Addressing Affordable Housing for NYC Artists

When New York City’s cultural affairs officials convened a town hall in Long Island City Wednesday evening, they were bracing for a discussion of “Sunbather,” a proposed pink sculpture that recently stole headlines and sparked a controversy about publicly-funded art. 

But many who attended the event at MoMA PS1 were more interested in hearing what Tom Finkelpearl, commissioner of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, and Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, who represents District 26, had to say about affordable housing and studio space for artists.

A Manhattan resident, whose artist parents are struggling to remain in their midtown neighborhood, said he likes Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recently-announced plan to build 1,500 housing units for artists. But he wondered if the housing—planned within the next 10 years—would come soon enough for his parents, who are in their 70s.

Zoe Morsette, who has a costume shop in Long Island City, said she has already been priced out of Soho, Dumbo and other neighborhoods, and is worried that real estate development coming to Long Island City will force her out of this space as well.

“Yes, we need affordable housing,” she said, “but if there’s no place to work, what’s the point?”

In a discussion dominated by the issue of affordable housing, Finkelpearl discussed the de Blasio administration’s initiative to enhance cultural diversity and integrate the arts within city agencies serving foster children and homeless people.

“There’s a role for the arts in a lot of different places in city government,” he said.

Van Bramer described proposed legislation that would outline New York City’s first comprehensive cultural plan, with an emphasis on empowering artists and engaging entire communities. The legislation, which is still being developed, is expected to go before the City Council within a month or two.

“How do we know that we’re getting to every single community in the City of New York?” Van Bramer asked. “Culture and the arts is not just for the few and the chosen, but is for every single New Yorker.”

Finkelpearl, who took over as head of the Department of Cultural Affairs last year, said he understands the issues that artists are facing, having seen the city transform since he came here as artist himself in 1979.

“It was very dangerous, but it was a city [where] an artist could survive,” he told the audience. But even though artists have been priced out of many parts of the city, he said “people are still coming” to New York—and the administration wants to encourage them to stay.

“We hear the kinds of issues with staying in New York City and staying alive as an artist,” he said. “This is a great concern. Without you, without artists, without creativity that’s represented in this room, New York is just not the great city that we all love. We’re here because of the spirit.”