Artscape and the Triangle Lofts Project
Keeping the Art Life Alive
The life of an artist is tough. Self-doubt, creative blockage, and precarious income are all factors that can weigh heavily when one is trying to make a living off of one’s creative practice. And when it comes to housing, being an artist in Canada’s largest city— Toronto— is tougher than ever.
By Alison Lang
The average monthly rent of a one-bedroom condo has leapt to nearly $1,900. Purchasing a condo will, on average, set Torontonians back $500,000, while the average cost of a house in Toronto is around $800,000, according to figures from the Toronto Real Estate Board. For most artists, these numbers make finding an affordable space increasingly challenging and stressful, and the prospect of home ownership soon becomes an impossible dream. Toronto is beginning to mimic a lot of other rapidly-gentrifying urban centers, where artists, low-income families and marginalized communities are forced to the outer reaches of the city, leaving a core that is wealthy, homogeneous and lacking in cultural vibrancy and traditions. “Not every artist wants to move an hour outside of the city and feel detached from their communities,” says Toronto-based writer/author Suzanne Alyssa Andrew.
This is where Artscape comes in. Over the past decade, the Toronto-based non-profit urban development organization has developed (and continues to develop) affordable condo spaces for artists to work and live in. By doing so, Artscape has helped to preserve and maintain the tradition of cultural vibrancy that put so many of Toronto’s neighbourhoods on the map in the first place.
High ceilings, exposed piping and concrete wallsWhile Artscape had previously built live/work rental spaces in three other properties (Artscape West Queen West, the Parkdale Arts and Cultural Centre and the Artscape Wychwood Barns) the seeds for its first-ever site with affordable ownership options - the Triangle Lofts projects - first came up in 2004. A particularly artist-heavy area of Toronto was being re-named and re-zoned the “Queen West Triangle” by the city. Among other changes, industrial warehouses that were once home to illegal artist work/live spaces were set to be razed for 20-storey condos, leading to widespread protest by activists and members of the community. Artscape facilitated meetings between a condo developer, Urbancorp, and a community-led group called Active 18.
In exchange for allowing Urbancorp additional height and density, Artscape and Active 18 convinced Urbancorp to build 70 affordable units designated for artists to live and work in. Artscape Triangle Lofts officially opened to prospective tenants in October of 2011.
In 2013, Andrew was renting an overpriced apartment in a condo building that felt very much like a temporary stop-over. She was also juggling a day job with her writing, working as an editor at the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) University. At the same time, she’d heard about openings at Artscape Triangle from a live/work artist email list she was on. Andrew submitted an application form to get on the waitlist; later, when she saw a place that she liked, she submitted another application for it. She looked and/or applied at three units before successfully finding the unit she lives in now, five years later. She moved in December 2013 and hasn’t looked back.
Andrew’s Artscape Triangle condo is what she describes as a “downtown traditional loft space.” It’s 700-square feet, open concept and shaped like a long rectangle, with a kitchen bar and a dishwasher and a library/desk area at its farther end, where she sits and writes. It has high ceilings, exposed piping and concrete walls, and one images its design closely mimics the illegal artist homes that once populated the industrial warehouses. Andrew revels in the spacious interiors. “If you’re living and working in your space, you need it to be big enough that it doesn’t drive you crazy,” she says.
Since the establishment of the Triangle Lofts, Artscape has created a number of other live/work spaces for artists across the city: Artscape West Queen West, Parkdale Arts and Cultural Centre, and the Artscape Lofts at PACE and 210 Simcoe. They recently released a call for applications for 26 new live/work units being developed within Artscape Weston Common. There’s also two more offerings in development: the Artscape Lofts at Waterworks (a mixed-use development at the historic Waterworks Building at Richmond and Augusta, set to open in 2020) and Artscape Bayside Lofts on the city’s waterfront (set to open in 2018/19). The configurations and operations of these spaces differ depending on the communities they’re located in, the developers Artscape works with, and a number of other factors: “No one size fits all,” says LoriAnn Girvan, Artscape’s Chief Operating Officer. The waitlist for all these spaces is, as one might imagine, lengthy. Artscape representatives estimate that it’s currently at around 1,500 applicants, and it can take a long time for rental opportunities to open up.
