators, performers.”

The plan hasn’t gone over well with the building’s tenants. “The idea of evicting long-term, low-income tenants so an institution can house visiting artists is not what we have housing for,” said the tenants’ attorney, Scott Collier. “I don’t think a lot of artists would like to know they’re being offered this housing off the backs of these low-income tenants.”

Nor are artists particularly supportive of Wilmans’ plan. “It’s a totem-pole effect,” said San Francisco poet and sculptor Truong Tran. “The real displacement is people like this elderly woman, who don’t have power or resources to stand up and fight. Then communities of color are ultimately displaced, and that’s something that’s been happening for some time.”

Not too long ago, residents in San Francisco’s Mission District would have welcomed an influx of artists, curators and performers with open arms. Arts organizations used to be the good guys. But the pendulum has swung. Many longtime residents now view these organizations and artists as the first wave of gentrification, and with it, the eventual displacement of longtime residents. How did this happen? And how can philanthropy help arts organizations become part of the solution, rather than the problem?

Big City Exodus

This challenge is inextricably linked to escalating housing costs across the country. An April report by the U.S. Census Bureau underscored the startling breadth of this problem. According to the report, in 2018, eight of the 10 largest metropolitan areas in the country, including those around New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Miami lost people to other parts of the country. Santa Clara County, California, home of Silicon Valley, saw the greatest exodus, losing 24,645 people to domestic migration, its ninth consecutive annual loss.

Writing in the New York Times, Eduardo Porter, citing research by Peter Ganong from the University of Chicago and Daniel Shoag of Harvard, noted that housing costs are the principal driver behind the change in migration decisions. Poorer residents and those without a college degree are getting priced out. Remaining residents, particularly those in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods like San Francisco’s Mission District, don’t see a huge distinction between a well-intentioned arts funder and a slick developer with blueprints for luxury condos.

Case in point: In 2017, PSSST, an arts nonprofit in Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights neighborhood, closed its doors after harassment from anti-gentrification activists. As part of its initial agreement with its landlord, an anonymous donor invested $2 million to purchase and renovate the building and committed a free 20-year lease to the gallery. Opponents depicted PSSST as a tool of gentrification via “artwashing,” referring to the practice of “real estate developers and speculators using artists’ presence in a neighborhood as a way to rebrand a formerly neglected area as highly desirable,” wrote Bianca Barragan in Curbed Los Angeles.

“We have struggled to make our community a better place. Now that we’ve cleaned up our community, it’s not fair for the galleries to just come here, like PSSST, that gets to lease that space for free for 20 years. It’s not fair,” said Ana Hernandez, a member of Union de Vecinos, a tenants rights organization.

But does arts-based development really push out long-term residents? The research is inconclusive at best. Last year, the journal Urban Studies found that “while arts growth does occur in the context of gentrification, an arts presence is not driving the relationship. Rather, gentrified environments lead to arts growth.” In other words, the developers come first, then the artists—not the other way around.

This academic conclusion is of little consolation to gentrification opponents like Boyle Heights’ Dont Rhine. In a philanthropic climate in which funders are allocating tens of millions of dollars for arts-based neighborhood revitalization, he is “still waiting to see an example of where an arts district didn’t displace a community.”

Funders in the Hot Seat

Urban-based arts funders, particularly public art and creative placemaking proponents, are acutely aware of what they’re up against. As a result, they need to strike a fine balance between touting successes while remaining cognizant of residents’ fears of displacement.

For example, in announcing its 2018 Public Art Challenge, Bloomberg Philanthropies noted that the initiative has thus far generated $13 million for local economies, employed 820 individuals, and created 490 programs and activities like tours, workshops and lectures. These are compelling data points, but did the challenge drive up rent in participating cities and subsequently displace long-term residents in the process? At what point, to paraphrase Rhine’s concerns, does an arts district become too successful?

Similarly, Maria Rosario Jackson, a senior advisor to the Arts & Culture Program at the Kresge Foundation, recently authored a white paper capturing that funder’s evolving creative placemaking strategy. Jackson stressed the need for creative placemaking stakeholders to embrace responsible urban planning. The problem, she writes, is that historically, developers rarely made the distinction between “good” and “bad” development.

“No one was sufficiently trained to manage the unbridled reinvestment or return to the urban core and related racialized dynamics that we see in many cities today,” Jackson said. “The community-development and urban-planning fields have been caught unprepared and must catch up.”

