To get a handle on 2014, I asked a couple of people what the biggest story of the year was (the catch being that the story had to have seismic implications for 2015). Last week, Sightline's Eric de Place wrote about oil trains.

Today, contemplating 2014's housing affordability crisis, Capitol Hill Housing's Michael Seiwerath writes about the creation of the Capitol Hill Arts District, a story that dramatically distilled just how high the stakes had gotten in the ubiquitous "rents are too damn high" conversation that everyone had this year. Meanwhile, the fact that it was affordable housing advocates like Seiwerath's group that made the case for Seattle's creative weirdos, highlights the overlap between public policy and Seattle culture—and distilled, more precisely, what's ultimately in the balance.    

2014 was the year that the affordability crisis hit Seattle. Urban, walkable neighborhoods with transit options became particularly desirable, whether you are renting an apartment, painting studio, or performing arts space. 

As inconvenient as it is, if the rent on your one bedroom apartment goes up by 30 percent, you can move to a cheaper apartment, smaller space or a less expensive neighborhood. If you’re running a performing arts space, or need a studio to make your messy or noisy art, you have a lot less options about where to move. Artists and arts organizations are often at the bottom end of the economic spectrum, without the resources to hold on to space in the very communities they helped make desirable. 

The Capitol Hill Arts District is the first neighborhood effort in the region to use the Arts District model to preserve and create arts space. The Arts District builds on years of work by volunteers to bring more resources to artists and organizations, and identify specific ways to support them. In a neighborhood like Pike-Pine, where most of those in the arts rent, the need for new tools is particularly urgent. 

The new Capitol Hill Arts space on 12th Ave. E. Seiwerath's Capitol Housing moved in to the new building this year.

After much collaboration with the city of Seattle, on November 15 the Capitol Hill Arts District was officially launched. Over 100 artists, arts administrators and elected officials gathered at Hugo Hose to mark the creation, and talk about what now needs to be done. 

Since it is simplest to preserve the arts uses we already have, the first step of the Arts District is to raise the visibility of the arts organizations in Pike Pine. In 2015, we’ll begin marketing the amazing ecosystem of arts that exist within a few block radius—literary, dance, film, live theater, music and visual art. 

Artists are often at the bottom end of the economic spectrum, without the resources to hold on to space in the very communities they helped make desirable. 

Soon, a pair of artist-created solar powered kiosks will showcase the wealth of cultural options in the Arts District. We’re talking with the city about even more inventive ways to signify that among all the construction, the arts will help the neighborhood retain in soul. 

Beyond marketing, to be really effective, we’ll need arts incentives with teeth. If we want to keep existing organizations in old buildings, there must be a financial motivation that works for them or their landlord. More and more the arts need to control their own real estate destiny—be this ownership for a larger organizations or a long-term lease for an artist who just wants to focus on making their work. 

Equally critical will be coming up with tools to put arts space in new buildings. These have not been identified yet, and some may prove to be a political challenge. Incentives that are offered to developers (such as increased building height or floor area ratio) in exchange for creating affordable arts space may test community priorities. But we need to come together swiftly to prioritize the arts. If we succeed, when the next wave of cranes goes up in a few years, at least a few of the new projects will have space for the arts. 

Michael Seiwerath is the Executive Director of the Capitol Hill Housing Foundation, and the program manager of the Capitol Hill Arts District.

For my 2014 coverage of the Capitol Hill Arts District—I agree with Seiwerath that this arts story was one of the important political stories of the year—check out these two PubliCola posts and an installment of my Urban Upgrade column from the June edition of Seattle Met

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