Illustration by Muriel Gordon.

Chalk portraits by artists young and old animate the exterior walls. Paintings, quilts, photographs and other hanging art line the hallways of the Tannery Arts Center, reminding those entering that this is an artists’ space. Resident Adam White enjoys this tangible representation of his neighbors’ progress.

“It’s pretty cool to see since I’ve been here, the progression of everybody’s art,” White said. “You don’t see a lot of people during the winter months and then all of a sudden new paintings are up in the hallways.”

Opened in March 2009, the Tannery Arts Center is an apartment complex that houses low-income local talent looking for a space to live and work in. The Center offers 100 apartment units on the San Lorenzo River near Highway 9.

Unfortunately for those interested in living there, the Tannery Arts Center is at its maximum capacity and is no longer accepting applications. A plain sign posted on the door to their office building announces that the wait list has reached a point where they can no longer accept inquiries.

“We are unable to predict when we might open the wait list again, but at this time we have enough applications on the wait list for about two to three years,” according to the sign.

There is no way to determine when a space will become open because although residents must reapply for housing every year, there is no limit to the number of years a resident can reside at the Tannery as long as they remain eligible.

Applicants must attend two interviews to determine their eligibility. One interview requires applicants to bring a portfolio of art and the other requires proof of low-income status.

Tannery Arts Center resident Keith Petrocelli said that the initial applications were gathered on-site.

“We all applied at the same time. It was an overnight campout,” he said, “I was number 47 in line, and I got there early.”

Adam White remembers the anxiety of waiting in line for an application.

“I was lucky because I was one of the first to move in,” he said. “I wasn’t sure we’d be able to make it in the door.”

That was nearly three years ago. Since then, the wait list has come to such a length that a “Wait List Full” placard has been neatly fastened to the wall under the sign directing entrants to the office.

Petrocelli said the demand for housing at the Center has created a bureaucratic system within the Tannery that can be disconcerting. Residents are notified of safety checks or building projects via notes in the hallways.

“On a few occasions, staff have come into my apartment unannounced to check the fire alarms,” he said. “No notice, no knock or anything. I’ve never lived in an apartment building where the administration did that. There are a lot of little rules they expect us to follow [while] living here.”

While the Tannery Center has improved lives and built a small community with its housing and programming, the excruciatingly long housing wait list at the Center shows the extent of need for more low-income housing in the Santa Cruz community.

There are 13,043 families currently on the waiting list for the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program in Santa Cruz County.

This federal program, funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) can be either project-based, where housing is pre-determined, or tenant-based, in which tenants must secure private housing with federal aid reducing their rent to a third of their income.

Families who went on the list before December 2007 are just now being considered for eligibility, according to the website of the Housing Authority of Santa Cruz County. The families must endure a wait of over three years before the consideration process even begins.

Vacancy rates for rental and ownership housing are both below 2 percent in the city. The optimal vacancy rate for rental housing is 5 to 6 percent, according to the City of Santa Cruz’s Housing & Community Development Consolidated Plan 2010–2015.

A low rental vacancy rate such as the one in Santa Cruz drives up the cost of rent. For the majority of Santa Cruz residents inhabiting rental units, this statistic is a blaring reminder of the difficulties residents face in securing affordable housing.

For some of those who can get in to the Tannery Center, the housing provides an opportunity to hone their craft and save some money. Adam White, also known as Addamantium the Plumber, has been living at the Tannery Center since it opened.

Lazing on his leather couch with neighborhood kids making a playful ruckus in the background, White explains the living situation he was in before moving to the Center.

“I was living with my band, Slop Opera, in a trailer and we had a studio in the trailer with my son and I, and my other band mate, Mike Ross, and his son, and my other band mate,” White said, “and we were all just like trying to make music and raise kids. So getting here, I was completely blessed to be able to move here.”

Former Mayor Mike Rotkin said affordable family housing is a major need in the Santa Cruz community. He said that while the City of Santa Cruz provides “more than most,” there is still a lot of work to be done.

“It’s a pathetic effort in terms of what is needed out there,” Rotkin said.”There is a huge shortage of housing for families with children. We don’t have near enough of it.”

White describes the Tannery Center as a close-knit community and says he frequently babysits for his neighbors and friends. He said his new living situation has changed his life for the better.

“It’s affordable housing,” he said. “I’m born and raised in Santa Cruz. I’ve had many places where all of my check goes to rent and now I’m able to focus more on my art. I’ve got tours coming up and a lot more things have happened since I’ve lived here with my music that probably wouldn’t have happened if I was living other places.”

