Seattle artists are literally hitting their heads against the ceiling for creative spaces | KUOW News and Information

Seattle artists are literally hitting their heads against the ceiling for creative spaces

Jul 10, 2018

It’s no secret that Seattle’s hot housing market is driving up property values and squeezing out affordable places to live. But for thousands of Seattle artists, high rent on light industrial spaces is squeezing out affordable places to work.

Dave and Niki Keenan live in a bright green bungalow, on a sleepy dead end street in Rainier Beach. Rancho Verde, they call it.

Dave Keenan, a full-time musician, bought the little house more than 20 years ago, when Seattle’s real estate market was at a very low simmer rather than its current rolling boil.

As property-owning artists, they’re the lucky ones. Keenan and his wife Niki, a landscape painter, can’t really afford to rent a studio these days, or buy a bigger house. So, after scrimping and saving up for five years and taking out a $50,000 loan, this summer they launched a major project in order to stay put in the city.

The Keenans can afford to do what very few Seattle artists can: tear off their roof and transform their attic into an art studio. It’ll cost as much as $100,000—far less than what they were quoted if they weren’t doing all the labor themselves.

Recent market surveys show that light industrial and manufacturing space, the buildings that artists seek out for workspace, is pricey and scarce. The commercial vacancy rate in central Seattle is less than 2 percent, and under 4 percent in the greater central Puget Sound region.

Even if you can find a place, the lack of supply has pushed up commercial rents about 4 percent in the past couple of years.

The Keenans know other artists who have been priced out of the city and moved south to cheaper digs in Tacoma or Kent, or out of the region entirely. Anecdotally, they’re part of a mini-emigration.

Matthew Richter, the cultural spaces liaison for Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture, has also heard the stories about artists' departures, but he has no exact numbers on how many have left.  

"People don’t let us know when they close necessarily," he says. What he does know is that while Seattle has added thousands of new residents, it hasn’t kept up the pace when it comes to developing affordable housing or workspace for them.

Niki and Dave Keenan at home in Rainier Beach.
Credit KUOW photo by Marcie Sillman

Over the past three years, Richter and his staff have inventoried cultural spaces citywide, everything from studios to businesses that sell arts supplies. They’ve created an online “space-finder” for artists searching for rehearsal halls or art studios. It's a first step, but Richter knows that artists, as well as other small businesses, need more help to compete in Seattle.

Given the enormity of problems like homelessness, crumbling infrastructure, and a fragile social safety net, some find it difficult to work up sympathy for the cause of affordable arts and cultural facilities. But Richter says it's not an either/or scenario. He compares Seattle’s cultural sector to the proverbial goose that lays the golden egg. He believes that when artists or arts organizations move into a community, they pave the way for the amenities that Seattleites have come to prize—everything from cafes, to walkability, to increased property values. 

"As soon as you displace the goose, then you have a problem on your hands," he warns.

To Richter, the city's vitality is tied to the health of its cultural community as much as its traditional business sector.

While many new residents have come to Seattle for tech sector jobs, Richter and other analysts believe they stay because the city also offers a wealth of cultural and recreational opportunities. He argues that to keep Seattle thriving economically, the city must ensure its long-established cultural community can afford to stay here too.

Back in Rainier Beach, Dave and Niki Keenan don’t have time to tackle big policy issues. They took a drastic, but much more immediate, step instead.

“I might be able to find a studio I can afford,” Niki Keenan says. “But I’m wondering when that building might be sold, or if I would be pushed out of something. I crave stability, and a space that I can call my own.”

Doesn't everybody?