How a state bill could help house San Jose artists
Peter Allen, founding member of San Jose Arts Advocates, said people and groups have to advocate for areas such as Alum Rock, SoFA and Japantown to become cultural districts. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    A new state bill aims to set aside affordable housing for artists in cultural districts.

    Assembly Bill 812, introduced by Assemblymember Tasha Boerner and sponsored by California Arts Advocates, would require counties and cities to reserve 10% of affordable housing for artists in or near a locally or state designated cultural district. Julie Baker, CEO of California Arts Advocates, said AB 812 is waiting on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s housing administration to amend it before going to the state Senate floor for a vote.

    “Artists are the lifeblood of our communities and help to provide and preserve the cultural footprint,” Boerner told San José Spotlight. “It is so important we get this bill across the finish line to prevent further displacement of artists.”

    Baker said cultural districts economically boost communities, but the artists who create them get priced out due to a shortage of affordable housing. The bill would hopefully push counties and cities to look for solutions against creative displacement, she said.

    There are 14 state designated cultural districts in California, with four in the Bay Area: Emeryville’s Rotten City, San Francisco’s Filipino Cultural Heritage and Mission districts and San Rafael’s downtown.

    Cultural districts preserve California’s diverse cultures and artistic communities. A cultural district is a well-defined geographic area with a high concentration of cultural resources and activities. California’s 14 districts received the designation per state legislation. A state, county or city can elect to officially create a cultural district and support it with funding.

    Kerry Adams Hapner, San Jose director of cultural affairs, said the city doesn’t have a formally designated cultural district, but the School of Arts and Culture at Mexican Heritage Plaza is working to create one.

    “The city’s made some pretty significant investments there,” she told San José Spotlight. “The city gave a $1 million grant to the School of Arts and Culture to invest in the acquisition of the property across the street, which expands their footprint and we’re very supportive of their interest to form a cultural district.”

    Adams Hapner said the School of Arts and Culture recently applied to the National Endowment for the Arts for funding for cultural district planning alongside San Jose Jazz, San Jose Taiko and MACLA.

    “Artists are the backbone of any art sector,” she said. “Ensuring artists can live and work in that area in an affordable way is critical to any type of cultural district. Why wouldn’t you want to carve out something so that you can retain the unique character of a neighborhood?”

    Baker said the state lacks funding to add more. Although $30 million was allocated in the 2022-23 budget, the 2023-24 budget diverted $20 million back to the general fund due to deficit concerns, leaving $10 million for the existing cultural districts, she said.

    “We’re trying to make sure we’re creating affordable places for creative workers because they are incredibly valuable to the state and to local economies,” she said.

    Creating cultural districts

    Peter Allen, founding member of San Jose Arts Advocates, said the group is championing a letter writing campaign supporting AB 812.

    “The big ask is getting more funding from the state for the cultural designation program,” Allen told San José Spotlight, “…and then to have advocates here advocate for districts like Alum Rock, SoFA and Japantown to be considered and designated.”

    Sandy Perry, president of the Affordable Housing Network of Santa Clara County, supports affordable housing for artists, as well as local preference for people in danger of displacement from new developments. He said more affordable housing is needed and favors government-built social housing. Although developers are supposed to set aside 15% of developments for affordable housing, they can pay into an affordable housing fund instead, he said, which doesn’t solve the housing crisis

    Jessica Paz-Cedillos, executive director of the School of Arts and Culture at Mexican Heritage Plaza, envisions a cultural district in the Mayfair community with the plaza at its center. 

    “We are hoping that a year from now, we will officially launch as a cultural district. We’re looking for both city and state designation and we’re looking to our elected officials to help champion that,” she told San José Spotlight. “It’s important to preserve the heritage, traditions and cultures of our community and ensure local families can take advantage of reinvestment.”

    Jessica Paz-Cedillos, executive director of the School of Arts and Culture at Mexican Heritage Plaza, envisions a cultural district in the Mayfair community with the plaza at its center. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    In addition to purchasing a 28,000-square-foot commercial property to create a performing arts theater, cafe and Gardner Health Services clinic, the School of Arts and Culture also plans to develop affordable housing, which if the bill passes, artists can take advantage of, Paz-Cedillos said.

    “Without policies like this, we will lose our artists,” she said. “We will lose the heart of our community. We will lose the things that make us unique.”

    Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected].

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