Fifty artists evicted from William Clark Studios as managers blame rising rents and COVID-19 impacts

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      Around 50 tenants of Eastside Culture Crawl mainstay William Clark Studios were reeling this week after receiving sudden eviction notices Sunday night.

      In a statement to the Georgia Straight, the managers of William Clark Studios Inc., who lease the building and sublet the studios to the artists on a month-to-month basis, blamed both the stress of Vancouver's rising rent costs and further financial fallout from COVID-19. "This is a story of a small business that has been struggling to stay afloat in Vancouver’s commercial real estate market for the last two and a half years and has now reached a point where with no relief it has no choice but to become a statistic," Gregg Steffensen and Tina Ozols said.

      Both tenants and the Crawl were left scrambling to see if anything more could be done. "The whole thing is so shocking," said painter and interdisciplinary artist Dana Cromie, whose notice says he has to be out in 30 days.

      The building at 1310 William Street houses artists working in a range of media, from painting to sculpture and photography. The studio has been a big part of the annual Eastside Culture Crawl, dating back almost to its inception 23 years ago, said Crawl executive director Esther Rausenberg. "They're completely stunned. This came out of nowhere and they had been paying rent. They'd been going in there and being socially distant and responsible and they were continuing to do their work. Now they can't figure out what is happening and why," she told the Straight.

      Ozols and Steffensen sought to clarify the complex situation today. They traced the trouble back to rent increases over the past few years.

      Vancouver's skyrocketing real-estate market, rent costs, and redevelopment were named as factors in the Culture Crawl-led 2019 displacement study City Without Art? No Net Loss+, which found that nearly 400,000 square feet of cultural space has been lost in the city—particularly in the East Side's industrial zone, where the William Clark Studios sit. The city's new Culture|Shift strategic plan for 2020-2029 recognizes the loss of artists' space, prioritizing the protection and creation of new studios. Its stated goal is securing 800,000 square feet of affordable cultural infrastructure. 

      Ozols and Steffensen said rent increases were exacerbated by the departure of several tenants after COVID-19 hit in March. 

      "Due to the losses incurred since March 2020, even if we could fill the ten studio spaces that would be available to rent as of July 1, 2020, we will not be able to repay the loans and deferrals without major increases to artists’ rents," they explained. "Under the previous owner and now the current one, our business has faced many challenges including the aforementioned attempt to triple our rent and continuing efforts by the owner(s) to increase our costs by significant amounts. We have successfully overcome some of these challenges and found ways to continue functioning; however, the losses incurred during the Covid-19 pandemic in conjunction with being an already challenged small business have led us to a place from which we can’t recover.

      "Unfortunately we haven’t been able to get the reduction in rent that we sought from any sources including the landlord and there is no rent relief forthcoming. The offer we received from the landlord was a 50% deferral for June rent. It would not be fiscally responsible for us to accept loans and deferrals without means to repay in the future. After many attempts to rethink operations we have no choice but to cease them altogether," they continued.

      But Cromie and Rausenberg feel strongly that more could be done to save the artists' spaces.

      The Eastside Culture Crawl's Esther Rausenberg feels more can be done to save the artists' studios.

      The Crawl will attend a meeting of concerned tenants that Cromie has called for Sunday (June 7) to pursue options. Cromie wants to investigate the possibility of artists operating the space as a cooperative or nonprofit. He also wonders whether the evictions go against an order by the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General under the Emergency Program Act that prevents commercial-property evictions; on March 29, the government extended the order from landlords and tenants to include "sublandlords" and "subtenants".

      Rausenberg wondered why the Culture Crawl, which offers free listings for empty studios, had not seen postings to try to fill the spaces William Clark Studios is reporting. Though the city has frozen many arts grants because of the uncertaintly of COVID-19, she was hopeful the crisis would allow for funding from its new affordable-spaces grant to save the studios. The city has $300,000 earmarked for nonprofits to provide subsidized spots for professional artists in the fund; in February, it provided a one-time critical grant of $27,000 out of that money to save the Red Gate Arts Society. As structured right now, though, William Clark Studios Inc. is not a nonprofit. However, there are nonprofit groups, like 221A, that manage similar studios in the city, Rausenberg pointed out.

      "One of the things they said they wanted to use this for was rent relief," Rausenberg said of the $300,000 funding pool. 

      She and tenants also questioned whether COVID-19 relief had been fully tapped. But the owners said their small business had suffered from falling through the cracks of COVID-19 relief. "We had hoped that the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance (CECRA) would help; however, only commercial tenants who have experienced at least a 70% decline to pre-Covid-19 revenues qualify for participation under that program," they said. "In June 2018 we experienced an increase which almost doubled our rent (negotiated down from the first attempt to almost triple our rent). Our business was already under significant financial pressure as a result of that increase. With Covid-19, although our revenue has not declined by at least 70%, the decline and loss have jeopardized our viability. In tandem with the terms of our lease, other challenges we have faced over the last several years and having not received the relief we sought from the landlord, it is impossible for us to carry on from July 1, 2020. All assistance available to us through governments, banks and service providers involve loans and deferrals."

      "We want to stop this exodus," stressed Rausenberg, who has already reached out to the city for help. 

      Cromie reports that some artists have already given up on the fight, however. "Some people basically left Monday morning—there are very few studios for rent and they felt it was better to go when they could find a place than waiting till the end of the month and getting stuck."

      Meanwhile, Rausenberg says the Crawl has been surveying artists to measure how they are being impacted by the pandemic—and until now, the results have shown surprising resilience. "It seemed like quite a few people could hold onto their studios for at least three months, and this was before we found out that some of them could use the CERB funding," she says of the federal government's emergency cash. "We haven't seen a whole lot of [empty-studio] listings; we would see that this space is available. We will send out the survey again in a month, but at the moment I can tell you anecdotally that we're not seeing people leaving their studios."