Aging with Colleagues

11 min read

Actors Fund Connects Artists to Housing and Services

Have you ever considered spending your later years living amongst people with whom you shared a profession? Think of the great stories you can tell over dinner to sincerely interested listeners. After all, nostalgia is a favorite pastime.

The Actor’s Fund provides this opportunity for those who worked in any part of show business—not just actors but also producers, writers, stagehands, musicians, etc.

At the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, New Jersey, residents eat their meals in the Stagedoor Canteen, find scripts and old Playbills in the Maureen O’Sullivan and James Cushing library, participate in play readings and receive tickets and transportation to current Broadway shows. Every month, 20 more elderly performing artists apply for space at the home. But all of the beds at the seniors’ facility are already full and there is a long waiting list.

More beds are coming.

The Actors Fund, based in New York City, broke ground in October on a $25 million plan to add room for 45 new seniors at the home, bringing the total number of beds to 169.

This is just one part of the Actors Fund’s ambitious plans to partner with developers to build hundreds of new, affordable apartments in New York City and Los Angeles. But even these bold plans will leave many artists still looking for an affordable place to live.

“It’s important that the needs of these residents —and of everyone who comes to us for assistance in times of need, crisis or transition — be addressed with compassion and excellence,” says Fund Chairman Brian Stokes Mitchell, the Tony Award winning actor currently in rehearsal for the new Broadway show, Shuffle Along.

That’s why the Actors Fund pursues an “all-of-the-above” strategy to help the artists it serves find the housing they need. It continues to build its own affordable housing communities. It connects working artists with new workforce housing properties built by other developers. It provides education and financial counseling to help its members navigate affordable housing programs and stabilize their financial lives. And, in a business in which no job is permanent (except maybe a role in Phantom of the Opera now in its 29th year), it offers some funding to get members through the gap between jobs.

The Actors Fund combines ticket sales to special performances of Broadway shows, philanthropy and outside investment partners to provide homes and services to its own.

New developments
The new construction at the Lillian Booth Actors Home will add two new buildings to the six-acre campus, which originally opened in 1902. When the work is done, the community will include assisted living, skilled nursing and memory care housing for seniors.

The Actors Fund also continues to hunt for sites where it can partner with other development companies to build new housing. In December, the Actors Fund and its development partners, Trinity Financial, submitted their proposal to build more than 200 units of affordable housing on a former slaughterhouse site on Manhattan’s Far West Side.

Early this year, the Actors Fund and its development partner, ArtSpace, plan to submit their answer to a request for proposals from the City of Los Angeles for a development site in East Hollywood.

The Actors Fund typically partners with experienced affordable housing developers when it pursues these development opportunities. “We are not staffed as a development company. It’s all about partnerships,” says Barbara Davis, chief operating officer for the Actors Fund.

In 2009, the Actors Fund opened 217 new affordable studio apartments at the Schermerhorn in downtown Brooklyn in partnership with Breaking Ground, the affordable housing developer formerly known as Common Ground.

Of those apartments, 100 are reserved for low-income people who work in the performing arts. The rest are reserved for formerly homeless people who can access the social services provided by Breaking Ground. It cost $59 million to develop the 11-story building. Much of that came from federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTCs) sold to equity investors.

“We didn’t have to put in any money,” says Davis. However, The Actors Fund has an ownership stake in the building and a say in what will happen to the Schermerhorn after its LIHTC investors eventually leave the project. As general partners, The Actors Fund and Breaking Ground split their 1% ownership stake in the building: 51% to Breaking Ground and 49% to The Actors Fund. The Schermerhorn is also bound by an agreement to keep the building affordable for at least 50 years.

The Actors Fund did help arrange the funding to build a black box theatre at the Schermerhorn, which it operates. “We have 80 different arts groups that work out of this space,” says Davis.

New developments planned by the Actors Fund can also help New York City officials reach their aggressive goals to create affordable housing. Mayor Bill De Blasio’s housing plan, announced in 2014, specifically includes housing for artists in its goal to create 200,000 new units of affordable housing over 10 years.

“It’s the first time that artist housing has been included in a Citywide plan,” says Davis. The plan commits to creating 1,500 units of affordable housing for artists over 10 years, or 150 units a year.

To achieve that goal, affordable housing developers are likely to partner with organizations, like the Actors Fund, that can help them identify and screen potential artists/residents. “A developer is not going to commit to do artist housing independent of an organization like us,” says Davis.

Tremendous need
The Actors Fund entered the difficult world of affordable housing development to address a need that is just as strong today as it was when the Actors Fund first opened the Lillian Booth Actors Home in 1902.

“Our mission is to address the needs of people who live and work in the arts,” says Davis. Industry challenges include episodic work and relatively low pay for the many artists who don’t become celebrities.

“This is like being called to the priesthood,” says Joe Benincasa, chief executive officer of the Actors Fund.

Though artists don’t actually have to take a vow of poverty, the average incomes of actors, dancers and musicians are all well under $30,000 a year, according to information from the U.S. Census. Even among the members of the Screen Actors Guild, only 4% earn more than $50,000 a year.

