Council Approves Program To Help Austin Artists Afford Creative Space

Jun 9, 2017

As rents for residents and businesses continue to climb, Austin City Council has approved a plan to help the city’s artists afford to keep their venues and creative spaces.

The Art Space Assistance Program was developed in response to Mayor Steve Adler’s 2016 Music Omnibus Resolution, which prioritized preserving and increasing Austin’s affordable arts spaces.

Megan Wells, director of the city’s Cultural Arts Division, said the program will allow arts nonprofits to apply for $50,000 grants to bring their venues up to compliance with city code. She said easing that cost burden could encourage landlords not to shut down those spaces.

“They have to match those code compliance awards,” she said at City Hall earlier this week. “If we can match that, that will ensure that that arts usage stays intact versus something else.”

The program also allows groups to apply for rent stipends of $35,000. When the item first came before Council last month, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo asked how artists would be defined by the program and what types of groups could qualify. City staff said that definition is pretty broad: It includes everyone from musicians and dancers to writers and architects.

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said he still had some concerns about using taxpayer dollars to build equity for landlords, but he ultimately supported the item.

“I don’t want perfect to be the enemy of the good in this case," he told city staff, "and I think you all have done a lot of substantial work to try and address some of our concerns."

Council Member Ora Houston wondered whether the program guidelines could prevent landlords from kicking tenants out on short notice.

“I, too, have a problem with using public funds," she said, "and then we think we’re doing a great thing, and six months into it, they say, ‘You’ve got to get out. I’m selling the property.'"

Wells said the city will ask landlords to include provisions in their leases that stipulate they aren’t going to hike the rent after improvements are made. She said city staff will also ask applicants to submit copies of their leases or letters of intent to renew. If those terms are shorter than three years, nonprofits will have to supplement their applications with a three-year business plan.

This pilot program is being funded with $200,000 from the city’s general fund. It will be up to City Council to decide whether to continue the program in the future. The city plans to accept applications from arts nonprofits through Aug. 1. Grant awards are set to be announced Aug. 31.