Struggling artists squeezed out of San Jose
Trudy Levy, an artist at Citadel Art Studios who led the negotiation efforts to cut down the rent increases, said she hopes management will be open to working with the remaining tenants. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    An exorbitant rent increase is about to break apart a longtime artist enclave in downtown San Jose.

    Roughly six dozens artists at Citadel Art Studios at the corner of Martha and Fifth streets were sent into a scramble last month when their landlord, R&C Brown, announced rent hikes of 100% or more in some instances, starting February 2023, tenants said. Artists organized to fight the new rates and managed to reduce the increases for some tenants, but many said they would have to downsize or lose their space altogether. One artist estimated roughly 30% of tenants are leaving.

    Citadel Art Studios is located on Martha Street in downtown San Jose. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    Citadel Art Studios has long been an artist workspace and gallery for sculptors, painters, sketch, textile and multimedia artists. Some have been making art there for more than 20 years.

    The industrial building once served as a cannery and has maintenance issues, but tenants said it’s a unique place that offers private studios, space for larger projects and relatively cheap rent—a rare find in San Jose’s expensive real estate market.

    R&C Brown CEO Drew Brown, who tenants said they’ve been negotiating with, didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

    The rent hike comes as artists continue to feel frustrated with the rundown condition of the studio. On a recent rainy day, water leaked through the roof of the building, seeping into the walls and creating puddles in the hallways. Artists say several pieces of art have been damaged due to the water problems. In one case, the water leaked from the ceiling into an electrical outlet, prompting safety concerns.

    Artist David Early is leaving Citadel Art Studios after facing a 100% rent increase. He said water leaking from the ceiling has damaged some pieces of art in his collection. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    The building has no heating or cooling system, Wi-Fi or mail services, tenants said. The space is infested with pests—with pigeon droppings covering the furniture in the common area. The studio also lacks routine security, resulting in break-ins.

    Management is often absent or unresponsive to complaints, tenants said. When the studio faced issues with a homeless encampment outside of the building, artists organized with the city to resolve the problem while the landlord offered no assistance, tenants said.

    Trudy Levy, who’s downsizing to afford the rent hike, said she hopes the landlord will work with the remaining artists. She led the negotiation efforts that helped cut the hike for some.

    “I think we can work together,” Levy told San José Spotlight, adding the landlord has added security cameras after a recent meeting.

    Tenants said Brown has promised to address the issues in the building with the rent increase, but many are skeptical.

    “We have been complaining about these things for years. It’s clear management doesn’t care,” Uma Kelkar, an artist who has been at Citadel for four years, told San José Spotlight. She’s facing a 35% rent increase. “I wouldn’t blame (the landlord) if he thinks he’s just sitting on a cash flow and waiting for somebody to buy him out.”

    Rain leaked through the roof of Citadel Art Studios on Dec. 27, 2022, seeping into the walls and creating puddles in the hallways. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    A coalition of artists brought up the rent increase to the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs, hoping officials could intervene. But officials said their hands are tied because San Jose and the state lack rent control measures for commercial spaces.

    “The city does not have any authority to control the rents charged to non-residential tenants, nor is the city allowed to intervene between landlords and tenants,” Cultural Affairs Director Kerry Adams Hapner told San José Spotlight. “We have been working to inform all artists of available resources to deal with rent-related hardships. Such resources include the creative entrepreneur grants and the small business past due rent relief grants.”

    The issues at Citadel Art Studios highlight the challenges facing artists in San Jose, where spaces and opportunities for art are shrinking. Artists point to the loss of local art stores, such as the University Art and the Arsenal, in recent years and rising rents across the city. With the rent hike at Citadel, many worry the downtown artist community will disappear eventually.

    “This has been a haven,” David Early, who’s clearing out his studio after facing a 100% rent increase, told San José Spotlight. “Losing an arts space, by definition, you’re losing something unique—a certain community, style and an emotional connection.”

    Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.

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