Residents Are Being Priced Out of an Art Colony in Downtown Los Angeles

A Miami-based development agency, Fifteen Group, purchased the Santa Fe Art Colony with the intent to upgrade the lofts into luxury properties.

(photo courtesy Santa Fe Art Colony)

LOS ANGELES — Artists at the Santa Fe Art Colony, a historic live-work compound on the edge of the Arts District in downtown Los Angeles, are facing displacement after new ownership notified tenants on September 1 that rents will rise as high as 82%. With limited time and money, residents are scrambling to find housing that can suitably accommodate their studio practices.

The Santa Fe Art Colony was established in 1988, long before the Arts District became an attractive site for developers. In June of this year, a Miami-based development agency, Fifteen Group, purchased the buildings for an undisclosed amount with the intent to upgrade the lofts into luxury properties. On November 1, roughly one-fifth of the current residents will see their rents spike by between 13 and 82%. The majority of residents cannot afford the new rent outlined in Fifteen Group’s new, 49-page rental agreement and feel they are being evicted from their homes.

“If I have to pay that in November, that will just bankrupt me,” Lucy Jensen, a muralist who has lived in the Santa Fe Art Colony for 12 years, said. A document provided by the Santa Fe Arts Colony Tenants Association shows that Jensen is facing the highest rent increase. Her rent is slated to go from $3,300 a month to $6,000 and she already subleases five studio spaces in her unit to make ends meet. Jensen will be moving, but is unsure where she’ll go next. “If I could find another cluster of artists I’d try to move in there, but it’s not in LA anymore,” Jensen said.

(photo courtesy Santa Fe Art Colony)

“I know that a lot of the people who will have to leave because of rent increases have to move in with family members, and some of them are far away in other states,” added Lisa Adams, who has lived in the colony for 11 years and saw her rent go up by 62%. Adams is fortunate enough to have secured new housing, but stresses that her neighbors are in bad shape. “They have been here forever and they have nothing,” Adams said. “The live-work model is harder to find and it’s not cheap either.”

Peggy Nichols, who has resided at the colony since 2010, also expressed her frustration. “I’m so disillusioned. I’m probably going to leave LA. This is too painful. I don’t want to get in this situation again.” Nichols stresses the colony’s unique sense of community; she often has her doors open to the public, whether it’s because she’s teaching her weekly figure drawing classes, hosting an exhibition, leading tours throughout the complex, or organizing Santa Fe Art Colony’s annual Open House and fundraiser.

(photo courtesy Santa Fe Art Colony)

According to Sylvia Tidwell, head of the Santa Fe Art Colony Tenants Association, a few tenants met with Fifteen Group’s cofounder Mark Sanders in early July. Per their conversation, Fifteen Group claims they will keep the Santa Fe Art Colony intact, but will retrofit the studios with new features like central air conditioning and upgraded kitchens. Tidwell also says that the developers would like to take an industrial building that sits on the complex and rehabilitate it for luxury housing. The plans for the new apartments, however, haven’t been announced yet.

“They want to put a 22-unit luxury studio complex in the back of the property,” Adams said. “That creates a very different complexion to the community.”

(photo courtesy Santa Fe Art Colony)

Last year, a different raise in rent affected about three-quarters of the colony’s residents. As KCET reported, in October 2017, a longstanding rent restriction agreement between the colony and the city that kept most of the units rent controlled expired. The former owners took the opportunity to raise the rent to market rate, but the rent-restricted tenants fought back. For nearly one year, they have protested the increases with a rent strike, refusing to pay the difference between their stabilized rent and the proposed increase.

None of the rent-restricted tenants are currently subject to Fifteen Group’s present increases, but without implementing some form of rent control, they’re still at risk of losing their homes. The Santa Fe Art Colony could be affected by a California law called Costa Hawkins — which could be potentially repealed this November via Proposition 10 — that allows landlords to raise their tenants’ rent to market rate when ownership changes hands, even if the units have previously been rent-controlled. Tidwell would like to initiate negotiations with the building owners in hopes that the rent-restricted tenants will be able to remain in their affordable housing. “The tenants are really united in their goal and their hope that they preserve the art colony,” Tidwell said.

Along with the recent purchase of the Santa Fe Art Colony, Fifteen Group has received a $205 million loan to overhaul a 1,175-unit housing project in Boyle Heights and will be redeveloping a historic jailhouse in Lincoln Heights, dubbing it the “Makers District.” Pointing to past projects, some activists have opposed Fifteen Group’s endeavors, expressing concerns that the developers will evict residents, then flip the properties for profit. As of this time, Fifteen Group has not responded to requests for comment.

(photo courtesy Santa Fe Art Colony)

The artists’ fear of displacement builds upon a recent wave of evictions that have affected the Los Angeles art community. Carolina A. Miranda wrote for the Los Angeles Times about a handful of art colonies that were displaced in the last year, including the Parker’s Arts District Lofts and a building on Santa Fe Avenue that was home to the experimental music venue, the Wulf.

On Friday, September 28, Fifteen Group held an open house at the Santa Fe Art Colony to show the property to prospective renters. “They expected all of the old tenants living here to open their space while they’re being forced to leave,” Adams said.

“I don’t think we can convince the new owners to continue to run this as a true art colony,” Jensen said. “The worst feeling is feeling like I’m losing this community. That feels like the most tremendous loss.”

(photo courtesy Santa Fe Art Colony)
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