“People who worked this life gave up many of the securities of life to do their craft,” says Davis. Artists often move far away from their families of origin. When or if they become older or disabled, they need to be cared for. “The basics of life in film, television or theater are filled with ups and downs.”

As neighborhoods in New York City and Los Angeles become more expensive, artists can be especially vulnerable. “People in the arts are constantly being pushed out of neighborhoods that they helped establish,” says Davis.

The Dorothy Ross Friedman Residence
The first affordable housing development completed by the Actors Fund in the Modern Era illustrates these vulnerabilities.

In the 1990s, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) ravaged the arts community. Many artists sick with the disease lost their homes. Others lived in places that became impossible to navigate as their condition worsened. “We had folks living in walk-ups and tenements in Hell’s Kitchen and the Lower East Side,” says Davis.

“We needed to move people into an elevator building.”

To help them, the Actors Fund partnered with an experienced affordable housing developer, Housing and Services, Inc., to redevelop a failed, 31-story condominium project on Manhattan’s West Side. The $45 million high-rise opened its 178 affordable apartments in March 1996. Much of the funding for the community, then known as the Aurora, came from federal LIHTCs sold to Related Capital Company, the limited partner on the deal.

One third of the apartments were reserved for people with AIDs. Another third was reserved for people who worked in the arts. All of the apartments are affordable to low-income residents.

“We had a choreographer who ended up sleeping on friends couches when he got sick,” Davis remembers. “When he moved into the Aurora, he met two dancers who had performed his work also living there. It was a sort of wonderful reunion.”

This affordable housing community saved lives. “We now have many residents who moved in in 1996 with a full AIDS diagnosis,” says Davis. “Part of their survival is based on their being in a healthy community.”

The property is still operating smoothly. After 15 years in operation, the Actors Fund exercised the right spelled out in its original agreement with its limited partners, The Related Companies, and bought the full ownership of the property for $63,000. The Actors Fund then completed a $3.5 million modernization that built a new lobby, replaced elevators and also created a health center, the Al Hirschfeld Free Health Clinic, at the community, which now goes by the name the Dorothy Ross Friedman Residence.

In 1998, the Actors Fund opened more apartments for low-income people with AIDS in Los Angeles, in partnership with another experienced affordable housing developer, West Hollywood Community Housing Corporation, to create 40 affordable apartments at The Palm View. Once again, LIHTCs paid for most of the development costs. The Enterprise Foundation paid $4 million for the tax credits from the property.

After years of work, the Actors Fund has created roughly 1,000 affordable apartments in which it has some kind of ownership. The apartments quickly filled up and there are long waiting lists.

“We are never going to build enough apartments for the population we serve,” says Davis.

For thespians who have not found a home in one of its own communities, the Actors Fund offers information.

“As important as the bricks and mortar is, the education is central to what we do,” says Benincasa.

Education includes seminars offered regularly in New York City to educate members of the performing arts and entertainment community about affordable housing options and preparing for the application process. Seminars are coming soon to Los Angeles.

The Actors Fund also operates its Housing Resource Center and Housing Bulletin Board, to provide information on tenants’ rights, finding a roommate or searching through listings for a place to live.

There’s even an Entertainment Assistance Program to provide emergency financial assistance to artists in danger of losing their homes.

The Actors Funds also helps artists get their financial affairs in order so that they can apply for affordable housing. Most affordable housing managers qualify potential residents based on the amount of their last paycheck. But artists often earn income unevenly – their actual annual incomes bear little relation to their income in any given week.

Marketing agreements
To help more artists find affordable places to live, the Actors Fund has partnered with several developers to market their apartments.

“We’ve been hired by some developers to help market their affordable housing to the arts and entertainment community,” says Davis. In Los Angeles, the Actors Fund is working with the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs to market new affordable housing at two communities to artists.

The demand for affordable housing is so high in New York City that new affordable housing apartments often lease at lightning speed. However, the developers who build luxury buildings that include apartments for moderate-income residents in exchange for a zoning flexibility.may not know how to tap into this demand.

Moderate-income residents who earn 100% of the area median income in New York City take home about $80,000 a year. “Most of these people don’t understand that this is for them and that they could be in affordable housing,” says Davis.

The Actors Fund helps developers market these new, workforce housing apartments to its giant email list of artists who may be looking for an affordable place to live. The Actors Fund has gathered a wealth of information on artists who have asked to be contacted when affordable apartments are available. The Actors Fund also has access to email lists from unions and associations that represent artists.

“Our email lists of who we will be able to touch through notifications is over 500,000 names long,” says Davis.

Thanks to marketing from the Actors Fund, artists filled up 20% of the hundreds of affordable apartments at Gotham West, one of the largest affordable housing properties built in Manhattan under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

“We moved in more than 100 people,” says Benincasa.

Sometimes the Actors Funds helps create the marketing materials, crafting a message that might appeal to its members, and developers are willing to pay for their marketing services.

The Actors Fund is able to build these relationships with developers partly because it has been a developer itself. “Actually getting involved in projects, helped us learn who the players are,” says Davis.

The combination of these marketing partnerships, the education programs and its own affordable housing development has made the Actors Fund an impressive and expansive force in supplying and guiding artists to safe and affordable housing.

“We live both in the world of arts and in the world affordable housing,” says Davis.