Akin at The House of Commons
Oliver Pauk, Co-Director, email@example.com
Michael Vickers, Co-Director, firstname.lastname@example.org
House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage
Cultural Hubs and Cultural Districts in Canada
From our perspective as Co-Directors of the arts organization Akin, providing affordable studio space and public programing in Toronto since 2008, we will provide a brief history and explanation of Akin’s model, followed by a series of recommendations centered around support in the form of policy changes rather than requests for funding.
Initially set up as a small studio for a group of artist friends, Akin was founded ten years ago in in a modest 600 sf loft in Toronto. Still entirely artist-run, today Akin is the largest provider of affordable studio space in Canada, providing nearly 35,000 sf of space to over 300 creatives across 8 locations in the Toronto area, along with a year-long calendar of roughly 60 free or low-cost creative and professional development workshops, events and programs for Toronto’s cultural community and the public at large. We have grown quickly in recent years (doubling leased space and membership in the past 18 months) due to an acute need for affordable space and supportive programs. Akin functions without any operational funding and has grown without the support of operational funding.
Studio affordability is maintained by negotiating short to medium rental durations in properties transitioning into redevelopment. Our leases have ranged from six months to ten years. Landlords and developers lease their properties on favourable terms for the period before development can begin, enabling Akin to create social and economic value from buildings which would otherwise sit vacant.
But, the social benefits of our studios go beyond just affordable workspace for the artists. Akin’s studios are known for their friendly, inspiring, and collaborative atmosphere in which people work on a variety of creative and entrepreneurial projects. Through Akin, they receive support, career development opportunities, and public exposure that they could not access working in isolation. Further, our efforts not only impact the arts sector. Our members also include newcomers to Canada and young businesses operating in the cultural realm. Akin programs and educational activities are offered across three streams: professional development opportunities for practicing artists, creative workshops and programs, and community engagement projects with marginalized groups.
Akin’s role in city-building over the past decade has centered around reducing barriers for artists, low-income entrepreneurs and alternative business models. Most artists in Toronto and across Canada find themselves among the working poor. Cultural sector researcher Kelly Hill’s 2014 report, ‘A Statistical Profile of Artists and Cultural Workers in Canada’, found that Canadian artists’ total individual income averaged $32,800, which was 32% lower than the Canadian average, and, even worse, about 43% lower than the median income. Toronto promotes itself as a creative capital for Canada, yet the very artists adding to the vibrancy of the city are struggling to make ends meet and are leaving for more affordable places to work and live. As the Toronto Star’s Murray Whyte puts it, “in a place that has embraced the popular notion of “creative city” skyrocketing commercial rents have had an unintended irony, having all but purged such workers”. Akin has found a long-term solution to this challenge, offering a network of inspiring, below market rent, shared and private rental spaces, bound together by a range of professional and creative supports. Support of artists and the integration of studio space in the urban fabric through cultural hubs is critical to economic growth and quality of life in our country.
How does Akin work? Akin pursues two often overlooked realities of real estate development that apply to areas with populations big and small, urban and rural, in Toronto and also in other areas across our country. Firstly, there comes a time in every building’s life when the need for rehabilitation or redevelopment drives down lease rates to levels that creative or social enterprises can afford. Secondly, the interval between the decision to rehabilitate or redevelop, and the actual start of construction work often takes 3-5 years or more, given the lengthy processes of planning, designing, financing, rezoning, preselling, and obtaining variance permits. Across Canada, there are many such un/under-used buildings. Akin’s King Street Studios, in the heart of downtown Toronto’s expensive Entertainment District at King and Spadina are a shining example of this. A beautiful heritage building owned by Allied Properties REIT, one of the country’s largest property owners, is being leased to us at far below market rent so that Akin can provide studios to over 100 artists in the “in between” period before the site is developed into condos in partnership with the world-renowned architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group. As a different type of example, in which we occupy buildings that are not at the end of their lifecycle, take Akin’s newest location which will inhabit half of the fourth floor of the new Museum of Contemporary Art, creating affordable space for 25 artists in an important cultural neighbourhood from which many artists have recently been forced out by way of rising rents.
The Akin model is beneficial not only for artists, but also for property owners and developers, for neighbourhoods, and for Toronto’s prosperity and quality of life. In short, we have a formula that works: discounted interim real estate + refurbishment for artists + management, maintenance, programming, and professional development opportunities = inspiring, affordable space for artists and vulnerable groups (otherwise priced-out of work space) and the creation of supportive, creative, thriving, and interesting communities. There is strong potential for growth of Akin’s model, within and beyond the creative sector. Other tenant partner groups, social endeavours and vulnerable, low-income populations could be served by Akin-style facilities. Our model can be replicated. With proper planning and support, the Akin model could be expanded and enhanced, reaching even more who are in need.
How can cultural hubs and organizations such as ours be supported at the federal level? By changing the rules and focusing on the possibilities of leasing incentives, questioning tax benefits, and facilitating access to unused, government-owned property. We have three suggestions for serious consideration.
