It’s been four months since artists of all types began applying for affordable live/work rental space in the Working Artists Ventura (WAV) project in downtown Ventura, and as the arduous process comes to a close beginning this week, 94 people are crossing their fingers, praying to their Gods and biting their nails in the hopes of moving into one of 54 units.
From its sustainability to its community ethos to the sliding-scale rents, the nonprofit WAV project’s near-utopian, progressive living model is especially alluring to creative types who find it difficult to live in Ventura County without selling out for survival’s sake. For a city that has adopted the arts as its brand, losing artists to more economically hospitable environs is not an option.
“I think there is a real need for this, and I’ve heard from just about everybody that this needs to work,” said WAV project coordinator Deborah Hazen. “It will deliver benefits to the community for years.”
Nick Goodenough, who created and maintains the WAV community’s Web discussion board, applied for residency along with his fiancee Kelsey Newett, early in the process. If they do not make it into one of the WAV units, they will consider leaving Ventura, and he says they’re not alone. “It’s such a huge opportunity that people are waiting around. It’s a deal breaker as to whether they’re going to stay in town or not,” he said. “This could make it worthwhile for me [to stay], where I feel like there is a community. That makes it valuable.”
Carol Ann Swangler also has a lot riding on the project. She and her husband, Edward, reside in Northern California, but she spent much of her life in Ventura County, where her elderly parents still live. It would mean the world to her to be closer to them, but she can’t afford housing here. A long-time visual artist, Swangler was drawn to the project not just for the financial benefits, but for the community aspect. At 67 years old, she and her husband are on the older end of the spectrum, and they’re fine with that. “I don’t mind being a senior, but young people are a lot more interesting,” she said. “My grandmother said to never live with old people, and she was 80-something.” The idea of sharing life and creative process on a daily basis — with young, old and in between — is vastly appealing to the Swanglers. “I get my inspiration and motivation from people doing similar things. I never dreamed something like this could exist,” she said.
Musician Doug Johnson is also excited about the prospect of living among other artists in a collaborative environment. “I love the idea of living around, and among, a big group of other artists who are hard-core about their art. There’s something about being around highly motivated people that makes me thrive.”
Like many of the applicants, Goodenough, Swangler and Johnson have all actively participated in the 147 WAV community discussions that, over the course of the year, have shaped a common vision for community life, including everything from pet and smoking policies to the selection process for applicants. Chris Velasco, president and executive director of PLACE, the project’s developer, has worked on 17 such affordable, green, live/work communities, and his faith in a democratic process has only deepened with each successful project.
“It’s helped me believe in the wisdom of groups,” he said, “and groups of laymen. As long as you create a process that’s inclusive, respectful and on track, and you know what you’re trying to do, I think the group can come up, almost every time, with an answer to a difficult question that’s better than an expert can come up with on his own.”
Johnson was exceedingly impressed with Velasco and the process. “I think the whole thing is so phenomenally cool. It was totally democratic,” he said. “Chris Velasco is a brilliant arbiter, and so fair and listens to all points of view.”
The selection of applicants is in the final stages of a lengthy, multilayered and complex process that factors in criteria ranging from financial eligibility (by law, applicants of sliding-scale affordable housing must meet maximum income guidelines) to dedication to their respective art disciplines and their commitment to community life. The work of the artist was not judged as part of the selection process as this was considered by everyone to be subjective and unquantifiable.
Applicants submitted to two interviews: one for financial qualification and the other a personal/professional interview conducted by various panels. Panels consisted of four people: two artists, one PLACE representative and a volunteer from Ventura County with a vested interest in the project. Panelists were trained by members of PLACE before conducting interviews.
“We are trying to be considerate and compassionate. Even though we’re not making a judgment call about the art, it is about assessing their fit,” explained Hazen. Panelists were instructed to remain stone-faced and totally objective during the interviews, a necessary but somewhat uncomfortable approach for all involved. Brooke Dalton, an arts advocate and gallery owner who served as a panelist, found it awkward to withhold evidence of his enthusiasm for the applicants he found most impressive in terms of their potential fit with the project. “It is a little strange,” he said, “plus, the people would be so nervous.”
Goodenough, who recommended Dalton as a panelist, found his artist interview to be unnerving even though he took part in the selection process discussions. “I left thinking ‘Wow, I have no idea if I got an A-plus or an F-minus.’
“It would be ridiculous to judge the art,” he continued, “To judge the people is necessary but awkward. This is pretty much the best way it could be done.”
This week, Hazen has begun notifying those who made it through both the financial and artist interviews. From this point on, it’s really about the early bird getting the worm, as they move into a process of elimination based on successful matching of applicants with available units. The majority of applicants are interested in one-bedroom apartments, which means if some won’t be amenable to two bedrooms, for instance, they won’t be able to live at WAV, a prospect that none of the applicants wishes to entertain.
While all involved are on pins and needles, waiting to see if they will get in, if their friends get in and who their neighbors will be, the reality is that twice as many people applied as there are available units, so half the applicants will be facing disappointment soon. Hazen is hopeful that those who don’t make it in will still participate in the WAV community, which will also facilitate a gallery and black-box theater space. “We are hoping that the process is fair and inclusive enough that anyone not making it in would still want to be part of the community as a participant or supporter,” she said.
“If we do get in, it will be a huge sigh of relief. It’s been years coming,” said Goodenough. “We’ve kind of put all our eggs in one basket.” But, as he stated earlier, if they don’t get in, he and his fiancee will likely relocate.
Johnson has very high hopes, with plans to set up a recording studio and practice/teaching space. “I’m a survivor. If I don’t get in, maybe I will at a later date, or maybe I’ll find another place around town,” he said. “Even if I don’t get in, I’m going to be over there a lot. I love the community and the people.”
It’s been a long road to this point for Spangler, who said she’s a nervous wreck. Her husband teased her that Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor had less trouble getting approved. “I don’t think I’ve ever put my life in somebody else’s hands to this extent. It means a lot. It’s been a year that we’ve been working on this. It’s a lot invested.”
For more information about the WAV project, please visit www.placeonline.us.