Colorful murals that cover warehouses in Kakaako might attract local artists to the rapidly growing area, but the rents don’t.
Artists are helping popularize Kakaako, but as auto body shops turn into high-rise condominiums, the creative types are getting pushed out.
“I could never afford to live there,” said printmaker and painter Adam Funari.
He designs apparel for Ditch Life, a lifestyle brand he co-owns. To get by, he works as a creative director at a home health care company.
But there might be hope for Funari and others like him. Ola Ka Ilima is a planned $52 million affordable housing complex with all 84 units reserved for artists.
Using public funds, project developer ArtSpace has been building the complexes for artists in cities across the country.
Most of the units, 59 of 84, will be reserved for people making up to 50 percent of area median income. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, that would be $35,200 per year for an individual or $50,250 per year for a family of four in Honolulu.
Nine units will be reserved for people earning up to 30 percent of area median income, and the rest will be for people earning up to 60 percent.
If these numbers seem unusually low for affordable housing developments in Kakaako, it’s because they are.
Since 2013, the Hawaii Community Development Authority has granted permits for eight residential buildings in Kakaako, for a total of 1,754 new residential units. The HCDA is the state agency tasked with planning development in Kakaako.
Ola Ka Ilima’s 84 units are the only ones that are considered affordable to low-income Hawaii residents. HUD defines “low income” as people earning 80 percent or less of area median income, which equates to $56,350 for an individual and $80,450 for a family of four in Honolulu.
ArtSpace is leasing the land from HCDA, and is required to maintain affordable rents for the duration of the lease, the developer said.
“The community has been pretty much in support of it,” Kakaako/Ala Moana Neighborhood Board Chair Ryan Tam said of the development. “Kakaakko does need more of this diversified housing, and this definitely fits the bill.”
Housing artists in an increasingly affluent area will help the area maintain its character and allow the artists to develop their craft, said Rich Richardson, executive director of the Arts at Marks Garage, a gallery and performance space in Chinatown.
Thirteen years ago, Richardson consulted with ArtSpace to create the Chinatown Artists Lofts, 19 market-rate lofts in Chinatown rented to artists that Richardson selects.
“It’ll add a second node or ground zero for arts production,” Richardson said of Ola Ka Ilima.
He sees Chinatown-Kakaako area as a “creative beltway” for Honolulu.
In her years as an artist and musician in Hawaii, Jhune Liwanag has seen local artists leave the islands in search of livelier arts communities and cheaper rents.
“Many people will either move in order to be in a place where there is more going on, or they quit altogether,” she said.
Liwanag runs Failed Orbit Records, a production company that records tapes and CDs for local bands. With a degree in elementary and special education, she also works as a skills trainer for students with disabilities and in retail at Mori Hawaii.
Even with three jobs, Liwanag had to choose between paying rent or producing music. She chose music, so last month Liwanag left a Honolulu apartment to move back in with her parents in Waipahu.
She may be a good candidate to live in Ola Ka Ilima because her situation is typical of artists living in ArtSpace’s 33 artist housing projects across the country
“Most of the people that will move into this project have one or two day jobs in addition to their artwork,” said Greg Handberg senior vice president of properties for ArtSpace. “This is affordable housing that’s being created in a way that will meet the needs of low-income people who happen to be artists.”
Handberg said a one-bedroom apartment in Ola Ka Ilima will cost $565 for an individual earning 30 percent of area median income. Fair market rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Honolulu, according to HUD, is $1,492.
On the higher end, a three-bedroom apartment for someone at 60 percent of area median income would cost $1,568 at Ola Ka Ilima, while at market rate a three-bedroom apartment would cost $2,885 per month in Honolulu.
To qualify for an apartment at Ola Ka Ilima, Liwanag would need to show she qualifies both financially and in her commitment to art.
Six months before an ArtSpace development is complete, an “Artist Selection Committee” begins sifting through the applications and interviewing applicants. ArtSpace assembles the committee in the early stages of the project’s development, gathering 15 to 20 people from the local arts community who are not interested in living in the units themselves.
Committee members won’t judge the quality of the work. Instead, they will look for the artists’ commitment to their craft and a high level of engagement in the local arts community.
Handberg expects a lot of interest in the units, considering the state’s dire need for affordable housing.
The company’s policy to accept only artists as tenants has been criticized as exclusionary. Some people ask why public affordable housing funds should be allocated to a project if the units built are unavailable to the vast majority of low-income people.
In 2007, an IRS audit found that using tax credits to build affordable housing for artists violated the general public use requirement under the federal low-income housing tax credit law.
A year later, Congress amended the law, adding artists as a category of people who can receive preference for affordable housing. People with “special needs” constitute another category.
The amendment passed in part thanks to lobbying efforts by ArtSpace.
For its Kakaako project, the company’s funding sources include state and federal low-income housing tax credits, the city’s Affordable Housing Fund and HOME Investment Partnership Program funds, the state’s Rental Housing Revolving Funds and state grants in aid.
Victor Geminiani, co-executive director of Hawaii’s Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, sees the project as a public benefit.
“Art is essential to the foundation of who are as a people,” Geminiani said. “It’s important for us to provide opportunity for (artists’ work) to flourish.”
ArtSpace housing proved effective in New Orleans, where jazz musicians who drew tourists back to the city following Hurricane Katrina were eventually priced out the neighborhoods they helped to enrich.
Similarly, the growing popularity of Kakaako and Chinatown make it difficult for artists to survive in the area.
“People struggle to be creative or create art because they don’t have time,” said Jasper Wong, founder of the Kakaako mural festival POW! WOW! Hawaii. “There are so many responsibilities and so much cost that goes into staying afloat in Hawaii. Places where (art) thrives, there’s more support for it.”
Space for public art projects shrinks as Kakaako develops, he added, noting available wall space for the POW! WOW! Hawaii murals is disappearing. The annual mural festival brings street artists from around the world to Kakaako for a week of painting and performances.
Richardson of the Arts at Marks Garage is in charge of selecting applicants to live in the Chinatown Artists Lofts. He says housing artists in the area has helped Honolulu’s former red-light district transform into a community where artists and entrepreneurs work and play.
The lofts attracted residents with unique interests who are working to reshape the neighborhood.
“Now when the creative types speak up about how they want public policy to affect the downtown area, they’re listened to,” Richardson said.
Ola Ka Ilima, he said, will do the same for Kakaako.
The benefit of having artists in an area has helped ward off the “not in my backyard” attitude many developers of low-income housing face in affluent neighborhoods.
“Having it in Kakaako specifically is a strategy,” said Dana Paresa, a local artist who left the islands for opportunities in Portland. “It’s a growing, burgeoning, hip neighborhood. It looks really attractive and beneficial to the developers.”
Jason Cutinella, who has lived in the Chinatown lofts for six years, said residing around artists has contributed to his success running Nella Media Group, a magazine publishing company based in Chinatown.
Cutinella works on the business side of the publication, but says living next to artists and interacting with them on a daily basis helps him think outside of the box.
The creative atmosphere combined with lower rents helps ArtSpace tenants spend more time on their art instead of side jobs, Handberg said.
“Things like ArtSpace, if it does what it says it’s going to do, then hopefully it will help further the arts community here and provide resources,” Wong said.