Firstly, ‘Meanwhile Leases’. Akin is inspired to move forward with its development of creative, interim use of space based on research about similar programs outside of Canada. Commercial vacancies becoming rarer and real estate prices soaring with creatives being priced-out and forced to leave major urban areas is an international concern, and solutions have been developed abroad. In the UK, for instance, a government-led initiative of ‘meanwhile leases’ has been promoted since 2009 and there are many case studies and toolkits available for study. The Croydon Meanwhile Use Toolkit website defines Meanwhile Use as: “... the temporary use of buildings or land for a socially beneficial purpose until they can be brought back into commercial use. Meanwhile Use enables low cost and low risk opportunities for small enterprises, businesses or community groups to have a high-profile space and engage with the local community.” The UK government provides template legal contracts online to facilitate these types of leases and lower administrative and legal costs for all parties. A foundation, “The Meanwhile Foundation”, has even been developed in England to support this intelligent use of vacant properties.
These are leases of dormant commercial space that accommodate non-profit lessees, at cost, in return for property tax breaks or other considerations. In the UK, non-profit users typically do not pay rent at all, and are simply responsible for covering the cost of improvements to the space and the cost of utilities. Could a version of this not exist across Canada? “Meanwhile leases” are most commonly used to revive retail precincts during tough economic times adding dynamism and creativity as new tenants are sought, but could be used for any type of un/under-used building. What would happen if laws were changed at the federal level to encourage commercial realtors and qualified non-profits to apply for “Meanwhile leases”? There would be more space for artists, creatives and entrepreneurs and also a reward for developers, building owners and realtors to have their buildings utilized and activated. Both sides benefit and are incentivized. With buy-in from property owners, and the support from all levels of government, parts of towns and cities can be revitalized, or can be saved from becoming under-used in the first place, creating everything from art exhibitions to concerts to workshops to theatrical performances all available to the public.
One step in this direction, it could be argued, would be the recent development of a Creative Co-location Property Tax Subclass being rolled out across Ontario, that offers a tax incentive for commercial properties that foster substantial cultural activities. Though a definite move forward, fewer than 20 buildings in Toronto will qualify for the 50% tax break, which is not passed down to nor does it directly benefit the actual creative class itself. As Doug Simpson, Managing Director of consulting firm NetGain Partners comments, there is skepticism around “a targeted subsidy, being funded by foregone tax revenue and awarded to landlords and buildings, without regard for the specific merits of the individual groups – the intended beneficiaries – inside the four walls of each building”.
Could a new, and more beneficial, co-location property tax subclass be developed at the federal level that attaches the funding and financial assistance not only to building owners and landlords, but to their tenants? Could the tax subclass perhaps not only assist with the poverty of artists and the cultural sector, but others too? Additional barriers to qualify for the new tax subclass include requirements such as the necessity of a minimum of 10,000 square feet of space or a list of more than 40 tenants, and charging tenants an undefined ‘below market rent’. As Dr.Veronika Mogyorody suggested in a previous meeting- “We hope for the consideration of tax exemptions on the rental of units for creatives, a form of tax rebate or a period of tax exemption that supports those it intends to, instead of the building owners.”
Below Market Rent (BMR) Policy
Next, we would like to advocate for the government to facilitate more effective processes for the use of vacant government-owned property at every level. Currently, the inhibitive rules in Toronto are designed to make it more difficult than ever for non-profits such as ours to access these spaces, including mystery around which spaces are in fact available, though it is estimated that the City of Toronto’s portfolio of unused space sits in the billions of dollars worth of assets. As a non-profit affiliated with a for-profit, we are automatically barred from access. Even before this was the case, it was near impossible for smaller non-profits to be considered for city-owned property. One example is a condo building at 61 Heintzman Street in Toronto, which created a city-administered rental space as part of a Section 37 agreement, which mandated that this space be used to benefit the local community. What happened, in actuality, was that a storefront space was created, it sat dormant and unused for five years from when the condominium opened, and, after Akin was deemed ineligible by the City's legal department, it has continued to sit vacant for another two years, completely unused. Not more than 300 metres away, there sits a decommissioned police station at 209 Mavety Street. It has been vacant for more than five years though efforts have been made by multiple arts/community groups to refurbish and reinvigorate the site for community benefit. These are just two cases of many. New regulations could be created at the federal level requiring more concrete, useful awarding of budget and space from developments to artists and/or community groups. Further, city staff could work to facilitate the communication and successful usage of these types of spaces so as not to squander the opportunities that they offer. From our perspective, in a space-starved city such as Toronto, it is a senseless waste to leave city-owned properties sitting vacant and inaccessible to the surrounding communities who are so desperate to put them to good use for many.
