“I used to be able to work three days a week as a waitress in the Castro and afford to rent a room, plus an artist’s studio in the Mission,” explains Kate Nichols (photo, left). By 2007, she had saved up enough money from waitressing and painting sales to work on her art full time.
Since then, Kate has received a pair of Master’s degrees at local schools, has given TED talks and has shown her work in museums–even ones overseas. This fall, Kate will join the San Francisco Art Institute’s faculty as their Diebenkorn Teaching Fellow. Yet despite her successes, Kate wonders if she will be able to continue living in San Francisco.
Kate, hailing from Fort Wayne, Indiana, made her way west to San Francisco in 2002. The young artist knew she would have a community of support for her innovative artwork. She also had an apprenticeship in place.
The 20-year-old’s first residence was nothing grand: the garage of the cousin of her mom’s cousin. This relative’s parents had purchased this Noe Valley home in 1954, all on a working-class salary of a MUNI bus driver.
Kate eventually headed over to the Mission, the neighborhood she deemed the pulse of San Francisco. Her strategy was to rent a cheap room in which to live—one for as little as $385 per month—so that she could afford her art studio. (Kate maintained an art studio in the Redlick Building at 17th and Mission streets for nine years, until the artists were forced to leave this summer.) Kate reflects on how much more difficult it is for young, or even established, artists in the San Francisco of today.
San Jose Avenue community life
In 2009, Kate wound up renting on San Jose Avenue in Bernal Heights. The space was nothing grand, but Kate was all too aware that artists make sacrifices, so she was happy to live in a home with some wear and tear. It did have a view—of the Safeway. Kate gave her neighborhood the endearing moniker of “Safeway Flats.”
In 2011, brothers Calvin and Stanley Gee purchased the property for $760,000. No family members were planning on moving into the building, so Kate felt safe. So did her downstairs neighbors.
The unit below Kate’s is the same size at two bedrooms. Longtime resident Willie lives there with his wife, plus grown children, their spouses and even a grandchild. This is the only way the working-class family can afford to live in the Mission. These are tight quarters, but the loving family has made it work for over a quarter century.
“When I first came downstairs to introduce myself, I was immediately invited in for a family gathering. I met everyone,” recalls Kate. “There’s a real sense of community between the upstairs and downstairs units. We celebrate key moments in each others’ lives, we share food—it’s a unique, familial atmosphere that I haven’t experienced anywhere else.”
That community expanded in 2013 when Kate’s beloved sister, Meghan, moved in, increasing the renters in that unit to four. Meghan (photo, right) had come to San Francisco to study Chinese medicine and acupuncture, knowing this was the ideal place in the U.S. to do so.
All was great until a “For Sale” sign appeared one day, with the property up for $1,399,000. Quite the jump from the $760,000 purchase price of just four years prior, especially considering that minimal upgrades have been made in that time.
The seller’s agent is marketing the fixer-upper home to affluent tech workers, describing the property as follows:
With its popular 24th Street shopping district, easy commute to the South Bay via I-280, and beautiful views, Noe Valley has become one of San Francisco’ s most desired neighborhoods. Living in Noe Valley is an easy commute south, and many Silicon Valley companies have employee shuttles that stop in the neighborhood.
Seems like realtors’ borders of Noe Valley have shifted a bit.
“We love our home. It has sat on the market for a year, probably because it needs work,” claims Kate.
MEDA makes an offer
Last night, MEDA submitted a competitive offer, hoping the seller can help the nonprofit by carrying part of the price of the building. This is a way to keep all current tenants in their home. As as added benefit to the sellers, this plan reduces their immediate tax liability from the sale.
“I felt relieved that there might be another option. It was the first time I had any hope for our home for nearly a year,” explains Meg when asked how she felt when she came home and Kate told her that MEDA was interested in exploring the possibility of buying the home. “It made me proud that the Mission gave rise to this organization that is rallying to protect the people and culture that make this neighborhood so special—and where I feel at home.”
Kate first heard about MEDA through the San Francisco Community Land Trust when some of the artists at Studio 17 met with them to try and figure a way to save their studio.
Kate explains of her current optimism, “I was encouraged when MEDA said ‘they don’t make homes like this anymore in San Francisco—homes that support decent-sized families.’ Sure, our house needs some work, but we love it. It’s a convivial setup for four adults up here in our apartment, but, more importantly, for our neighbors downstairs–a wonderful, warm, multigenerational family who have lived in this house for decades.”
So, the residents of this home on San Jose Avenue are left to wonder if the owners will accept MEDA’s offer. Are the Gees willing to work with MEDA to make this deal a realty?
Sums up Kate: “This brings up questions about just what drives San Francisco property owners’ decisions. Of course, we expect that they will seek a good return on their investments—as well they should. But we hope sellers see the added value in offers that present opportunities for maintaining San Francisco’s unique community and culture.”
Time will tell.