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As rents soar, arts groups say City Hall aid isn’t coming fast enough

The Rude Mechanicals theater company is about to end its 17-year run at its East Austin theater.

Blame soaring rents for bringing the curtain down.

“It’s kind of a beat-up old warehouse, but it’s ours, and it was our laboratory, and it’s where we could be creative,” said Madge Darlington, co-founder of the troupe, which works at the Off Center, just south of East Seventh Street. “That’s what makes it valuable to us, and we’re losing it.”

Half of the 230 arts and music organizations polled by the Austin Creative Alliance last summer said they fear losing their space when their current leases expire, due to skyrocketing rents. Rude Mechanicals, for example, saw its rent more than double — jumping 222 percent — over just two years, Darlington said.

Over the past nine months, City Hall has promised that help is on the way. Mayor Steve Adler called the situation a “crisis” in February. But artists and venues fear the help promised is insufficient and the city is moving too slowly to deliver it.

“It’s easy to say we’re going to save music,” said Mike Lavigne, a member of the Austin Creative Alliance’s board.

“Our concern is that every six months someone from the mayor’s office is going to pop their head up and say, ‘Don’t worry; we’re going to save (artists),’ and then people feel better about it and go back to what they’re doing,” he added, “and nothing happens.”

Advocates such as Lavigne are pushing for City Hall to provide direct financial assistance to struggling venues.

Specifically, they want utility bill rebates and the creation of a land trust, which would buy and hold venue sites to protect them from redevelopment and sharply rising rents or property tax bills. Both were included in the massive Music and Creative Ecosystem Omnibus package of proposals presented to the City Council in July, but so far they are unfunded.

The omnibus package came after last year’s Austin Music Census indicated that the “Live Music Capital of the World” was nearing a tipping point, with musicians and venue owners alike struggling to afford to live and do business in the city. That report included a survey of more than 100 venue owners and managers who said rising rents, razor-thin profit margins and declining cover charges were making it difficult to stay open.

The city budget passed in September included funding for a few proposals in the omnibus: $200,000 to create a “one-stop” permitting center for arts and music venues, streamlining a process that owners have long complained is too onerous; $200,000 for a rescue fund for venues; and $75,000 to help fund job training for musicians.

“We’re working on a number of fronts that we’re very excited about and we haven’t nearly begun,” Adler spokesman Jason Stanford said. “We’ve done more in less than a year to help the local music industry than has been done in this town for many, many years.”

The rebates and land trust recommendations arrived too late in the budget planning cycle to be included for 2016, Stanford said.

Adler recently announced a plan to raise $10 million in private money to purchase and preserve some local venues, but Stanford acknowledged that the mayor’s office is still working out the logistics and the program won’t be rolled out until the spring.

Separately, the council-backed effort to explore turning 9.4 acres of city-owned land in Southeast Austin into an affordable housing development for artists has stalled, as funding and a developer have yet to be found.

But Stanford insists the city is pushing forward. He pointed to the forthcoming announcement of five new tasks forces — focused on issues such as preservation, artist income and improving venue economics — to study implementing omnibus proposals and identify other possible solutions.

The news of new task forces is cold comfort to Lavigne and others, who view them as yet another delay to implementing the omnibus proposals that still await backing and funding from the City Council. Two recent efforts – the creation of a regional affordability committee and the Spirit of East Austin conversations about economic development — have so far led to few tangible results.

“Nobody spins their wheels like Austin,” Lavigne said.

The mayor’s office says it hears the criticism and is moving with all due speed.

“We understand their impatience, and we share it,” Stanford said. “We need everyone’s help on this; these task forces are not to delay the solution” but to help explore the best way to implement the proposed changes.

For Rude Mechanicals, it’s too late. Its landlord, the University of Texas, initially proposed increasing the company’s rent at the Off Center 380 percent, Darlington said. The group negotiated an increase of just 222 percent but had to surrender its options to renew the lease.

The company will leave its longtime space in May. It has not found a new home.

“As a state entity, the university has a financial responsibility to seek market rates for any property it owns,” UT spokesman J.B. Bird said in a statement.

The university said it plans to expand the charter elementary school it operates next door.

“It was artists that built this city, and that’s why everybody wanted to come here,” Darlington said. “And now, artists are getting pushed out.”

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