In a move designed to add a new layer of protection for artists who get kicked out of spaces deemed to be in violation of city building codes, Mayor Catherine Pugh today issued an executive order allowing officials to let artists remain in their buildings, so as long as their safety isn’t threatened.
The order says building officials and the city fire marshal, who are entrusted with checking buildings for code compliance, “may establish abatement and compliance plans between the City and the owners and tenants of existing buildings that do not otherwise comply” with existing building, fire and other types of codes. Plans “may only allow residents to remain in the building” if conditions “do not represent an imminent threat to life or safety,” the order says.
Pugh’s directive comes as a task force she formed in December is still hashing out a plan for creating safe and affordable living and working spaces for Baltimore’s many artists. The mayor launched the task force weeks after dozens of artists were evicted from the Bell Foundry, a once-celebrated DIY haven in Station North, with almost no notice following a building inspection.
Their evictions came shortly after a deadly fire at an artist space in Oakland killed 36 artists who had crammed into the building, though city fire initially officials denied any connection.
In the aftermath in Baltimore, many complained they were not offered any assistance by officials for where to go and weren’t let back into the building to claim supplies or other possessions.
(To date, only the Baltimore Rock Opera Society has been allowed back into its workshop on the first floor. Baltimore Housing has not issued any other permits for residents to live there.)
According to Pugh’s order, staying inside a building determined to be out of code must pose “no imminent threat to life or safety” for the artists living there. If officials decide the tenants must leave, as they did in the case of the Bell Foundry, they must now provide information on tenants’ “rights and duties to comply with local and state laws regarding landlord and tenant relations.”
Pugh’s order also says buildings must be brought up to code within a time prescribed by the fire marshal’s notice, or under the compliance plan reached between officials and owners or tenants.
One additional component that suggests a need for good faith: “City Officials will work in the spirit of cooperation with property owners and tenants to correct code violations.”
The group of bankers, developers, artists and other community figures that Pugh assigned to her task force has met roughly every couple weeks for the last several months, focusing on ways to design safe spaces, fund them through partnerships and work creatively within existing zoning and fire codes. Pugh’s executive order arrived hours before the group was set to meet for a sixth time.
Pugh’s spokesman Anthony McCarthy said on a phone call that the order “is just one piece of a very large puzzle. The mayor wants to see collaboration between all of the city’s agencies to ensure the priority is on safe and affordable housing for all artists in the city.”
Code violations are a reality, he said, but they “cannot be a hindrance to making sure that housing is available to our cultural and artist communities. That’s why now, that’s why the executive order, so that everyone is on the same page that this is a priority to this administration.”
The task force is still working on a set of recommendations to give to the mayor and her staff, McCarthy said.
The group has sought public comment from the city’s artists, including at a February meeting at the War Memorial Building downtown. While artists haven’t been turning out in as strong of numbers in recent meetings as they did at first, task force members have said the feedback has been very helpful.
Artists have spoken up about wanting to make sure they won’t be targeted by fire and housing officials or the housing department if given designated artist spaces. They’ve also proposed creating a system in which they could gain equity in buildings if they help fix them up.
The task force has been taking stock of the existing artist spaces around the city through a survey while also trying to keep the artists and their spaces anonymous, due to concerns from the artist community.
At the February meeting, some expressed doubt about working with the task force due to it being an extension of the city government. “It’s very hard for people to reach out for help when they’re afraid that the hand that feeds them is going to hurt them,” said electronic musician Dan Deacon, himself a task force member.
Several arts organizations have not returned requests for comment on Pugh’s executive order.
(If and when they do, this story will be updated.)
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