Finally, there is a lack of cultural policy to support these initiatives, and a lack of gatherings with the purpose of sharing information on this subject. Government should help bring together organizations in this field and should facilitate sharing of knowledge and building of community at local, provincial and national levels. Regular roundtables or online groups should be convened for this kind of information sharing. These could include administrators of creative and socially beneficial space, owners of property, and members of government. Just as we have no idea which properties are sitting vacant in our city, small towns may be clueless about potential sites that they could activate. Which old meat shops could become artist studios before a condo tower is built (referencing Akin's St Clair Studios built in a former butcher shop)? Which old warehouses could become affordable daycares for a few years? Which office space will sit empty when it could be a site for free, accessible public workshops and exhibitions? If we don’t know what we have in the public and private property stock, we can’t imagine and create positive uses for the space.
In summary, Akin has created a model for cultural hubs to thrive in even the most expensive areas of real estate and we see paths forward through federal support of ‘Meanwhile Leases’, a creative tax subclass that benefits renters over owners, and increased access to below-market rent in billions of dollars worth of government owned properties that sit unused across the country. We believe that cultural hubs such as Akin's eight locations are an integral part of city-building and we hope that the government’s role can be one of bravery and a willingness to look to other countries that support artists and creatives in more effective ways. We ask for revisions of current legislation to enable us to not only flourish in the arts, but to assist individuals and groups across a broader spectrum. As we have also mentioned, more opportunities to share and explore ideas and information is a necessity to protect, assist, and foster cultural hubs and cultural districts across Canada.
Thank you so much for the opportunity to be here today.
1 Kelly Hill. A Statistical Profile of Artists and Cultural Workers in Canada. Toronto: Hill Strategies Research Inc. 2014.http://www.hillstrategies.com/content/statistical-profile-artists-and-cultural-workers-canada#toc-28.
2 Murray Whyte. “Skyrocketing commercial rents purge reluctant artists from Toronto’s West End.” The Toronto Star. 23October 2016.
3 Doug Simpson. “Exceptions are not solutions: creating a special property tax class”. 2018. http://netgainpartners.com/blog/exceptions-are-not-solutions-creating-a-special-property-tax-class/
Akin is incredibly unique and widely celebrated for its ability to build community and foster a network of support among its artist membership and throughout Toronto's arts sector. Through the delivery of affordable studio production space and responsive, high-calibre professional development and creative programs, Akin provides crucial support and opportunities that benefit hundreds of Ontario artists every year.
- November Paynter, Director of Programs, Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto Canada
As cities like Toronto race to develop more residential and commercial space, artists and other creative workers are routinely being displaced and it has become both difficult and costly to find a space to create in. But Akin, an organization created and led by artists, is ADDING affordable studio space in prime areas of Toronto, and doing it productively and efficiently through creative city building by tapping an underutilized resource in the form of otherwise vacant space. Akin has come up with an ingenious and highly effective approach to utilizing both space and human capital to embed artists in the life of the city
- Ken Greenberg, Urban Designer, former Director of Urban Design and Architecture for the City of Toronto
It’s clear to us at Toronto Arts Council that Akin is a much needed organization. Akin currently provides critically needed, flexible and affordable rental space to hundreds of artists across the city. Run by artists who saw the need for space, Akin took the initiative to work with their community and with building owners to find solutions. Their growth is really remarkable; from one studio for a group of friends in 2008 to now nearly 27,000 square feet of studios in seven locations. Moreover, the unique nature of flexible rentals affords an artist to rent short term to produce for an upcoming show, or to rent long term as a permanent studio. The collegial nature of the studios allows for conversations to range from technique to taxes, from engaging curators to visit, to working on grant applications together. Given that demand for space is very high, Akin shows willingness to grow and evolve in its quest to help the arts community.
- Claire Hopkinson, Director and CEO, Toronto Arts Council, Toronto Arts Foundation
As a freelance visual artist, working in the city of Toronto for the last 9 years, Akin has been an indispensable and welcomed resource. Finding an affordable space to make art and meet other creatives in Toronto is a difficult task at the best of times and Akin has met this need for so many people. Their ongoing open critique series is also a critical resource for artists looking to get honest and helpful feedback about their work. It is this type of open engagement in dialogue that fosters a sense of community in our city and I applaud Akin for creating this much needed atmosphere and resource. It's rare to find a group with such heart and a drive to provide opportunities for the purpose of creating artistic community. I'm proud to consider myself part of the Akin community and excited to see the future of Akin in the coming years.
- Juliana Neufeld, Artist
“Working with Akin was a defining moment in my emerging career in the arts. With Michael and Oliver's tireless efforts, the "Forge Collaborative Workshop Series" helped me grow markedly as an arts administrator, building programming that would enrich the community and creating opportunities for the artist-facilitators of events to be paid fairly for their work. Akin is more than just a studio that offers events; it is a thriving ecosystem of creative workers that would not exist if not for the unflagging support and innovative endeavours that Oliver and Michael pour into it.”
- Jonna Pedersen, Artist, Akin Forge Workshop Leader