How much would you pay, personally, to have an artist as your neighbor?

The just-approved permit for an 84-unit building specifically for artists is easily the most quixotic recent attempt to make Honolulu’s redevelopment affordable. The units are labeled “artist lofts,” a buzzword of urban living since the 1970s.

There are three common kinds of artist lofts. One is a working studio, often in a run-down commercial space, where the artist also lives and sleeps (illegally); the whole point is cheap rent, which the artist pays out of his own pocket. We’ve long had these, by the way, in places like Chinatown and Kakaako.

Ola Ka Ilima Artspace Lofts by Artspace

The Ola Ka Ilima Artspace lofts set to be built in Kakaako where artists are to enjoy housing subsidies.


Another kind of artist loft is a sleek, chic, all-white and stainless steel apartment in a luxury building that can sell for millions. But the buyers are not artists; they are people who want an artsy space. Some of the new townhouse condos selling in Kakaako and downtown have this look — swap out the artist’s easel and the naked model for a 104-inch widescreen TV and a Carrera marble kitchen appliance island, and you’ve got it.

The third type is a living space with room for making art. It is offered at a reduced rent or purchase price to artists — certified by some sort of artistic committee — with the subsidy borne by government or, sometimes, by developers in tandem with government.

This hybrid is the inspiration for the Ola Ka Ilima Artspace Lofts project, which promises to house qualifying artists and their families, if they have them. Sited on a parcel of land that the Hawaii Community Development Authority acquired after foreclosure for $4.2 million, the project sets income levels for single artists at $20,000 to $28,000 and those with families at $40,000 to $57,000. It also holds rents at an artificially low rate for 65 years. Construction is set to begin soon. Tenant selection will take place in 2016 after an application process that concludes with a lottery.

It’s one thing to say, “Sure, we’d love to have artist lofts,” and another thing to watch someone get something for less than you’re paying.

The five-year process was guided by Artspace, a nonprofit that specializes in helping communities to create living spaces for artists. They’re from Garrison Keillor country, Minneapolis, where they know how to do these things. They’re working with EAH Housing, a nonprofit that has a 40-plus year track record of community building.

In other words, unlike so many pie-in-the-sky schemes in Hawaii, we are close to a realized project. It’s a win, even a win-win, given that the subsidies come from tax credits given to the developers. Tax credits — those are painless.

Until your GET and property tax go up. Again.

Moving right along without examining that can of worms, let’s look at how artist housing looks to those who aren’t artists. After all, it’s one thing to say, “Sure, we’d love to have artist lofts,” and another thing to watch someone get something for less than you’re paying.

In fact, if you’re in the market for a place to live and are having trouble finding one you can afford, the notion of subsidized housing for other people might irritate a nerve. Why them and not us?

I know that feeling because I’ve been there — a taxpayer watching artists scam the system. I also know the irritated feeling as an artist myself, a writer with 40 years of skin in the game. In the leanest times, I’ve earned as little as a couple hundred dollars a year from my work, so I know what it is like to do anything short of robbery, theft or fraud to keep going.

In other words, I’ve entered contests. Clipped coupons. And worse. But I’ve never known the joy of a subsidy or government grant.

And yet — full-disclosure time — I have also lived in artist housing. Illegally.

Biting Into the Big Apple

What we’re seeing with this artist loft project in Honolulu is a real estate play that I’m very familiar with.

After I first moved to New York City in 1982 a friend took me on a tour of a neighborhood hollowed out by the collapse of light manufacturing. A painter we knew had moved into an empty building where she wasn’t paying any rent. In the chaos of the time — drugs and crime made these areas dicey, even in broad daylight — you could squat somewhere and nobody cared.

We have no cheap, rundown commercial space left for artists to discover and pioneer; we’ve priced artists out of paradise.

So what happened was, as artists squatted and took over spaces, they created a neighborhood. It was bohemian and European and tough and beautiful. Think of Talking Heads and Andy Warhol, who were following in the footsteps of Jackson Pollock and Clement Greenberg and Rausenberg and Jasper Johns and Lichtenstein. There were hundreds, even thousands of painters and sculptors crammed into this dark, gloomy, cityscape — and there was nobody else around. It felt empty of people who weren’t artists. It was utopia.

For about 10 minutes.

Then the tourists came. The wannabe painters came. The investment bankers and the realtors came. And finally the developers. I never did settle in Soho — it was already impossible to find a place.

By 1998 the artist loft movement in Soho was over — killed by its own success — after it spawned a housing frenzy that ended up pushing out the artists. Soho became a glamorous shopping district, a very handsome one at that.

It’s a process that bears a resemblance to what has happened recently in Kakaako, which had artists in commercial spaces, pioneering among the auto body shops and light industrial outfits.

By 1999 the artist-loft movement had moved full-speed-ahead into the Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea, where I was living. Over 300 art galleries made the three-mile migration there from Soho. The process accelerated after 9/11 because Soho was close to Ground Zero, which meant it was affected by the massive reconstruction.

