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EDITORIAL: Delaware needs creative investment on housing initiatives

Katie Tabeling
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arts, housing

Delaware Business Times Editor Katie Tabeling takes a look at the arts community’s economic challenge: housing. | PHOTO FROM ADOBE STOCK

Despite persistent warning bells about a pending recession, the U.S. economy ended 2023 on even ground. The U.S. Department of Commerce reported at the end of January the economy grew 3.1% over the past year, pushed by a strong labor market and consumer spending.

U.S employers added 353,000 jobs in January, starting the year strong. In December, personal spending increased $134 billion, or by 0.7%., carrying the country’s economy past inflation woes that still persist.

Yet, there’s one part of the problem that still bothers me, as I sit at my home office, overlooking a quiet suburban street: housing and rental costs.

The January Consumer Price Index rose slightly month-over-month, with two-thirds of it driven by an increase in shelter. Of course, it’s a nationwide problem, but here in the First State, it may be at the root of our more pressing issues in terms of drawing in a workforce and keeping our young residents — and attracting new ones.

The latest state Housing Needs Assessment report found 50% of Delaware renters and 20% of owners pay more than 30% of their income on housing costs. This matters when we talk about trying to keep the best, the brightest —and the most creative here.

The First State has a lot of gems, well-known in the Brandywine Valley like the Grand Opera House, Winterthur, the Nemours Estate and more. Some are not-so-well-known like the Biggs Museum of American Art, Mispillion Art League, Clear Space Theater and many others. Right now, there’s work to be done charting the future to maximize their impact in the state by the Delaware Arts Alliance through its ongoing study.

That study already found that there are 3,300 jobs in the “creative economy.” There is no immediately available state Department of Labor data on hand that discusses average salary for these jobs. The closest we can point to at this time is from the U.S. Bureau Labor Statistics, that show art and design occupations earned a median salary of $51,150 in 2022. That covers art designers, craft and fine artists, graphic designers and interior designers. 

From personal experience, I can tell you I never had luck in renting an apartment. Not when I moved to Ocean City, Md. as a fledgling reporter. I rented a room in a townhome off the barrier island. In Delaware, we passed up paying half our joint household income in rent, instead turning to a 900-square-foot farmhouse on a back road in New Castle County.

Over the years, many of my old college friends found themselves in similar situations. One of my dear friends works for an audio-visual company and rents a Washington D.C. apartment with two friends. My best friend who’s been working in the theater scene while completing her master’s degree, rented an old townhome with about four other people she met through work. Some of my other friends in the creative fields used food stamps to get by in between pay days.

Watching Zillow and Redfin price surrounding homes well beyond my means, I think about how lucky I was. I also think about how people in my generation in non white-collar jobs could look at those prices and opt to move elsewhere.

There has been some movement, Gov. John Carney has allocated $117 million of the American Rescue Act Funds to affordable housing. Projects like the Catalyst Fund are lifting off to buy and renovate empty homes, while the Accelerator Fund will incentivize developers to provide market-rate units. These initiatives, among others, will bring between 700 to 1,000 units on the market.

Yet, I can’t help but think about my best friend, who’s flying in from Boston this week for a long visit. To keep the creative economy in the state, Delaware should start to think creatively on how to keep artists within its borders. 

Before he was tapped by Maryland Governor Wes Moore to become the state’s Housing & Community Development Secretary, Jacob Day was a large proponent of building and maintaining affordable housing in his home town of Salisbury, Md. When he was on the city council and later mayor, he pushed revitalization of one of the low-income areas of the city. Mixed-use developments started to be built, with apartments above retail establishments. But most notably, Salisbury leaders also moved forward with the 90-unit Rivers Edge Apartments in 2015, promising priority for artists and offering rent below the market rate.

It was an innovative solution to keeping artists, who help draw millions in consumer spending, in the city. It’s also one Wilmington is testing out right now with the Quaker Arts complex on North West Street. 

That $16.3 million complex offers studio, one, two and three-bedroom units, and has subsidized units with monthly rents targeted for those who work in the creative fields. It has a space for art shows, poetry readings and other gallery showings. Right now, Quaker Arts has a waiting list of 100 people and about 10 current residents are artists. 

The arts are the lifeblood of any community, and there are real economic challenges that stand in the way of Delaware’s path to fully leverage it. I hope that our state and business leaders consider creative approaches and real investments in housing to keep the arts alive.

 

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