Housing and arts dominate San Francisco’s political season

Nearly half of the 25 local propositions on November’s ballot affect the arts and low-income housing in one way or another, making housing and arts the dominant topics of this political season. Proposition S — restoring specific allocations from The City’s hotel tax to the arts and to a new Ending Family Homelessness Fund — is the most well-known of the arts measures this fall, and perhaps the most popular.

Prop. S links these two subjects because affordable housing is also an arts issue. Like other low-income workers, local artists recognize the need to protect and expand affordable housing, prevent evictions and provide humane and rapid rehousing services to children, women and men who find themselves without a secure roof over their heads, while fighting harassment and abuse.

Strong connections between the arts and a wide range of social benefits are not new. Ten years ago, when The City’s Arts Task Force was studying declining city support for artists and art spaces, the vice president of the Health Commission called the chair of the Task Force and said, “I really hope you are going to get more arts and artists in Districts 10 and 11.”

Well, sure, that’s definitely what we want to see. But why are you asking? “Because we have too many emergency room visits to S.F. General from those neighborhoods, and the arts can help reduce that.”

In the years since that call, there’s been more and more evidence that arts experiences and activities — both professional and community-based — help increase life expectancies in neighborhoods, math scores in schools and local economic development, while cutting down on things like truancy, ER admissions and crime rates.

This makes the numerous signs of artist displacement in the last few years all the more disturbing. In a San Francisco Examiner story last year — “San Francisco examining ways to stem tide of artist displacement” — hundreds of artists responded to an Arts Commission survey, with just about every one of them at risk of being forced out of San Francisco.

“Nearly 600 sculptors, painters, musicians, writers, filmmakers and painters responded,” the article reads. “Seventy percent said they had been displaced or were being displaced from their homes, workplaces or both. Twenty-eight percent, or 125, said they were at risk of being displaced soon.”

Seventy percent plus 28 percent equals a (potential) clear-cutting of artists from San Francisco. That’s an alarming turn of events for a city that, for more than 50 years, has been recognized as an innovative leader in municipal support of the arts.

But The City’s grant support for artists and arts organizations today is less than what it was in the late 1990s. Prop. S is a clear remedy, with a renewed dedication of The City’s hotel tax to its earlier, universally admired goals.

I know how important those goals are. In addition to running a theater company and working as an artist for more than 20 years in San Francisco, I was also homeless briefly during my college years, and my father died homeless, on the corner of 1st and Mission streets, on the morning of Feb. 1, 1984. So the combined need for arts and family homelessness support in The City is personal to me.

I don’t mention my history because it’s unique, but because it is common. Many readers of this newspaper likely have experience with the multiple traumas of homelessness, either their own or with someone they know. And almost everyone in San Francisco has felt or seen the life-changing potential of a surprising performance or work of art.

In the same way that having a secure home enables someone to achieve many personal goals and the lack of a home crushes those goals, access to the arts leads people to realize their dreams, and lack of access to the arts denies those dreams. So when San Francisco backs away from its commitments to the arts, or to housing all its residents, the cost is far greater than just a number of people moving away or on the streets.

The City often takes its features for granted — natural beauty, diverse people, a reputation for drawing creative workers and artists. All these features are endangered today. We are at severe risk of becoming a museum city, with plenty of artworks but no artists, of playgrounds and schools but fewer homes for its children.

Prop. S is one way San Franciscans can reverse that trend, to commit to being The City that we want to be: a center for creativity and innovation, and a home for dreamers. It could well be the most popular measure on the November ballot, and it deserves to be.

Tony Kelly is a Potrero Hill activist and served as vice chair of the Arts Task Force in 2005-06. A longer version of this column appeared in the September issue of the Street Sheet, a publication of the Coalition on Homelessness.

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