Meanwhile, during the 1990s and 2000s developers began to apply the artist-loft template all over the U.S. and in many parts of the world. Any rundown neighborhood with multi-story commercial buildings, including Kakaako, might be a Soho in the making.

It is an appealing idea since this design evolution reflects the way we live. Art studio-style spaces really do suit many of us who live in cities.

Planting Artists

But why do we need to subsidize artist housing in Honolulu?

After all, they can go out and rent, squat, or move to the mainland, like local artist Dana Paresa, who left a “why-I-left-Hawaii” manifesto in her wake.

Her departure statement points to the answer. First, we have no cheap, rundown commercial space left for artists to discover and pioneer; we’ve priced artists out of paradise.

Second, artists are good for us. Neighborhoods are made more interesting by artists — like the ones who caught Kakaako developers’ eyes in the first place. Artists give a place a hipper feel that pleases tourists and new condo owners. So it makes business sense to plant a few artists and water them.

I’d add to this the cold-shower observation that federal fair housing regulations have defined artists as part of the special class of people who qualify for subsidized housing. It’s been that way for about 50 years, so, yeah, it’s one more thing you can blame on the 1960s. Just remember, though, that you’re also blaming the Greatest Generation, who won World War II and, in return, demanded free college and easy credit and mortgages with the G.I. Bill.

Bottom line, we are all subsidized, somewhere, in the U.S.A. And while people may or may not like artists on the dole, they do appreciate the idea of artists. There’s art on the walls of our homes, condos and resorts. There’s art on our T-shirts and our bodies. And we like being in a café and seeing an intense scribbler in a corner visibly emoting genius.

It stings to make this judgment but artist is a work category that has a positive cultural value in a way that, say, babysitter or security guard or busboy doesn’t, even though the latter three roles arguably contribute much more to society.

Making art is hard. It should be hard. It should attract people who burn to make art.

Odds are you won’t be seeing “babysitter housing” anytime soon, right? And yet, in ski resort towns like Aspen and Vail, subsidized housing for ski lift attendants has been the norm for decades. For essentially the same reason — they’re priced out, but necessary.

There is another plus to putting artists in subsidized housing that our planners ought to consider. Artists can not only balance demographics — they’re not just poorer but often of different ethnic and cultural groups than the typical downtown high-end condo buyer — they can be required to give back in the form of community art service.

This would mean more murals, more art classes in senior centers, more artists in the schools — what’s not to like about that?

The Downside

What I saw of artist housing in New York was disquieting. It did not work well or fairly. It distorted the real estate market in a way that benefited a special class. It put power in the hands of a selection committee of you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours bonobos who distorted the art market. Guess whose friends got the precious subsidized apartments?

For instance, my wife and I moved into WestBeth Artists Community, one of the first and most famous examples of artist housing. I’d say that half to two-thirds of the people we met there were not artists, but people who illegally sublet from artists who had won the housing lottery.

We were illegals, too. But at least we were striving, scrambling artists. Most residents weren’t. Some were European tourists in the Big Apple, renting on the black market, in a forerunner of Airbnb-style sofa surfing culture.

Westbeth Artist Community in New York City

The  Westbeth Artists Community in New York City became the nation’s first federally subsidized housing colony of artists when it opened in 1970.

Flickr: Jorge Quinteros

At least the painter who sublet to us didn’t take the money and stop painting, as so many others did once their housing needs were taken care of. (Then again, she painted only cows.)

After six months, we had to move and found a second illegal WestBeth sublet. Our new landlord chose to take our money and live in a hovel on the Lower East Side, and drink. He also sublet the apartment to three other people, on different days, without telling any of us. I guess that scheme was art of some kind — performance art.

We left after a month.

Broke and truly desperate, we hit the streets and, after a nerve-wracking con of our own, found ourselves squatting in an old lady’s apartment with no lease, no legal right to be there, hostile doormen looking for fugitives like us… and a precious toehold in New York City.

We stuck it out, too. After being hardened by such experiences, I can’t help but think that subsidizing housing for artists might be too easy, whether in New York City or Honolulu. It pampers people who need toughening.

Making art is hard. It should be hard. It should attract people who burn to make art. It should not attract people who see it as a comfortable career path, smoothed by helping governmental hands, with a pillow fluffed up by taxpayer dollars.

But if you offer me a loft in return for writing columns like this one, would I take it? Wouldn’t you?

About the Author

  • Don Wallace
    Don Wallace's most recent book is "The French House: An American Family, a Ruined Maison, and the Village that Restored Them All" (Sourcebooks, 2014) and he wrote the documentary film "Those Who Came Before: The Musical Journey of Eddie Kamae." A longtime magazine editor, he was an urban pioneer in New York City’s Chelsea district and involved in the creation of the internationally celebrated Chelsea High Line. He lives in Honolulu.