City Hall

Subsidized Housing for Starving Artists? Yes. Starving People? Not So Much.

The Dallas City Council signed off on Flora Lofts, a $25 million high-rise project near the Arts District, last March.
The Dallas City Council signed off on Flora Lofts, a $25 million high-rise project near the Arts District, last March. La Reunion Texas
Is there anyone out there who doesn’t get what Dallas’ aversion to most government-subsidized affordable housing is really all about? The best answer is in the two kinds of government-subsidized housing Dallas does like.

One is government-subsidized housing for seniors. The second, as we are about to see downtown, is government-subsidized housing for artists. In other words, Dallas likes government-subsidized affordable housing built for populations generally considered incapable of hurting anyone.

And I am not here to judge. I’m just wondering how the artists’ lofts thing is going to work within a block of the sterile, soul-withering and absurdly expensive concrete desert that Dallas insists on calling its Arts District.

Last March, the City Council signed off on Flora Lofts, a $25 million high-rise project near the so-called Arts District, to be financed mainly with public funds — $4.5 in federal money, $18.5 in city funds and $2.5 million from private investors. The new building will include 43 subsidized units for artists at rents from $733 to $873 a month and nine market-rate apartments two to three times the size of the lofts at rents from $3,100 to $5,175 a month.

Ask me why we’re using tax money to build apartments that will rent for five grand a month. Come to think of it, don’t ask. I have no idea.

The artists will occupy 73 percent of the bedrooms in the building, and, we assume, will put them to busier use than the market-rate renters. If we divide the whole building up into bedrooms, the artists’ bedrooms come in at a construction cost of $335,941 per bed, so they’d damn well better be using them.

But here is my reservation. A lot of the artists I have known are the type who might be tempted to keep art supplies in the hallway and sublet their balconies to families of itinerant knife-sharpeners. I have a very strong suspicion those would not be the type of artist the Arts District will be looking for.

So I was not surprised, in looking over some of the city’s paperwork, to see that there will be a vetting committee to decide exactly which type of artist an artist is before granting anybody entrance to the affordable artists’ Shangri La. The only detail I could find on the committee is that it will include “artists who do not qualify to live in the building.”

Since the only hard criterion dictated by the use of federal housing money is income, then I assume the artists on the vetting committee will be artists who are all too rich to live in the building. Those would otherwise be known as artists who are popular with rich people. And the picture begins to form.

Other things in the paperwork caught my eye: I was reminded that housing projects built with federal tax credit money, as this would be in part, are required to provide — and tenants are required to attend — a variety of government-sponsored courses on self improvement, from how to balance your checkbook to how to stop throwing your children out the window.

I always liked the concept of self-improvement courses when I came across it in the past because I don’t believe just sticking somebody in a nicer apartment changes anybody’s life. Trump’s new Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary, Dr. Ben Carson, who keeps trying to give me a nervous breakdown by saying things I agree with, said last week: “And you take somebody with the wrong mindset. You can give them everything in the world. They’ll work their way right back down to the bottom.”

OMG! I agree with Ben Carson! Help me!

But when I came across the citizenship requirements for Flora Lofts, I was reminded of something a so-called slumlord told me years ago. He said he had tenants who had been renting from him for decades in shacky houses just down the block from gleaming new government-subsidized housing where they could find the same or more space for less rent.

“They don’t want to rent from the government,” he said, “because they don’t want to have [to] a take course on child care. They want to sit on the front porch and drink wine.”

Well, we all know that poor people cannot be allowed to drink wine. It’s just a basic tenet of American democracy. Wine drinking is only for people who have earned the right. Poor people should be sober and improving themselves by attending class. We all eagerly await, I am sure, the day when that will be true.

Meanwhile, here’s your conundrum at Flora Lofts. What about artists? They’re the exception to the wine rule. They’re supposed to be poor, plus they’re supposed to drink wine and use those bedrooms like rabbits. It’s their whole schtick. So how are you going to get them to take nutrition courses? Wouldn’t nutrition wreck them?

