Painted into a corner
As Sacramento’s rents rise, will artists and creative workers get erased from the picture?
A hallway of naked and faceless bodies echoed with Sacramento’s darkest secrets.
“Immediately after my first assault in college, I stopped drinking for over a year,” one confessor wrote. “I blamed myself for getting too drunk.”
The Faceless exhibit at the temporary installation Art Street shared anonymous stories of mostly local women who had been sexually abused. Framed photos showed their vulnerable, unclothed bodies with eyes hidden from the camera.
To make the harrowing piece, local photographer Sarah Marie Hawkins spent more than 300 hours and almost $4,000 on supplies, out of pocket. In return, she was guaranteed only $500.
The splash she made at Art Street didn’t help Hawkins afford a new apartment when her landlord sold her $475-a-month room in South Land Park this past winter. The artist worried she might have to leave Sacramento altogether.
“In the past four and a half years, I haven’t lived in a place longer than a year,” Hawkins says.
The only artist-specific affordable housing in Sacramento, the Warehouse Artists Lofts, currently has a waiting list of more than 80 hopeful residents for both market-rate and subsidized units. When the building first opened in 2014 with a first-come, first-served process, artists lined up outside the day before to fill out an application. Hawkins couldn’t be there that day because she had to shoot a particularly inflexible event—a wedding.
In the past several years, Sacramento has achieved, according to Los Angeles Magazine, “a hint of newfound cool” (read: Instagram-worthy restaurants, galleries and boutiques). As a result, the city has lured new residents, and the corresponding rising rents have become increasingly unaffordable for the creative workers and restaurateurs who make it cool.
Meanwhile, the City Council’s solution to stimulate the arts community could make things even worse: Its $500,000 Creative Economy Pilot Project aims to draw higher-paying companies by dazzling them with our sense of culture. Artists could attract new transplants willing to pay steeper prices for homes, effectively working to price themselves out of the city. If creative workers can’t find jobs or reasonable rent here, they might depart for a city that will provide at least one or the other.
In the “gentrification playbook” familiar in cities worldwide, first come the artists, then the galleries, then the yuppie boutiques. All the while, rents rise, and the city’s coffers bulge—finally, the capitalist gestation of a place is complete. We’ve seen it happen in neighborhoods in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Portland, Austin. When council members talk about “revitalizing” downtown even further, to some this reads as a euphemism for edging out poorer renters. But the very population that allegedly triggers this process might also be the key to saving the city’s soul.Are we cool yet?
Growing up in the Sacramento suburbs, historian and writer William Burg was fascinated by the creative energy of Midtown and the bright murals by the Royal Chicano Air Force that wove tales throughout the city. Oh, and the rent was damn cheap. So he decided to move to the neighborhood in 1994.
Though his aging apartment building had no air conditioning, it boasted a rent price of $1,000 split eight ways—$125 to live in a punk house with enough space to host bands to play live shows.
“What draws artists to any city is cheap rent,” Burg says, “and that applies to San Francisco in the ’50s or the Lower East Side of New York in the ’70s.”
Lately, Sacramento’s arts scene has been getting more press outside of the city, but it’s been here all along. It looks particularly active today only because society’s definition of who an artist can be has expanded beyond white men.
“Part of why I think we kind of get short shrift is that a lot of our creative forces are—have been—women and people of color, whether it’s the Royal Chicano Air Force or Mark Teemer or Joan Didion,” Burg says.
Interesting fact: Didion’s burgeoning creativity was stimulated by the Federal Art Project, a Depression-era, federally funded program in Sacramento that taught art to children. It lasted only a few years and was defunded because of its controversial federal funding, Burg says. That trajectory sounds eerily familiar today, as the National Endowment for the Arts risks becoming defunded under the Trump administration.
Government grants or not, throughout the years Sacramento attracted artists because of its affordability. Creative hubs flared up in Oak Park in the ’60s with the Belmonte Gallery that exhibited avant-garde funk artists and Land Park and Curtis Park in the ’80s beside the scholastic stimulation of Sac State—and the cheaper rents near the highway.
In 2001, Trisha Rhomberg, owner of the vintage clothing and artisan jewelry boutique Old Gold, moved to Sacramento from St. Louis because of its affordable rents compared to other California cities. She and her boyfriend split $700 a month for a one-bedroom. When she moved into her own place, she could afford the $750 per month on her own, solely by selling handmade clothing at quarterly events.
“I didn’t have to resort to bartending or working in a restaurant to pay my rent,” she says. “Moms would bring their daughters in to meet me and use me as an example of what you can do as a young, creative entrepreneur.”
