Artists' Lofts

The Elder Street Artist Lofts sold itself as a place for artists to live and work. So where are all the artists?

The city grew. People kept getting sick. The hospital was abandoned in 1938 in favor of the new Jefferson Davis Hospital on Allen Parkway, right down the street from the site of the third city cemetery.

And thus began the slow decline of the tall, forbidding building on Elder Street. Sitting on top of thousands of bodies, it housed a VD clinic. A psychiatric ward. A drug rehab center. It sat vacant, host to the homeless, to graffiti writers, to ghost hunters.

Built in 1924...
The City Book of Houston
Built in 1924...
...the Jefferson Davis Hospital was in a sorry state by the 1990s.
Wayne Lorentz
...the Jefferson Davis Hospital was in a sorry state by the 1990s.

"They do everything they can to scare people," says Luke Davis, a crew cut on his head and a green couch on his butt. He's not talking about the specters of all those still buried beneath the Elder Street building, although the place is said to be one of the most haunted in Texas. He's referring to Alpha Barnes.

Davis, himself a nonartist, came to the Press because he's moving out of the building. By the time this article hits the stands, he'll be in Florida.

But he leaves behind a laundry list of allegations:

Alpha Barnes does not encourage creativity, and artists are passed over on the waiting list so management can bring in its friends. Aaron Reece and Suzie Branch, both employees of Alpha Barnes and both nonartists, have taken up two of the building's 34 units. Reece constantly threatens tenants with eviction, keeping them on month-to-month leases to make their situations precarious. And when it comes down to it, there just aren't enough artists in the Elder Street Artist Lofts.

Davis is self-diagnosed as having "a Don Quixote complex," and he knows some of his complaints are kind of nit-picky, such as when he points out how the standard Texas Apartment Association lease he signed actually prohibits the use of the apartment for business, technically making it impossible, at least in his eyes, for the building's artists to treat their units as studios. And he's definitely a dude with a vendetta against the management, which tried to evict him earlier this year after there were some issues with his paperwork. (Both sides lawyered up and agreed to disagree.)

Many of Davis's complaints, however, are echoed by others in the building. "It's a clique-oriented management," says one artist. "If you're not in with them and the shit they do, there's not really much room for your voice to be heard."

When Suzie Branch got hired for on-site management in September 2006, other residents had applied for the job, says the artist. "Suzie and Aaron are, like, best friends supposedly, so when she got hired as management, it kind of threw everybody off," says the artist. "All of the applications that were put in were completely disregarded. Not one of us was ever called in for an interview. And this being on-site management, that also meant keeping the focus of this thing on the community that it is, you know, the artist community."

When the Press spoke with Mary Lawler, director of Avenue CDC, about some of these complaints, she said it was the first she's heard of them and deferred questions about management to Alpha Barnes. ArtSpace's press representative did the same. (A move which, when stripped down to its core, is not without irony: "Is it true Alpha Barnes isn't doing a good job?" "I dunno. You'll have to ask Alpha Barnes.")

Aaron Reece and Suzie Branch did sit down in the lobby of the Elder Street building for a meeting with the Press, and Reece answered further questions via e-mail, going through each issue in turn.

"I feel we've got a really good relationship with the tenants in this building," he says, noting the prevalence of art on the walls despite the lack of an official selection committee. He points to a gallery run by a wife-and-husband team in a downstairs unit and to a public sculpture soon to be erected on the building's back lot by a resident with the help of a Houston Arts Alliance grant.

As for the allegation Reece and Branch have passed up artists on the waiting list and stocked the building with their friends, Reece categorically denies it, saying, "I don't even know that I would want my friends living that close to me." Branch was the only tenant he knew prior to her move-in, he says, and neither has known any of the people who've moved in since. "Of course, by the very nature of being neighbors, acquaintances and friendships will be established," he says, but he swears nobody receives preferential treatment.

"Let me address that month-to-month deal with you too," he says. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development sets the maximum allowable rent for each unit, he says, but the actual rent listed on a tenant's lease has an allowance subtracted for utilities. This allowance has risen four times in the last two years, he says, so Alpha Barnes is hesitant to lock anyone in for a full year at a certain rate since the company anticipates the allowances going down in the future. In other words, keeping people on month-to-month leases isn't about intimidation, he says. "It's about economics, pure and simple."

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