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Council considers providing rental assistance to Austin arts groups

Thursday, May 18, 2017 by Syeda Hasan

Today, City Council is set to consider a plan to provide rental assistance to arts organizations. That’s after Mayor Steve Adler made a series of proposals aimed at strengthening the city’s music scene last year. For many Austin artists, some of the most pressing concerns were finding space and being able to afford it.

If approved, the Art Space Assistance Program would provide $200,000 in grant funding for local arts nonprofits. The groups could either apply for stipends of up to $35,000 to help pay rent or grants of $50,000 to help bring their venues up to compliance with city code. Speaking at a City Council work session on Tuesday, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo questioned whether this funding model would have the most impact.

“We tend to provide grants to some of the same organizations year after year because they’re larger, more established, they have the capacity to apply for grants,” Tovo said. “I think we have the ability to really reach out to some of the smaller organizations with a more accessible kind of program, and this could be just the right opportunity.”

Tovo said dividing the funds into smaller grants of, say, $10,000, could provide more support to smaller groups that are struggling. Meghan Wells, manager of the Cultural Arts Division of Austin’s Economic Development Department, said that may not work because the need for assistance is so widespread.

“The $10,000 range would not give them much relief because we’re looking at such huge demands on the resources for rent or for code violation addressing needs,” Wells said.

In a memo to Council, Economic Development Department Director Kevin Johns said city staff “anticipate overwhelming demand for the funds.” His department hopes for future funding to continue the assistance program, but Council Member Jimmy Flannigan raised some concerns about its sustainability.

“I am concerned about subsidizing rent,” Flannigan said. “It does not seem like a sustainable program. I’m much more inclined to support low-interest loans that allow an organization to buy property or even the assistance to fix code violations. That’s more of a capital assistance.”

City staff members noted that many of the nonprofit groups they consulted with are not eligible for traditional loans. Tovo said in general, she’s supportive of the program, but she still has questions. For example, if the city funds improvements for a venue, can it ensure that the property owner won’t simply flip the space and turn it over to another tenant? She also questioned which groups would qualify as “artists” under the program. City staff members now say they plan to ask for a postponement on the item until next month as they work to answer some of these questions.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by Gideon Tsang made available through a Creative Commons license.

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