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Will Artists Be Squeezed Out of the Bay Area?

September 16, 2014

Charith Premawardhana has had enough of San Francisco. After 10 years in the Bay Area he has decided to move on — for a variety of reasons and some very personal, but not least because finding a place to live at a reasonable price has become so difficult.

It may also be fair to say Premawardhana, despite all of his education, all of his acumen as a musician and entrepreneur, and all of his indoctrination into the importance of community building, is tired of the artist’s struggle, itself. Life in the garret, with its once alluring blend of purity and grit, is no longer so interesting.

He was born in Sri Lanka and grew up in Chicago. His mother is a piano teacher at the Chicago High School for the Arts; his father is president of Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education (SCUPE), an organization that trains and encourages church leaders in urban communities. The family had little money but used every resource to give three children the very best education. One of the children just took a Ph.D. from Harvard.

Charith himself is a violist with B.A. degrees in performance from Oberlin and Ohio State, an M.A. from Rice, and an artist certificate for chamber music from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. In recent years. he has been a section violist with the Monterey Symphony and principal viola with the Berkeley Symphony.

Then in 2006 he founded Classical Revolution (CR), an effort to bring classical music out of symphony halls into bars, cafes, galleries, museums, and stores. It has been very successful and now there are more than 30 chapters of CR across the United States, Canada, and Europe. Local musicians have performed in more than 1,200 events in hundreds of different Bay Area venues. Now Premawardhana is looking for angels and hopes to turn the enterprise into a 501(c)3 nonprofit.

Nevertheless, he has decided to move back to Chicago where he grew up. “Yes, people can make a reasonable living here,” he wrote in an email the other day, sounding a bit petulant. “But it’s more work than I’m really willing to do. My friends who are in decent situations are working their asses off. Playing in orchestras, teaching, weddings … It’s a constant hustle ... I kind of made the decision that I only wanted to take jobs I really wanted to do, which of course limited my options, but I was still working nonstop for over six years, and may have burned myself out a little bit.”

Four years ago, Charith lived in a small room in a warehouse in the Mission district. The rent was $450 a month and included utilities and a parking place. He had a wealth of venues, including the likes of Amnesia, a neighborhood bar on Valencia Street, and Revolution Café, a European style café on 22nd Avenue where he arranged gigs for himself and other chamber musicians. The Thursday evening performances at Revolution Café have become one of the city’s more affordable, although less known pleasures.

For a moment he had snuck very close to his long held dream — to “have a house or commercial (space) to serve as a headquarters — office/rehearsal/performance space — as well as living quarters for a resident string quartet who can rehearse together and go out into the community to play in different kinds of venues, schools, etc. Would be an interesting situation for a reality show, I think!”

But two years ago things began to change. The $450-a-month apartment was lost, not without an acrimonious parting in which Charith says the landlord changed the locks to make a point. Since then he has lived in 30 different places, often with friends. “The future is always in doubt. Many musicians have given up years ago. The ones I know and work with are busy and passionate enough to stick with it.”

Nevertheless, even those who have not given up, including young musicians still in or just out of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, have stopped performing at places like the Revolution Café. “They need to focus on real, paying jobs,” Charith noted and added that 50 percent or more of the regular musicians now playing at Revolution Cafe work for Facebook, Google, or Apple. Which, of course, is the perfect irony.

Why Housing Prices are Soaring

Ask people what’s behind the scarcity of affordable housing in San Francisco and inevitably they’ll point to the programmers and designers riding along in their blacked-out coaches, high above the hoi polloi, on their way to the assembly lines of the age. And there’s no question that six figure salaries — a mid-level Python developer, for example, makes an annual income of well more than $120,000 — for, if you will, putting virtual engines in virtual chassis, has led to higher and higher rents from the Mission District to the Outer Sunset.

But there are other local factors as well. As Kate Hartley put it euphemistically — she’s deputy director of the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development: “San Francisco has had its share of residents and political leaders over many years who were resistant to the changes brought by rapid and dense residential development ... Even when developments technically meet zoning controls, there are often still opportunities for project modifications and even denials. This adds to housing costs and the overall timeline for development.”

And then there are the macro effects on housing: More people in America are moving back to cities, on top of a growing population. In the Bay Area, the forecast is for an additional two million new residents by 2035.

Moreover, globalization has come home to roost. For example, real estate investment curbs in China have led the Chinese to become second only to the Canadians in buying up American property, mostly in urban areas. Last year there was the story of a woman who bought a $6.5 million flat in Manhattan, across from Carnegie Hall. She explained to the Realtor that the apartment was for her daughter, who would be going to college at either Columbia or NYU, or Harvard even. “And how old is your daughter?,” asked the Realtor. “Well, she’s two,” replied the woman.

It’s gotten to the point, says the cultural affairs director of the San Francisco Arts Commission, Tom DeCaigny, “that real estate firms in San Francisco are now targeting places like Shanghai and providing concierge services in Mandarin and Cantonese to attract investors.”

DeCaigny’s job is to promote the city’s arts and culture industry, which brings in more than $1.4 billion a year to the local economy. The Commission itself provides $4.5 million in grant money annually to individual artists and art organizations. DeCaigny’s argument, and no one would disagree, is that the only way to withstand the economic forces in play is for artists to work within the greater community of people in need of affordable housing.

“Is a teacher who can’t afford to live in the city any more or less worthy than an artist? We need to adopt a more holistic approach and think beyond class and occupation. We need to work in partnership with colleagues from every sector.”

Can Public Policy Help?

San Francisco actually has a strategy to encourage housing for the creative class, along with all those in need. Affordable housing currently being built or planned will offer 6,500 new units by 2020, in addition to 3,500 units from renovated existing apartments. The city offers an Owner-Occupied Rehabilitation Loan Program and a Small Sites Loan Program, which loans money to developers to buy privately owned apartment buildings with low-income residents — with the provision that they not go through with evictions, under the Ellis Act, and maintain the apartments as affordable for the long term.