As Rhomberg opened up boutiques—first Bows & Arrows in 2007, now shuttered, and then Old Gold in 2015—Sacramento changed, too. Old Gold arrived with the rest of the WAL Public Market and its hip restaurants and shops. They added to the countless sleek institutions that have opened in the past 10 years in Midtown, Southside Park and the R Street Corridor: LowBrau, Verge Center for the Arts, Shady Lady Saloon, m.a.r.k. vintage, Magpie, RIRE, Mother, CLARA Auditorium, Pushkin’s Bakery. As these storefronts gave a trendy polish to the grid, housing costs surged throughout the city.
Oak Park has also changed rapidly, as Barbara Range, the co-owner of the Brickhouse Art Gallery, can attest. In the past three years, restaurants, salons and shops popped up, including what Range calls “boutique row.” But “they call it the Triangle District,” she notes.
“The restaurants I can deal with because we were dry,” Range says. However, she has mixed feelings about the fact that the neighborhood is just now getting attention from the city at large. It got that TLC only after its demographics shifted away from being a mostly black community with black-owned businesses. “The issue for me is still race. And we don’t want to talk about that. It’s all race driven.”
It’s also class driven. Rental prices in Sacramento have been rising abnormally fast, even compared to the Bay Area. Rents jumped 11.1 percent from December 2015 to December 2016—the highest year-over-year rent spike in the country, according to Yardi Matrix.
Rhomberg says she’s lucky she lined up for WAL housing at 3:45 a.m. and secured a slot in 2014. Without her subsidized apartment, she imagines she and her below-market-rate neighbors at WAL would have simply left Sacramento by now.
“Most artists can’t afford to live here anymore,” she says. “This year, more than ever, I’ve heard more people struggle for longer, looking for a place to live.”Off the grid
Among rows of beige tract housing, fiction writer Arielle Robbins settles into her living room to tap away on her laptop and construct her novel—tentatively titled Nothing to Do with Explosions. Half a year ago, she moved from Q and 10th streets to Rocklin because she, her husband, her four cats and her shiba inu felt cramped in a one-bedroom, $1,500-a-month apartment.
She figured they would be able to afford to buy a two-bedroom home in Sacramento; her husband works as a software engineer and, at the time, Robbins worked in operations at a nonprofit. After four months of searching, they gave up and moved to Rocklin. Though she has four bedrooms for a mortgage nearly the same price as rent at her last apartment, she now regrets the move away from downtown.
“I really miss it,” Robbins says. “All of the art events that I like to go to—to support other artists—it’s all down there, so I’ve just felt really isolated by the move.”
The new location has hindered her ability to recruit more artists to collaborate and show their work through her nonprofit, Retrograde Collective.
“You start to lose touch with the people there, and that isolates you even further, and then your own activities suffer as a result because you’re not connected to people anymore,” she says.
Arguably, artists have a real business need to live in the most expensive places in cities—downtown.
After moving here from Miami nine years ago, Robbins is now considering leaving altogether. In a reversal of the usual narrative of San Francisco creative workers seeking an affordable haven in Sacramento, she and her husband may get priced out of Rocklin and seek out more economically viable shelter in the Bay Area. Though that metro area is pricy, the couple could command higher prices for their work and more easily connect to their industries there.
“If we’re going to be house poor somewhere, we might as well be house poor in the Bay Area,” she says. She and her husband are still struggling to build a community and pay for expenses with their paychecks, so she asks, “Why be in Sacramento and house poor?” Robbins adds, “I know the city is trying to address that. … It’s just not happening fast enough. Expenses are outpacing opportunity by a lot.”
Indeed, the city claims to be working on it. One of the questions being asked by the Creative Economy task force is: “I don’t know if we’ll ever be the place where the proverbial bass guitarist gets so much work here that they don’t have to do anything else, but how do we make it better?” says Crystal Strait, senior adviser in Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s office.
The $500,000 Creative Economy money is about to start funding pilot projects that apply online to the city, with a priority placed on pop-up events that incorporate food, tech and art to “activate a space,” Strait says. The biggest criterion is economic impact, followed by social impact and potential for growth. She says the city hopes the increased artistic activities magnetize higher-paying companies to the area.
“Promoting creativity makes us a more attractive city, particularly in our efforts to bring in high wage jobs and the right talent to make sure those jobs are filled,” she says.
The idea is that new companies will also stimulate jobs in design, digital media and other creative fields. However, not every musician, painter or writer wants to work in those industries.
