Home Is Where the Hassle Is

Affordable artists’ housing is suddenly hot. Mayor Daley officiated at the opening of the Acme Artists’ Community in Humboldt Park last summer; this month the Cultural Center is hosting a first-of-its-kind “Chicago Artists Space and Housing Expo,” with over 50 exhibitors. And the Department of Housing has been sponsoring ongoing workshops for artist-developers. Seven people showed up in the sunny, main-floor community room of the Acme building last Saturday for a session led by Near Northwest Arts Council executive director (and painter) Laura Weathered, with presentations including one by Chicago Mutual Housing Network’s Charles Daas.

Redeveloped from a former metal stamping factory, Acme, at 2418 W. Bloomingdale, is the fruition of 12 years of work by Weathered. It houses 20 residential condominiums and offices for three nonprofit organizations (NNWAC, Daas’s group, and the Chicago Community TV Network), along with Woman Made Gallery and a bed-and-breakfast unit that NNWAC owns and operates. The city’s promoting the development as a model for its housing assistance programs: forgivable city loans helped all the Acme owners qualify for their mortgages, and the project’s touted as a vital, creative environment that provides community living and the advantages of ownership for artists with low-to-moderate incomes. “It’s democratic,” Weathered says. “Everyone participates in the decision making and management.” With the city making these resources available, she adds, “we need to demonstrate that there’s an artist community out here that will jump at the chance to use them.”

Weathered doesn’t think it’ll take 12 years for someone to put together the next one. When she was trying to get Acme started, bankers were skeptical; “now,” she says, “they can walk around this urban village” and see for themselves how it works. In 1996, after five years of planning and scouting, NNWAC bought the 40,000-square-foot factory for the bargain price of $299,000. It was conceived as a co-op, but became a condo development to secure financing from the city’s condominium rehab program. (Daas, who provides training and development for those interested in resident-controlled housing, explains the difference between the two: co-op residents own shares of a corporation; condominium buyers own their units.) Response from prospective residents was brisk: “We had probably 150 full-fledged applications for 20 spaces,” says Weathered, who owns a unit and lives in the building herself. When things dragged–it took a year just to get permits–and many of the initial group got impatient or failed to qualify for mortgages, she says there wasn’t any problem replacing them. The total project cost $3.2 million; the residential units, which are 750-to-1,800-square-foot lofts, were priced at $90,000 to $130,000. With city subsidies of up to $30,000, buyers were able to put as little as $3,000 down.

They will, however, have a cap on their return. Though Weathered says the units appraised for as much as $290,000 at closing, Acme is a limited-equity project: part of its mission is to keep the units affordable, no matter what happens to property values in the neighborhood. If a resident wants to sell, the condominium association will find a purchaser, with the price of the unit to be determined by the rate of inflation plus the cost (up to $30,000) of improvements made by the owner. At this point, the rate’s at 4 percent.

Weathered says the toughest part has been dealing with the bureaucracies. Zoning laws, for example, still don’t allow for artists’ live-work needs. And the tight budget meant that construction had to proceed in fits and starts–the group would finish a few units and close on them before going on to the next few. The owners have been meeting twice a month since 1996; Weathered says those meetings are now “intense” and “contentious.” Last July, with the project partially completed and half occupied, heavy rain caused the sewer in front of the building to collapse. Rainwater and sewage backed up into six first-floor units. The city has promised to fix the sewer, she says, but the water and mold did so much damage that “our insurance company says if we file another claim, they’ll drop us.” Some Acme owners say the sewer isn’t the only thing, however. They cite other problems–the plumbing, and a roof that continues to leak, for example. Weathered says they are nervous first-time buyers: construction “oversight was handled by a team that included two architects. This is a spectacular project that is 99 percent finished. [They’re complaining about] the 1 percent we haven’t closed out on yet.”

But certain residents–they refused to be named–insist these concerns and the “endless bickering” over what to do about them have thrown a wrench into the collaborative living experience. According to them, “the pressures to show [the] success of this artist-owned live-and-work condominium have become repressive, overshadowing the real situation.” They say one of the original goals of the project was to help artists develop sound financial footing, “but this situation has put us in financial jeopardy because of serious problems with the soundness of the building.” The first year in the artists’ community, says one resident, “has been the most stressful year of my life.”

Weathered and Daas will discuss the Acme Artists’ Community at an “Artists at Work” forum at 6 PM Thursday, April 8, at the Chicago Cultural Center, and will participate in the expo, also at the Cultural Center, from 9 to 3 Saturday, April 10.

The Poop From PAC/edge, a Mystery in Rosemont

Arts marketer and former Performing Arts Chicago staff member Carol Fox presided over a panel of seven theater heads last weekend at the PAC/edge Performance Festival. No one-size-fits-all solution emerged for the subject at hand–how to market new work–but there were these tidbits: Lookingglass didn’t get the subscription boost it expected when it moved into its Water Tower digs, though single-ticket sales boomed; Writers’ Theatre budgeted for 6,000 subscribers in its new space but got fewer than 5,500; the Hypocrites won’t try a downtown show again anytime soon; Anthony Moseley doesn’t want to put any more Collaboraction productions on his credit card….News from the very odd land of Rosemont: Last year Lloyd Butler was music director and principal conductor as well as the founder of the new Rosemont-based Chicagoland Pops Orchestra. Now he seems to have vanished. Mayor Donald E. Stephens has announced that Arnie Roth is the new music director. Neither Stephens nor the orchestra’s new executive director, onetime Illinois Arts Council head Rhoda Pierce, returned calls about Butler’s fate. Butler didn’t return calls either.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.