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Housing crisis takes center stage at Santa Rosa art show

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Dozens of people packed the Arlene Francis Center in Santa Rosa on Friday for an art show intended to draw attention — and perhaps, help create solutions — to Sonoma County’s housing crisis.

The show, titled “Roofless: Art Against Displacement,” sought to showcase the experience of tenants who are struggling to pay for housing in the North Bay’s tight rental market. It also was aimed at spurring local policy solutions to address skyrocketing rents, such as enacting rent control and strengthening other tenant protections.

The exhibit featured installations from more than 20 local artists, and included performances, poetry, music and more.

One watercolor painting by local artist Tess Dancisak, illustrating what appeared to be a mom and her son, read “No Road Leads Home.” An oil painting titled “On The Tracks” by an artist named Scott G. Hall depicted a scene familiar to many area residents: a homeless encampment tucked in brush alongside railroad tracks. Another piece by Arturo Ortiz read “Housing is a Human Right.”

Maria de los Angeles, a local artist who spearheaded the show with the activist group North Bay Organizing Project, said the idea for the event was to show how low rental vacancies and soaring rents have affected people, from service-industry workers to teachers, artists and others.

“It brings people’s stories, and all the numbers we hear about, to a more visual level,” de los Angeles said.

In Sonoma County, rents have risen nearly 40 percent in the past four years, according to the Novato-based real estate firm Real Answers. And, nearly 54 percent of the county’s population spend more than 30 percent of their pre-tax income on housing, according to a biennial survey from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University.

That threshold — 30 percent of household income spent on housing — has been a national standard for decades. But the marker has become meaningless for many renters who say they struggle to meet their basic needs every month.

Some families have it harder than others, data shows. More than 30 percent of renters in the county spend more than half of their monthly income on housing, according to the Harvard University study, and some people on Friday said they spend nearly their entire monthly income on rent.

In other cases, people seeking to move are turned away by landlords who cite lack of adequate income; others say they simply can’t find an open unit.

“I’ve been feeling this personally,” said Melissa Jones, a local artist and an art teacher at Windsor High. “I’m stuck in a basement apartment with my son, and I started getting really filled with rage because like so many others, I’m barely making it … so I decided I couldn’t just sit here any longer.”

Jones’ pieces included an art installation reading “housing now,” and “home sweet, I can’t find a home.”

She also created a piece on a Monopoly board aimed at showcasing the cost of rentals in different towns and cities.

“I’m trying to show how this crisis is affecting people, so this is what I came up with,” she said.

Friday’s show sparked interest from local activists, as well as some homeless people and elected officials.

“This is the biggest issue we’re dealing with in Santa Rosa right now,” said Chris Coursey, a Santa Rosa councilman.

Coursey acknowledged that organizers also are vying to convince the Santa Rosa City Council to pass a rent control ordinance this year, as well as other tenant protections that could help restrict evictions. The City Council is set to take up the issue again later this month.

“People are mobilizing for — and against — these initiatives,” Coursey said. “I think the more ways we can understand what’s going on, the better.”

Inhui Lee, a homeless woman who said she has been sleeping on friends’ couches, said she came to the art show to raise awareness about the plight of homeless people.

“People think all of us are drunk and crazy, but we are all kinds of people,” said Lee, who moved to the U.S. from South Korea more than 30 years ago. “I’m highly educated, and I raised two kids … yet I’ve been homeless for eight years and I’m having to borrow money for transportation from my son. You never want to do that.”

Lee said she has been looking for steady employment for years. At present, she receives food stamps and mends clothing for little money.

“This really shows peoples’ different experiences,” she said, referring to some of the art pieces.

Sibyl Day, vice president for the North Bay Organizing Project, said the event was designed, in part, to draw people from different social and economic groups together.

“This really shows what is going on in our communities, it’s very powerful,” Day said. “It’s the poorest of the poor being affected … and people who work here who are finding it harder to be able to live here.”

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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