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Artists and housing advocates join forces

By Neil G. Greene, Special to the Daily Planet
Monday June 10, 2002

Weekend rally urges affordable units 


Affordable housing advocates and the arts community joined forces this weekend to celebrate a planned affordable housing development and to make a plea to the Berkeley community to continue providing housing, particularly for the city’s artists. 

Saturday's event was part of Affordable Housing and Open Studio Week which began May 31. The event was held on a sun-baked vacant lot at 1725 University Avenue, the future site of 27 family apartments for families with children with disabilities. The project is one of three developments of the nonprofit Affordable Housing Associates slated for Berkeley. There are six on the drawing board for Oakland. 

"This week we're celebrating the convergence of affordable housing and artists' communities," said Ali Kashani, executive director of the Berkeley-based AHA. Kashani noted that between 1997 and 2000, housing prices in Berkeley increased 40 percent, while there has been no significant rise in the city's medium income. "Nobody's income, especially low income people, has risen by that percentage amount. So there is a disproportionate ratio in the rise of housing costs and their income," she explained. 

This has left untold numbers of artists and low-income workers fleeing Berkeley and seeking refuge in nearby Oakland or cities outside the Bay Area. 

In an attempt to counter the exodus, Saturday’s event highlighted housing hopes on the horizon, and sought to redefine the public's bad associations with affordable housing. 

With AHA's recent purchase of a lot at 9th Street and Ashby Avenue, artists are scheduled to receive a much needed respite. The new site will include approximately 40 affordable artisan lofts and breaks ground this fall, to be completed sometime in late 2004. The city allocated $500,000 for this project, leaving AHA to come up with the rest. 

Poet and jeweler Anna Mae Stanely knows first-hand about what affordable housing means to artists. For more than 11 years she and her son have lived in the University Avenue Cooperative Homes. With subsidized rent, the pressure of making rent has subsided, she has been able to raise her son in a stable home environment, and she has improved the overall quality of her life, using time to produce art rather than rent. 

Affordable housing has allowed Stanley to stay in Berkeley, and therefore let Berkeley bare the fruits of Stanely's artistic passions. When time has passed, said Stanley, maybe hundreds of years from now, society will understand itself through its artwork. If there is no artwork, she said, what will people see? If the only people left here were middle and upper class – all with similar backgrounds – we wouldn't have a realistic picture of what the world is like as a whole, she added. 

In an effort to reverse the popular misconception surrounding affordable housing, East Bay Housing Organizations’ Executive Director Sean Heron, hoped Saturday’s event would re-shape the public's image of affordable housing. 

"People have misconceptions and think people who live in affordable housing might bring crime or drugs and lower property values," said Heron. “The affordable housing we're concerned about is built by nonprofit developers with the highest design standards and community and city involvement. When the buildings are done they're beautiful and people forget their misconceptions." 

If people's image of affordable housing can be changed, that leaves the acquisition of land and subsidies as the two major obstacles for affordable housing- obstacles voters can help eliminate this November when they have the option to vote for a $2 billion statewide housing bond. Half of the bond's funds will be allocated to help house low income and disabled individuals and families— the remaining funds will be spread over various programs including home ownership and farm worker housing programs. 

Affordable housing advocates are calling the bond the most exciting thing to happen in California housing in 20 years. Also in attendance at Saturday's event was Joyce Jenkins, editor and publisher of Poetry Flash, a popular poetry review and literary calendar. With Berkeley as its home for more than 30 years, Poetry Flash is bound to the city's literary history and institutions, Jenkins says, but despite deep ties, it has become bitterly difficult to stay in Berkeley. 

The rent for Poetry Flash’s live/work space was recently increased $750 a month with no foreseeable increase in their ability to pay. Jenkins hopes the community will rally to support affordable housing, to help house artists, and therefore help Berkeley remain a creative, meaningful place to live creative and meaningful lives. 

"We stay here in Berkeley because of our deep historical ties to the city and area, because this is where our core audience is," she said.