I’m writing this from my studio apartment in midtown Atlanta. It’s above a Tex-Mex restaurant. Their food is average, but the drinks are strong and they have live music three nights a week. I know because I can hear it every Thursday, Friday and Saturday from six to eleven pm as if the band were in my studio apartment with me. And below the Tex-Mex restaurant is a dance club. A loud one.
When I decided to pursue theater professionally, I knew it would be a difficult path. I was told I would face extreme competition to get a job. I was told that once I booked a job, I would face unemployment seven weeks later when the contract ended. I was told I would always have to hustle and work incredibly hard to stay employed. I was not told, however, that no matter how hard I work it’s almost impossible to pay my rent and bills from stage work — even living in a less-than-ideal apartment.
I moved to Atlanta after grad school and I have been very fortunate. By the end of 2017, I will have worked on five different Actors’ Equity union contracts; I’ll start my sixth one on the day after Christmas. Those contracts had weekly salaries of $910, $400, $450, $566 and $440 (and $650 soon). By the end of the year I will have made $20,000 from my work onstage. However, $800 a month goes to just rent and utilities. That’s almost half of what I make. Add to that student loan payments, a payment for the requisite car and car insurance, cell phone, etc., and it’s not sustainable.
In an ideal world, I’d buy a home. I’d love to rent affordable rooms to other artists in similar positions. But buying a home isn’t feasible. Making enough money to cover rent is a struggle; I’m not in a position to save up enough money for a down payment. And even if I was, my inconsistent employment scares most mortgage lenders away. So the affordable houses I would like to buy are snatched up by investors that rent them out for a hefty profit, which inflates rent prices even more.
Atlanta is growing; cranes litter the skyline. And as new buildings rise, so do rents. But for many Atlantans, artists in particular, wages haven’t kept up. It’s easy to feel helpless. So what can we do? What are the actionable steps can we take to advocate for ourselves? We have to recognize our true worth and speak up.
We have to stop letting our paychecks define our worth. What we contribute to the community is worth a lot more than the $500 a week that theaters can afford to pay us. The City of Atlanta Office of Cultural Affairs recently released a study on “The Economic Impact of Nonprofit Arts and Culture Organizations and Their Audiences” in Atlanta. It found that “communities that support the arts and culture not only enhance their quality of life they also invest in their economic well-being.” Nonprofits arts and culture are a $300 million industry in Atlanta, generating “$27.5 million in local and state government revenue.” The study found that nonprofit cultural institutions “leverage a remarkable $131.9 million in additional spending by arts and culture audiences that pumps vital revenue into local restaurants, hotels, retail stores, parking garages, and other businesses.”
Artists are valuable assets to a city. Our leaders should have a vested interest in the issues that matter most to us. Near the very top of that list is affordable housing. Developers, as has been proven time and time again, will not create affordable housing unless they are given incentives or mandates from City Hall and the state capital. Unfortunately, city and state officials have failed to do so in a meaningful way.
Recently, Amazon announced that they are looking to build a second headquarters in North America. Atlanta hopes to be among the contenders to house “HQ2”, as Amazon is calling it, which according to the New York Times will cost $5 billion to build and operate and create 50,000 new jobs. But we only have to look at the rent crisis in Amazon’s current home to understand that there are serious drawbacks to that kind of rapid economic and population growth if a city does not have clear mandates to prevent burdening their citizens with untenable rents. In March of this year, The Seattle Times reported that rents have risen 57% over the last six years.
This year, Atlanta will elect a new mayor. This is our chance to make our voices heard. There are nine candidates and only 25% of eligible voters are expected to cast votes. With such a crowded field and such a low anticipated turnout, which candidates make it to the run-off in December could very well be determined by a couple of hundred voters. There are more than that many working artists in Atlanta. By taking the time to learn which candidates support the creation of more affordable housing in Atlanta and have concrete plans to do so, talking to friends and neighbors, and making it to the polls, artists could have a huge impact on the race and the future of our city. In 2018, Georgia will elect a new governor, and that is another opportunity to shape the priorities of our state moving forward.
The city’s heart is its culture: its music, its food, its theater, its museums and its galleries, its festivals and its parades. But those of us that work in the very fields that make a city great are among the most vulnerable to increasing rents. We need leadership at the city and state level that advocate for us. But first we must advocate for ourselves. We have value, and it’s time to put leaders in power that recognize that. It’s also time for a new apartment — preferably one not above a Tex-Mex restaurant. Now back to Craigslist. Wish me luck.
Lee Osorio is an Atlanta-based actor, teaching artist and writer. He is a proud member of Actor’s Equity Association and a graduate of the Brown/Trinity Rep MFA program. Learn more about him at www.leeosorio.com.