To those who are being evicted, or who have been evicted, the city offers free counseling in cases of foreclosure, as well as eviction prevention services. Other programs are described at the Mayor’s Office of Housing website. There’s even an affordable housing rental lottery, for below-market units. This year there are about 250 rental units, for more than 2,000 lottery applicants. The rent for a studio that might go for a market rate of $2,800 to $3,400 is reduced to $900.

But are these programs enough and will the benefits be realized soon enough? The answer may depend on whether artists are personally willing and politically able to join — perhaps even lead — a broad coalition of constituencies to bring about change.

London Not Calling

The housing problem for artists is not only severe in San Francisco, but in cities throughout America and also in Europe. London, for example, has become unusually difficult for creative people. And not just for visual artists, musicians, and writers but also for publishers, designers, producers, and broadcasters.

“The major driver for this has been property prices,” Tom Campbell wrote in an email. Campbell, a consultant with a London-based firm, BOP Consulting, was at one time the head of Creative Industries at the London Development Agency, and more recently, oversaw production of the Mayor of London’s Cultural Strategy.

More than 10 years ago affordable workspace was identified as a major problem. But it is now something of a crisis. As with S.F., London’s property market has been subject to massive influxes of capital from overseas. This includes the emerging economies (Russia, China, Middle East, SE Asia), but also across Europe. The financial crash of 2008 led to property price reductions in the rest of UK, but only temporarily in London, which have since increased rapidly. It seems that, in times of uncertainty, London property has become regarded as a safe haven, a bit like gold …. Gallingly, in many cases, they don’t even seem to rent it out! At the same time, London’s population has continued to grow. This is largely through migration, as the economic problems in much of Europe (especially Spain, Italy, as well as Eastern Europe) have meant that many more come to London to work.

Campbell notes that government policy has made things worse through austerity policies and the lack of investment in public housing. Moreover, there are no regulations of the rental market or taxes on property owners abroad.

“The requirements that the previous Mayor imposed on property developers in terms of affordable housing provision have been watered down. Planning restrictions in general have also tended to be relaxed (understandably, as local government wants to get more housing built), but this has had a particularly detrimental impact on creative industries as music venues, artists studios, rehearsal space etc. are all under pressure to be redeveloped into housing. London's reputation as a centre for live independent music has suffered greatly.”

Campbell points out that the definition of the “creative class” is too broad and it’s important to distinguish between traditional artists and programmers, who, for the most part, have much higher incomes. “I would argue that we need to pay special attention to ('artists') who, although perhaps not economically significant in the short term, make a vital contribution to the overall value, culture, livability, and economic sustainability of a city.”

Moose's Lament

These days artists in the city, particularly those who have lived in San Francisco for many years, grumble that the city has decidedly changed, and not for the better. It’s become less surprising, less fearless, too hipsterish, too moneyed.

One of the moments when you began to see this change, they’ll say, was during the first Silicon Valley boom and bust in 2000-2001, when the “creatives” came up with “Got Milk?,” waved their hand puppets and thought they were masters of the universe. They would go up to Moose’s on Washington Square, in their sneakers and jeans, and order $200 bottles of Dom Perignon, cheeseburgers and fries, and thought the flaunt was priceless, and all the while Ed Moose watched them with contempt. God rest his soul. He told us that himself once: He thought he’d seen it all, and then suddenly they were gone and you had to ask, what did they bring to this city? “Well, nothing, they didn’t bring a damn thing,” Moose told us. “But when a plate of spaghetti reaches $30 you’ll have them to thank. Baghdad by the Bay is gone.”

The corollary to Moose's lament is that the artists — Beat poets, alternative rockers, “early music” performers, drag queens — really did shape the city’s culture and make life more interesting. How much the city has really changed 15 years later is unclear, but clearly the lack of affordable housing has undermined San Francisco’s ability to retain its creative class. Beyond a lack of housing, the city has also been undone by the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the loss of the African-American middle class in the 1990s and 2000s, and arguably by an “artist” culture less willing to endure the celibate life, as it were.

“I have a nicer comfort level in Chicago,” Charith Premawardhana told us.

Whatever the cause, what’s certain is that if artists are to flourish in this city some must look beyond their art to public policy affecting the arts. Only meaningful coalitions make change and there are many ways to become involved in the issue of affordable housing and middle-class economic concerns. Musicians have already absorbed the revelation that they need to think like entrepreneurs: That was the new-new thing in the last few years, but in fact a third talent is now required. Many musicians and conductors have known this for some time. You need to become a community activist, which is partly the ability to keep articulating, through performance, lecture, and however else you can, why the arts and the artist are so critical to the life of a city, how they boost a community’s spiritual life by opening up heart and mind.


Note: There is a Classical Revolution event on Thursday, Sept. 18 at 8 p.m. (doors open 7:30 p.m.) at Salle Pianos and Events 1632C Market Street (between Gough and Franklin). It is the opening event of a new weekly series at Salle Pianos in San Francisco. Curated by Classical Revolution, this series will feature the best local and touring musicians as well as featured artists.

Mark MacNamara, a writer and journalist based in Asheville, North Carolina, has written for such publications as NautilusSalonThe Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Vanity Fair. From time to time, his pieces in San Francisco Classical Voice also appear in  Noteworthy examples include a piece about Philip Glass’s dream to build a cultural center on the Pacific Coast; a profile of sound composer Pamela Z and an essay on the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. MacNamara recently won several awards in the 2018 Greater Bay Area Journalism Awards presented by the San Francisco Press Club.  His website is