Creativity as a Tonic

5 min read

Meta’s Arts Colonies improve health outcomes

Theatrical productions, arts classes and affordable housing.

Such combinations are becoming more and more common, thanks to “arts colonies” developed by the Meta Housing Corporation in Los Angeles.

“All our arts colonies,” says Kasey Burke, President of Meta, “integrate into affordable housing ongoing professional scale arts classes and amenities, which are completely free to residents. Programs are built for professional working artists, as well as nonprofessional artists who enjoy the ability to be creative and expressive.”

Meta now has nearly half-dozen such efforts planned or underway in the Los Angeles area; the oldest, the Burbank Senior Artistic Colony, dates back to 2005; the newest, an arts colony for families, will be completed in Glendale this year.

The “arts colony” movement was at first focused on affordable housing for seniors, sparked by recognition of two realities: first, people are living longer; and second, involvement with the arts—broadly defined to include everything from doing stand-up comedy to writing poetry —is associated with greater health and happiness. Blood pressure; depression; doctor visits; or falls—whatever measure it selected, problems seem to decrease as involvement in the arts increases. Arts provide, “a new sense of control or mastery,” reports a 2006 peer-reviewed article, based on the Creativity and Aging Study, conducted at the George Washington University Center on Health, Aging & Humanities. “In the arts, the opportunities to create something new and beautiful are endless and offer an enormous sense of satisfaction and empowerment.”

Responses to the “idea and the implementation of Meta’s arts-related housing has been tremendous,” says Burke. “We have seen the benefits the arts have in improving the quality of life for our residents. By engaging in on-site arts activities and classes, residents often find themselves re-igniting old passions, and discovering new ones. For example, at our NoHo Senior Arts Colony in North Hollywood, many residents have discovered new passions for painting, writing, and even acting. One resident is in her seventies and is a working actress. She moved to the arts colony and has been able to further delve into her acting career and follow passions that she had put on the back burner for most of her life. In addition to discovering new passions, residents also find that the social aspect of the arts classes and activities help to provide a stronger sense of community. Instead of sitting in their apartments alone watching TV, residents find themselves engaging in the classes, making new friends, and building relationships throughout the community.”

Now, Meta Housing has extended this concept—and creation of an art-infused community—beyond seniors to families. The Pacific Avenue Arts Colony in the San Pedro area of Los Angeles, and the nearby Glendale Arts Colony are designed to provide what Meta Housing’s president describes as community involvement and continued learning that can provide significant benefits for people of all ages.

An arts colony, Burke emphasizes, “also stimulates economic growth and redevelopment in neighborhoods surrounding our apartment communities. For example, the Pacific Avenue Arts Colony in San Pedro has been utilized by a city to further drive redevelopment. We are also in the process of building the Glendale Arts Colony, which will be completed in partnership with the City of Glendale and the YMCA of Glendale. As with the project in San Pedro, the City of Glendale is looking to further drive developers and economic growth to its existing Arts & Entertainment District.”

What about costs? “There is an increase in both the development budget and the operating budget to transform a community into an arts colony, but the benefits for our residents and the community are worth it,” says Burke. “In the arts colonies, we allocate budgets towards arts amenities and services that help to enrich the culture of the residents and surrounding neighborhoods”

And does having an arts component make a project more likely to receive Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) and other scarce government financing? “No,” he says. “LIHTCs are our prime source of funding, and are always in high demand. All such sources are typically oversubscribed since the need for affordable housing greatly outweighs the resources available. Because of the limited supply, we often have to compete against other affordable housing developers for funding. Arts does not increase chances with LIHTC, but it often makes the project more appealing at the city and community level. When it comes to financing, there is no distinction between the development of an arts colony versus a more traditional affordable housing community. Either way, our team will work to obtain the resources necessary to complete each project.”

Of course, such arts-oriented projects in affordable housing might be a particular manifestation of Los Angeles, with its arts-oriented culture. The NoHo Senior Arts Colony in North Hollywood, for example, has a professional, state-of-the-art theater that is open to the public, and is operated in partnership with a local professional theater group, The Road Theater Company, which hosts a series of professional plays and readings.

Similar support for such efforts may not exist in every city, but all across the country, love of the arts—and positive impact of the arts is universal. Burke frequently receives telephone calls asking for information and advice.

What is required is a collaboration with someone like Tim Carpenter, founder and executive director of EngAGE, the LA-based non-profit that provides much of the programs and facilities found in Meta Housing’s arts colonies. Carpenter worked closely with Meta’s founder to create and bring-to-life the arts colony model. The Meta/EngAGE model of inspiring living is replicable anywhere.