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Critics Take On P.S. 109's Affordable Housing for Artists

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On the heels of Mayor de Blasio's announcement that he wants to bring 1,500 units of affordable housing earmarked for artists to the city in the next ten years, NY Magazine's archicritic Justin Davidson has penned a very valid critique of one of the buildings working to achieve that goal: East Harlem's Artspace PS109. The formerly abandoned neo-Gothic school, built in 1898 during a "wave of idealism about public education," had been eyed for the past decade as a suitable location to exercise such a plan. The abandoned building was acquired by nonprofit Artspace in 2010. Five years later, the dirt has been wiped clean, and the "leaky husk" of a building has been converted into 89 pretty nice apartments, but at a great cost. To be precise, about $52 million; a sum that leads Davidson to wonder if this all will really work.

Whether the presence of the artists housing will serve as an incubator of gentrification, or prevail in its goal of shielding artists from market forces is yet to be seen, but at least one East Harlem artist who was one of the 53,000 applicants to be rejected from Artspace PS109 is wary of the development as well as its intentions. In a rehash of his experience in the artist housing lottery, Andrew Padilla writes,

Artspace will preserve a small number of the artists that made El Barrio what it is today (and add a bunch of new ones), but will Artspace collaborate with residents to fight displacement? Or work to promote El Barrio a "destination,", [sic] holding art crawls and further fueling land values in a community where 93% of residents rent? Sure Padilla was scorned, but his testimony and concerns likely echo those of thousands of other applicants. While Davidson refrains from straying into the embattled territory of gentrification, he does advise that rehabbing severely rundown, albeit gorgeous structures for artist housing is perhaps not the most effective method of achieving BdB's goal or doing good for the community at large. "Combining affordable housing with historic preservation is a fine idea, but it's also an expensive way to make life cheap for a minuscule number of New Yorkers," he writes. Davidson does the math: after the pricey rehab, each apartment ended up costing $580,000 of federal, state, and city funds. "At that rate," he writes, "keeping artists in New York is a civic luxury."

The takeaway is this: whether the subsidized artist housing will continue the long, sad tradition artists are so familiar with of neighborhoods they nurture transforming into hot destinations, pushing them out—think Soho, Dumbo, hell, even Bushwick—won't be seen for a while. What will be immediately relevant is the initiative's fiscal sustainability, and in the grand scheme of things these days, artists' place on the totem pole of need is no longer clearly defined.
· The Beauty (and Limitations) of El Barrio's Artspace PS109 [NYM]
· A Rejected Artist in NYC: Who Really Wins Affordable Housing Lotteries? [Latino Rebels]
· All P.S. 109 coverage [Curbed]