To Jackson’s point, Catherine Cusic, a resident of San Francisco’s Mission District, told HyperAllergic’s Wilson, “It’s like someone waved a wand, and my neighborhood went from predominantly brown to predominantly white,” she said. “I knew people in all three units next door to me who were there for 20 years. Those units all got turned into condos, and they’re all gone. One of the Latina women is still homeless. This is a big issue for me, and to see someone do it in the name of the arts is just terrible.”

Moving forward, “in real estate markets where displacement concerns are warranted,” Kresge’s Jackson writes, “it is incumbent upon planners, developers, funders and community leaders to ensure that creative placemaking strategies are integrated with a suite of related interventions that, at minimum, mitigate displacement and, at best, truly expand opportunity.”

In retrospect, Jackson’s piece of advice may have proved helpful to Boyle Heights’ PSSST. Union de Vecinos’ Hernandez said PSSST never made an attempt to meet with Boyle Heights community members before it opened its doors. “They simply planted themselves here without taking our input into consideration or without any kind of community process.”

Zero-Sum Game

Jackson’s advice rings true, but it also comes across as a bit simplistic. Arts funders exist to support artists and arts organizations, not long-term residents on fixed incomes. Funders also have minimal leverage over developers and local public officials, much less market economics that produce rising prices as long as supply remains depressed.

This hasn’t stopped funders from trying to square the circle. Working with consultancy Point Forward, Kresge published case studies of creative placemaking stakeholders allaying residents’ fears of gentrification in Cleveland and Washington, D.C. Efforts in those places found stakeholders rolling out financing mechanisms to help artists buy homes, and supplementing “informational meeting” formats with arts-based activities for families.

Fair enough, but will informational meetings, community networking and arts-based activities freeze housing prices and keep long-term residents in their homes? That’s a big ask.

Creative placemaking, in particular, has always been a niche area, and given the charged political and economic landscape, proponents can be forgiven for dialing back their ambitions a bit. For example, ArtPlace America recently announced it will not be continuing the National Creative Placemaking Fund. Instead, it will “transfer funding in up to six geographies to strengthen the local ecosystems of creative placemaking.” Four of the six areas are in far-flung, non-urban locales like Anchorage, Alaska, southwest Minnesota; Zuni, New Mexico, and Jackson, Mississippi.

As for the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, it has partnered with the Northern California Community Loan Fund and San Francisco’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development to provide support to the Community Arts Stabilization Trust. The trust purchases and leases properties to stabilize arts organizations in San Francisco's resurgent Central Market and Tenderloin neighborhoods. 

In addition, in 2016, the foundation launched the Open Spaces public art program with the goal of engaging communities, showcasing artistic experimentation, and cultivating emerging public spaces. Last year’s winners included a project called ARTruck Residencies that will host screen and digital printmaking residencies to “explore displacement and the housing crisis affecting San Francisco's Mission District.”

“Art and Complicity”

The ARTruck Residencies project surfaces a rather uncomfortable question: At what point does a funder or artist highlighting the effects of displacement become an unwitting accessory to displacement? This isn’t an academic argument. Back in 2016, during the height of the PSSST controversy, Carribean Fragoza wrote a piece on KCET’s site titled “Art and Complicity: How the Fight Against Gentrification in Boyle Heights Questions the Role of Artists.” 

According to Dont Rhine, “In trying to establish a fine arts space within the professional sector, it’s next to impossible to start or maintain that space without direct complicity in speculative development. It’s impossible to escape complicity.” Looking ahead, Rhine said, “if an artist is challenged by the communities facing displacement to act in solidarity, then the artist has increasingly no choice but to be complicit fully or to invent a different kind of art.”

That’s a tall order for both the artist and a funder. It also points to a dubious future in which artists and galleries that wish to “escape complicity” remain concentrated in established “gentrified environments,” to borrow a phrase from the Urban Studies report. 

In late May, San Francisco mayor London Breed and supervisor Norman Yee announced that a proposed bond to fund the creation and rehabilitation of affordable housing has grown by another $100 million, bringing the total size to $600 million. This makes it the largest affordable housing bond in the city’s history. Assuming the city’s labor unions sign on, “shovel-ready” projects can begin construction within four years.

For arts organizations like the Rainin Foundation and 500 Capp Street Foundation, four years probably feels like an eternity. In the meantime, they find themselves participating in a zero-sum game. An apartment or unit that goes to a struggling artist is one less affordable space available for a long-term resident.

Lenore Chinn, a photographer, painter and former member of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, told HyperAllergic’s Wilson that many of her artist friends have had to leave San Francisco due to housing costs. But at the same time, she says, “I just don’t feel comfortable with displacing people who are just, if not more, vulnerable than the artists.”