DC’s painted doors depict growing demand for more affordable housing

A beautiful public art display depicts the ugly side of housing in America.

Public art display illustrates need for more affordable housing

WTOP's Rachel Nania

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WASHINGTON — For the last three years, artist Tim Davis has been transforming drawers, cabinets and other three-dimensional found objects into works of art to tell stories of immigration, mass incarceration and life in America.

So when the opportunity came knocking to illustrate another social justice issue on a 7-foot door, Davis didn’t hesitate. In just three weeks, the Arlington, Virginia-based artist put the country’s housing crisis on canvas.

“As artists, we have a responsibility to actually do things that make a difference,” said Davis, who teaches art and runs a gallery in Northwest D.C.

This fall, Davis was one of 11 artists selected by the nonprofit Make Room to depict, on a door, the rising cost of housing in the U.S. The doors were on display Sept. 13 through 28 in high-trafficked tourist destinations throughout the nation’s capital. Now, they reside in the main hall at the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria, Virginia.

Make Room President and CEO Ali Solis said the public art project was designed to raise awareness of the growing number of Americans who struggle to keep a roof over their heads.

“We have over 11 million households who have very high-rent burdens, meaning that they’re paying more than half of their income just to cover rent. And this disproportionately impacts people of color, but also women and children who are living in these households, as well as seniors and millennials,” said Solis, who added that recruiting artists to relay the message resulted in deeply personal narratives.

“Interestingly enough, artists have authentically struggled many times with housing affordability, particularly in the early part of their careers. So, we were hearing from artists who were submitting their own stories of their struggles of housing affordability.”

Rising rents, closing doors

For the last decade, cranes have been a permanent fixture in D.C.’s skyline.

Their towering presence serves as a reminder of the city’s strong economy, growing population and continued revitalization efforts. But to many, the ever-present construction is emblematic of a bigger issue: the lack of affordable housing.

It’s estimated that developers will add 9,500 new apartments to the D.C. area in 2018, alone. And with the modern floor plans and quartz countertops comes a hefty price tag: It’s not unusual for a new two-bedroom unit to start at $3,500 a month.

According to Rent Café, the average price for an apartment in D.C. is $2,072 a month ($2,532 for a two-bedroom and $2,669 for a three-bedroom), and a study from SmartAsset shows that renters need to earn a six-figure salary to afford a two-bedroom abode in the nation’s capital. (The city’s median household income is $75,506.)

Concerns surrounding affordable housing are not unique to D.C. In news articles covering San Francisco, the word, “housing” is almost always followed by “crisis,” and New York’s current supply doesn’t meet the growing demand for lower-cost living.

During Make Room’s citywide public art display, Davis’ black door with blue edging and multicolored, fragmented homes sat outside the National Building Museum and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

On Nov. 15, his door and the 10 others included in the project will be auctioned off at Make Room’s artist reception at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Davis hopes his door unlocks possibilities for a better future for more Americans.

“Hopefully it will be in a place where people will see it and understand it and it will make a difference,” he said.

“Now, will it change things? It remains to be seen. But I think art changes people, and that’s the main thing.”

“The Doors of Make Room” artist reception and live auction will take place from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Nov. 15 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Tickets are $150; more information is available on the event’s website.

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