HUD categorizes income levels based on residents’ income compared to the area medium income (AMI). For many programs, “moderate income” is required to apply. Moderate income is classified as between 81 and 95 percent of AMI. In 2008, AMI in Santa Cruz County was $66,495, about $5,000 higher than the California average, according to the U.S. Census. This puts the moderate income level in Santa Cruz County between $53,861 and $63,170. Rotkin said that the moderate income requirement means only a small number of people are eligible.

“There’s a very narrow little window there where people meet both requirements,” Rotkin said. “Either people have too much money or not enough.”

As an artist-only low-income center, the Tannery aims to provide opportunities for residents to display and improve their work.

The Center has set out a three-phase plan to accomplish this. Phase one is complete: the construction of the apartment buildings. Currently in its second phase of development, the Center is gearing up for additional workspaces. Construction has commenced for a digital media and creative arts studio that is expected to bring non-resident artists to the Center. Phase three, a performing arts center, is in the planning stages.

Tannery Arts Center project director George Newell explains that funding for each phase of the project was secured strategically. While the project did receive use of the land for the project at no cost from the city, the funding obtained for each phase comes from a variety of sources.

“The 8.2-acre campus has been developed as three separate financial entities so that one phase doesn’t depend on the funding of another to move forward,” Newell said in an e-mail.

Jeannie Cartabiano, project coordinator at the Tannery Arts Center, reiterated the need for synergy between projects and separate funding sources. Her cluttered apartment on the third floor of a Tannery building is full of antique furniture and room dividers. Though the apartments at the Center are of a cookie-cutter design, Cartabiano and other residents put effort into individualizing their spaces.

Cartabiano wants to spread this effort to the Tannery’s grounds by adding outdoor amenities like public gardens and composting. She is also interested in energy-efficient turbines that would collect trash and energy from the San Lorenzo River. However, Cartabiano does not want to remove funding from other projects at the Tannery.

“We can’t compete against ourselves for funding,” Cartabiano said. “We consider ourself one campus with multiple projects.”

The hurdles involved in securing funding and approval from local, state and federal sources demonstrate the incredibly slow-moving process all affordable housing projects must go through before becoming a reality. Santa Cruz Housing and Community Development manager Carol Berg said that state funding has been cut drastically since the national housing market busted.

Specifically, Berg refers to the Multifamily Housing Programs that were funded in 2002 with Proposition 46. It failed to be funded again in 2009 when Prop 1C, which proposed borrowing against future lottery funds to cover some of the costs, was rejected.

“This is where we’ve had the biggest change,” Berg said. “Those funds are almost used up. Voters are not going to go out and approve another bond measure. The idea now is to create a permanent funding source.”

Projects often take several years to receive enough funding to get started. An affordable housing trust fund was set up in 2007 to lend to development needs of future projects, Berg said. However, because it is subsidized and there are few projects with enough funding to get started, the money is currently unused.

“We all know what happened in 2008,” she said. “Development has slowed down, drastically. This will be a source of funding in the future.”

The Tannery Arts Center received its first grant from the Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County. The Hewlett Foundation and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation pulled out their pocketbooks soon after to aid the project. Since then, the idea has drawn some state grants and federal aid, including $5 million in federal economic stimulus funds.

Rotkin calls for the federal government to step up its game in funding subsidized housing across America.

“The federal government today spends about 10 percent on the subsidy of affordable housing than it did under Richard Nixon,” Rotkin said. “Basically the federal government has ripped the subsidies out of affordable housing. Until the federal government steps up again and starts to provide that level of support, it’s going to be very difficult to provide enough housing for the people in this country.”

For the individuals seeking low-income housing at the Tannery and elsewhere, this solution will not be realized fast enough. While President Barack Obama has catalyzed certain housing efforts like the Making Home Affordable program that helps families negotiate with lenders for a more affordable mortgage, renters have less programming on their side.

The HUD website provides a searchable database of low-income units across the country. Of the 13 available units listed in Santa Cruz, only two accommodate families. Eight are dedicated to elderly people and three to disabled people.

Low-income residences all over Santa Cruz are full and most have excruciatingly long wait lists. Spaces in the Tannery are not opening up. Families on the wait list are forced to look for housing elsewhere or live in debt.

Tannery resident Adam White said he feels comfortable in his home and is not considering moving out anytime soon.

Although his rent has risen gradually since he moved to the Center, Tannery resident Petrocelli said it is unlikely he will move out soon because of the difficulties he would have finding comparable rent.

“There just aren’t places in Santa Cruz this cheap,” Petrocelli said. “I’ve thought about moving out, but then I kick myself for considering it.”