The application process is also extensive and two-tiered — prospective tenants apply to get on the waitlist, and then apply again when they want to buy or rent a condo. This secondary application is evaluated by a committee made up of current tenants, members of the community and other Artscape sub-committees. In addition to providing a professional C/V, three years of tax returns and examples of previous artistic training/mentorship, prospective tenants need to consider the environment and situation they’re moving into. “We really want people to reflect whether they want to be part of this community,” says Girvan. “It’s quite a rigorous process. It takes some thought and reflection.”
The “Artscape Mortgage”A recent addition to the application process has been the Value Exchange Program, which began in 2016. The program stipulates that all tenants and owners at all Artscape properties going forward will volunteer for a minimum of 5 hours per month in the capacity of their choosing - from volunteering with a not-for-profit arts organization like Regent Park School of Music, to hosting concerts and artist talks, sitting on one of Artscape’s many volunteer committees, or volunteering time at a community garden. Community Services Manager Liam Hanebury says the program is modelled a bit like a co-op: “It’s been crucial in building wider community around the building,” he says.
The communities within the Artscape properties are equally vibrant: Andrew counts graphic designers, dancers, musicians, visual artists and arts administrators amongst her neighbours. She loves the mix of disciplines surrounding her space, particularly when it comes to being motivated to work. “Especially on Mondays, you get home and everyone’s practicing their music, you can hear it echoing through the hallways,” Andrew, also a bass player, says. “So it’s really nice and you also think – hey, maybe I’ll practice too.’”
Njo Kong Kie is a composer/musician who immigrated to Toronto from Macao in 1991. Throughout his career as a touring artist, Njo has bounced around in different spaces all over Toronto - and he’s even lived outside of the city, spending a stretch living on a farm in the southwestern Ontario community of Owen Sound. He received a call for a prospective condo while on tour in Europe. After fulfilling the minimum requirement for a down payment, Njo found a mortgage broker who assisted him in procuring the mortgage for his loft. Like Andrew and all other Artscape Triangle owners, Njo pays 75 percent of the condo’s market value and Artscape covers the remaining 25 percent as part of the “Artscape Mortgage” - a no-interest, payment-free second mortgage. Additionally, owners pay condo fees, property taxes and utilities, which are determined based on the square footage of their space and individual usage. The Triangle Lofts contain 48 owner units and 20 units for rent (Tenants’ rents at the Artscape Triangle Lofts are set at 80% of the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s average market rent for the Greater Toronto Area). If an Artscape owner wishes to sell their condo, a shared appreciation clause with Artscape ensures they can make some money from the upswings of the market, while the clause ensures that the new tenant is protected from wild real estate fluctuation costs. The idea is that these units remain affordable for artists forever.
“There is no other way I could have purchased a unit like this in Toronto,” Njo says. “This becomes a form of investment I wouldn’t otherwise have. Plus, I just need a place to live.” He makes it a point to add that he has enough space for his own ping-pong table.
Though the housing bubble in Toronto shows no sign of bursting, the Artscape model has set an example for financiers and developers, who, according to Girvan and Hanebury, are becoming more amenable to the idea of dedicated live/work spaces. “We’re in touch with dozens of developers who are interested in looking at different housing choices they can integrate into their properties,” Girvan says. “It is not every developer, but I would say there is a number of them. For every developer looking to throw up a building and make a quick buck, there are many developers who view themselves as city builders, who want to partner with non-profits like Artscape or others around the city.”
“It’s true that the city keeps displacing artists,” Andrew says. “This is going to keep happening. What is great about this situation is that Artscape helped create artists spaces even as the developer was displacing them. That’s so important.”