Though the Creative Economy task force is researching how to help freelance creative workers, its recommendations to the city won’t change the fact that those careers are more cyclical, with ups and downs and side jobs. As the city adds high-wage jobs, more artists like Robbins will be pushed to the city’s outskirts, away from the downtown foot traffic that would sustain their work as an independent business.
Even as creative enterprises have gained traction in Sacramento, housing remains a priority. Rhomberg has watched as the arts and crafts community has blossomed, but acknowledges the downside of this growth.
“As soon as you’re on the upside of that wave, you get hit—you get hit with the lack of places to live,” she says. “To keep creatives here, we need to offer them some kind of financial incentive when we can’t offer them a job.”
In other words, if artists don’t have enough opportunities in Sacramento, they might not even be interested in living here.Branded and burned
Nearly at capacity with concerned artists and homeless advocates in January, the city of Sacramento council chambers were silenced as spoken-word performer David Loret de Mola walked in the aisles, punctuating his explosive rhymes with gestures toward the crowd. His words underlined the common concerns among the homeless and arts activists there that night.
“I see carbon copies of my future self on the street corners holding signs,” he spoke with force.
Hawkins was in awe: She had never seen spoken word and official policy mingle so directly, and it gave her more respect for Steinberg for allowing the artists to perform during the meeting and beforehand in the lobby.
“This is so different; this is rap and spoken word and hip-hop that’s empowering and about the community, and it’s woke as fuck. I mean, come on,” she says.
The city seems to be catching onto something: Though artists can’t stop the tides of gentrification, they can preserve the identity of a place as it becomes sterilized by the flood of money that tends to make so-called world-class cities look the same. Why have just another pinewood cafe with exposed brick when you could have a coffee shop with a mural capturing a personality and a pulse? It’s something, at least.
Artists preserve a neighborhood’s character throughout “that revitalization process that people call gentrification,” according to Bill Blake, the West Coast Director of AMS Planning & Research, a consultancy for arts organizations.
“Nobody really does that better than artists,” Blake says.
However, in proposing the fund, the council and city staff buzzed about supporting the arts in the abstract, with much less mention made of the artists themselves. The council approved the Creative Economy fund to be split among players in the arts, food and tech. The money came from former Mayor Kevin Johnson’s Innovation and Growth Fund, so the initiative was framed by tech concerns from the get-go. The current mayor couched it as a citywide marketing effort in line with the city’s recent try-hard rebranding of the water tower from “City of Trees” to “Farm-to-Fork Capital.”
“We want to talk and act around making Sacramento a destination city that is for and about youth,” Steinberg said at that January meeting. “We want to highlight here at City Hall some of the energy around arts and food that we all ought to know more about.” To evoke the magical powers of the “arts,” the mayor said that word with a meaningful whisper, the vocal equivalent of jazz hands.
Strait explained that their team had surveyed tech entrepreneurs and found that focusing on technology alone wasn’t enough to seduce those companies to move to Sacramento.
“They really want this vibrant city,” she explained that evening. “We’ve seen this real, symbiotic relationship between the tech world and our identity as a farm-to-fork capital and the arts community.”
As officials spoke about how artists might attract the Bay Area’s overflowing tech talent and revenue, it left some feeling like they were being used.
“It kind of makes us a novelty instead of actual professionals,” Hawkins says. “It’s a little belittling. I remember laughing when I heard them say ’cool.’ And then being like, ’Oh, that’s not funny, that’s insulting.’ … We’re not the little trick monkey that plays music for you. We’re professionals. This is our life, this is our livelihood, and you haven’t shown interest in us for a while. Now all the sudden we’re being used to pull people in, so now you see the value. You know the value of what we do, but you’re not quite meeting us there.”
So far, Hawkins appreciates Steinberg more than she does his predecessor. Still, she feels the city should be subsidizing more artist housing, providing more grants to individual artists and training artists in business skills to ask for what their artwork is really worth.
Instead, the city seems to be investing more in sensational events like Art Street or arts administrative positions. It recently posted a Creative Economy Manager position with a six-figure salary. Even when the funds go to artists, the money doesn’t make a dent in their financial troubles. For her Art Street installation, Hawkins was granted $500 by the nonprofit behind Art Street, M5 Arts. That’s all that was available from the $25,000 the city had granted the temporary project, divided among the artists.
What’s often forgotten is that creative workers also represent an economic force. They made up 8 percent of the workforce in New York City in 2013, according to Center for an Urban Future. Though that percentage may never become as hefty in Sacramento, the city could encourage it to rise.