What is an artist, after all? The rich ones were artists originally, of course, but now they’ve found their niches, their core products, and they’re cranking them out for money like sausage factories.
click to enlarge
Somehow it's hard to imagine a proper downtown Dallas building near the Arts District as the setting for La Boheme.
Apologies to Reginald Gray, La Boheme Scene One, via Wikipedia, signs from Shutterstock
The ones who are creative artists — creative right now, in this moment — are supposed to be outside. Outside, looking in. That’s where new artistic vision comes from.

Only in the eye looking in from outside the campfire ring can new vision ignite – the kind of keen, deep insight that in turn opens the eyes of all who dwell inside the ring. How do you square that with a $335,941 bedroom? In a neighborhood where all the neighbors drive Lexuses?

And I don’t believe the real artist even gets in, anyway. Or wants in. Show me an artist who is willing to be grilled by an admissions committee, who is remotely willing to take self-improvement courses. We haven’t even gotten to the lobby dress code; pet sizes; hanging laundry on the balcony; stumbling, pissing or passing out in the shrubbery; or, God forbid, all three (penalty: taken to the roof by the committee and tossed off).

Or the art. How do we suppose the admissions committee will rule on the artist whose work is savagely sacrilegious, deeply vulgar, blatantly unpatriotic or even faintly treasonous? I think we all know that answer. Might as well hang a sign out front: “No Treasonous Art.”

That’s really my own great misgiving, that setting up something like this creates one more seductive mechanism by which rich people and politicians can tell artists what kind of art to create — art that rich people and politicians like. Talk about a formula for cultural suicide.

Of course, there’s a level of fiction in this whole thing anyway. Nobody really expects real artists to show up and ask for admission. What the committee will get instead will be a long stream of upper-middle-class white kids looking for a vacation between undergrad and law school.

And they’ll get in. They will provide an unthreatening population of Section 8 housing voucher users that will allow City Hall to claim it is no longer steering all subsidized housing into already segregated areas: “See, it’s all a lie that we don’t do subsidized housing anywhere north of the Trinity River. Look at these artists. They’re within a block of us. In fact, come on over to our 3,000-square-foot condo units some night when we’ve got our telescopes set up. Best show in town.”

When the so-called Arts District was still being developed, the late Trammell Crow, who dominated real estate development in the district, called a friend of mine who had formed some kind of artists collective. What they were collecting, I don’t know – pots and pans? But Mr. Crow thought it was a trade union.

He told my friend he had some big investors coming in from Canada, and he wanted her to get some of her artists out on the street doing their art. Easels and berets, that kind of thing. She asked what he would pay them, and he said he would pay nothing. He said artists don’t do what they do for money.

She claimed that she told him he needed to go to some of the better hotel bars, scoop up some high-dollar hookers, and have them parade up and down the barren, bulldozed streets of the Arts District. They might look more like artists to his friends anyway.

I have no way of knowing if she really said that to him. I always sort of hoped not because Mr. Crow was a nice man, smart, with good intentions.

But you know what? Nice, smart, rich, well intended, powerful: None of those has much to do with art. Money always wants to conserve and protect. Good art blows stuff up.

I think the subsidized housing project for artists is basically just a scam. Dallas has been under the gun for half a decade, mainly because of the litigation brought against it by Curtis Lockey and Craig MacKenzie. The two developers accused City Hall of deliberately steering subsidized housing south of the river in order to keep downtown racially segregated even though the city was using hundreds of millions of dollars in federal housing money to redevelop downtown as a residential neighborhood.

The artists’ lofts thing is a dodge to allow the city to say it has Section 8 vouchers downtown. The worst part? All of those bedroom blinds will be drawn and the balconies neatly swept with University of Michigan pennants hanging from the rails. Real artists! Fat chance!
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze

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