What a time to be an artist in Edmonton. Not one, but two innovative building projects are currently in the works to provide large-scale, community-based, sustainable housing for artists. For both projects, easing the financial strain of residents has been given top priority, an important consideration given the “starving artist” stereotype isn’t all that far from the truth for many of Edmonton’s creatives. All 78 of the proposed live-work studios of the ArtsCommon 118 are designated as affordable living spaces, while the Artists Quarters approach of offering 20 affordable units and 44 at-market-cost units will also be supplemented by passive design, thus reducing utility costs for all tenants. Other proposed building features, such as communal balconies, a rooftop farm, studio and market space for artists and local businesses, and a partnership with the Sarah McLachlan School of Music give clear indication that ArtsCommon 118 and the Artists Quarters aren’t your average affordable housing projects. They’re ambitious, and seriously geared towards keeping artists in their communities.
For now, though, both projects also happen to be far from complete. While the Artists Quarters is currently listed as “Under Construction” according to the Major Projects Map on Alberta.ca, community consultations for ArtsCommon 118 have only just begun. This is not to say that Edmonton artists should despair of having an affordable space uniquely their own, however. One such place already exists: the ArtsHub 118. I happen to live in it.
If you had told me five years ago that I would be living in a co-op of any kind, let alone an artist’s one, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. Part of this is because I would have confused “co-op” with something similar to “colony,” like what the Hutterites have, but it would also have been because I had no idea what communal living actually was like. Socially anxious and unaccustomed to sharing my space, I spent an additional $100 a month at Red Deer College residence to avoid having more than one roommate. Younger me would have interpreted communal living as a literal living hell.
But having been at the ‘Hub for over a year now, I can honestly say that going back to conventional housing is going to be a struggle. The amenities of the building alone will be very difficult to say goodbye to — low rent, in-suite laundry, no pet fee, open concept design — but the hardest part will be letting go of a place that has actively pushed me to grow and participate in both my neighborhood and the broader arts scene of Edmonton. At the ‘Hub, my art feels like it has a home as much as my body and my stuff. My creative work is seen; the process of creating it is appreciated and validated.
So how did I end up here, happiest in the last place I would have assumed I’d ever live?
I first found out about the ‘Hub through my partner, who heard about it through a friend and MacEwan alumnus who happened to be living in the building. We applied for a unit before ultimately moving to Banff, and were put on the waiting list after our interview. As with all affordable housing, my partner and I had to prove our combined annual income was below a certain amount in order to be eligible for the space. Not hard, given that he was working as a freelance writer at the time and I had only just graduated from the U of A. We also had to fill out an artist’s statement, basically a CV of our artistic endeavors and experiences, and indicate what committee we would be able to join once we were moved in. As a self-governed building, these committees are the heartbeat of the ArtsHub 118.
The tenants on the Membership Committee, for example, are who dealt with the entirety of our move-in. They answered our emails, conducted our interview, provided us with the necessary contact information, and arranged for someone to hand over the keys and be present for our initial walk-through. It was our future neighbors who were with us each step of the way, rather than a landlord or property agent. We were making friends and connections before even moving in.
The same can be said of any of the ‘Hub’s financial decisions — it’s us and our neighbours making the call, not some impersonal organization. Our monthly general meetings involve the reading and approval of an annual budget, and any expenditures must be agreed upon before proceeding. Submitting invoices for minor repairs is also a part of this — rather than having to wait around for a landlord to approve and then arrange for a handyman, we can just take care of things ourselves and be reimbursed for expenses incurred along the way. As artists, we’re naturally creative and can generally find a way around any problem, but this ability to just go ahead and fix whatever we know to be wrong also makes us more self-sufficient. I’ve learned more about how to repair window mechanisms since moving in than ever before, and this knowledge is something that I can pass on to the others in the building. We all benefit, and in the true spirit of “cooperative housing,” we all contribute in whatever ways we can.
This executive power doesn’t come for free, though. As self-governing tenants, we are able to vote on and negotiate these decisions because we have actually purchased shares in the ArtsHub 118. When we first moved in, the additional mandatory cost of the shares on top of the damage deposit felt contradictory to the whole concept of affordable living, but the shares are refundable, and the benefit of being able to meaningfully weigh-in on matters that directly affect me has been economically advantageous and also very empowering.
Situated above the Nina Haggerty Centre for the Arts, the ArtsHub 118 doesn’t look any different from other apartment buildings on the outside, but inside is another story. We have a shared patio on the second floor that is open for anyone to use at any time, and we use the second and third floor hallways as an open gallery for tenants to showcase their art. Within our individual suites we are allowed to decorate and make changes as we see fit, provided things can be returned to their original state when we move out. I’m at complete liberty to express myself through my living space without fear of repercussion, and as a result I think the suite feels more like “home” than any of my other apartments.
Though I admit that there are times when living right along Edmonton’s notorious 118 Avenue is neither glamorous nor peaceful, overall ArtsHub 118 is honestly the best place I have ever lived. For the first time in my life, I actually know every single person who lives in the building with me. I know who they are, and I know what they do, and whenever possible we try to celebrate and support each other’s endeavors. From little things like taking care of someone’s plants while they are away or walking someone’s dog when their mobility is inhibited, to larger things like collectively going to a tenant’s gallery opening or buying each other’s art, we are what you would expect us to be — a community. Nowhere else that I’ve lived has ever given me that complete sense of belonging.
Thankfully there’s no need for my partner and I to move any time soon, but if the experience of communal living sounds like something you’d be interested in, I encourage you to apply for spaces such as the ArtsHub 118. Being placed on a waitlist like we were might not be a guarantee of getting in, but it certainly streamlines the process.
If you’re not an artist but still want to live in a co-op, there are several options available at the Northern Alberta Cooperative Housing Association.
Cover Photo courtesy of Artshab.com.