“Part of the education is encouraging electeds and encouraging the business community to see art as more than a pastime, as an activity, but as an economy, as an economic driver, and you can’t fake that,” Burg says. “Tech people aren’t dumb. If just you say, ’Oh yeah we support artists,’ and kind of hold a cutout cardboard of an artist or make a 30 second video of people at an art show, but it doesn’t play out when you arrive, people figure that out.”City of leaves
To truly keep artists in Sacramento, and not just as a marketing strategy to retain a few dozen token creatives, artists say that the city needs to treat them as the independent businesses that they are and give them the resources and incubation they would to other, more moneyed entrepreneurs. It must do more than fund sporadic events and point to WAL as the only golden solution for sheltering creative workers. Burg, Blake and others say that the city must build more affordable and midmarket housing in and around downtown, for artists and for everyone.
The developer of WAL, Ali Youssefi, also believes Sacramento should be incentivizing and building more housing.
“We can’t fit all the artists in one building; I mean, this is 116 apartments,” Youseffi says.
When residents earn more income and no longer qualify for WAL’s subsidized units, they realize their options are limited in the city, even for middle-income housing. “We’ve had artists come to us and say, ’Where can we live now?’” he says. “They start realizing that there isn’t really housing that’s readily available for them downtown, and they start facing the prospect of having to move out, back to the suburbs, and it’s such a travesty for downtown.”
The city does want to add more affordable units, says Greg Sandlund, a senior planner with the city. But federal funding for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development was cut by about $3 billion in the 2012 budget. It’s under threat again in the Trump administration—the president has considered a $6 billion cut to HUD.
“It’s not a matter of will,” Sandlund says. “The city wants affordable housing, and we want to build as much as we can.”
Of the 10,000 houses to be built as part of the Downtown Housing Initiative, only 2,500 are affordable housing units. That’s because each affordable unit costs an average of $280,000 to build, and it’s hard to recoup those expenses without more federal funding, Sandlund says. To add more artist and affordable housing, he’s open to ideas of reworking policies around tiny houses or renovating derelict buildings in Sacramento and other workarounds.
As a community, Sacramento should see to it that creative workers can afford to live downtown, Youssefi, Blake and Burg say. After all, artists don’t just move to closet-like apartments in central cities because they love being uncomfortable. They do it for the sake of advancing their work.
The only reason that Hawkins met her “angel,” Claire Voigtlander, and therefore found shelter in Sacramento, was because they crossed paths in Midtown. Hawkins was showing her art at her co-working space, Outlet, where Voigtlander “awkwardly” stood near a group of strangers. The artist called her over, and they talked for hours.
This winter, Hawkins put out a call for housing. Voigtlander, who makes a steady paycheck working for a San Francisco ed-tech company, offered to house her for free, indefinitely—no strings attached.
“It was just like, ’Are you an angel?’” Hawkins remembers days after the exchange, still with an astonished laugh.
Inside their cozy house with wildflowers sprinkled throughout the backyard, Hawkins and Voigtlander curl up with their rescue dogs, Pip and Ollie—named after Dickens characters because they’re both orphans.
Voigtlander jokes that she’s “Daddy Warbucks.” But she has a deeply personal incentive to house Hawkins. Years ago, the tech worker had given up on her dream of being a full-time artist when she was trying to sleep in her winter coat. During a frigid December in Scotland, her landlord wouldn’t fix the electricity in her “hovel,” but it was all she could afford on her piecemeal pay.
“I just couldn’t do it anymore,” Voigtlander says. “I couldn’t live my life with all of my anxiety and all of my depression, constantly worried about if I’m going to be evicted and whether or not I could keep my lights on.”
She moved to the States to find affordable shelter and a job. Now, she’s spreading her relative wealth to Hawkins.
“It’s kinda come full circle,” Voigtlander says.
Hawkins’ work is simply too necessary to let something like housing get in the artist’s way, Voigtlander says. “The Faceless project is so important to me and so important to women in general,” she says. “If I can help facilitate that, that’s more important to me than, you know, finding someone to help with the rent. Plus, I have a built-in dog sitter, so.”
Among Hawkins’ unpacked boxes and stacks of paintings and photographs shines the naked image of Voigtlander’s back and her signature flash of seafoam-green hair. Voigtlander was a participant in Hawkins’ Faceless project.
“It has changed my life so dramatically,” Voigtlander says. “I feel empowered and confident and in control of my own body and my life like I’ve never felt before, even after years of therapy.”
Hawkins takes off her clear-framed glasses to wipe away her tears.
“I don’t think people view art as a necessity—where it absolutely is,” Voigtlander says. “Sarah’s such an incredible artist that I think she’s the best person to pursue this, and I would be devastated if she wasn’t able to because of paying the rent.”