Since August 2022, when Moonshine Ink last reported on Truckee Artist Lofts, the affordable housing project has drawn closer to its identity as the artistic haven it’s intended to be.
Art shows are beginning to occur regularly on-site, and the journey of constructing and maintaining a modular-unit structure, though an educational one, is headed in a positive direction, said John Cicerone, president and owner of Egis Group, one of a couple of players in the ownership of TAL.
“When all those tenants come together as a community as opposed to just being tenants, then the building thrives,” he said.
“If people knew what was happening in this building, they would all be walking this direction,” said TAL resident Kristen Ambrose. “That makes me excited for the future.”
The opposite, however, is also true. Other residents consistently fear for their safety, are regularly dealing with plumbing issues, and often question what the future holds for their families while living at TAL.
“When you have a collective group of people that are upset, that’s not good for a community,” said Rebekah Masters, a Truckee resident since 2011 and artist currently living at TAL. “Good things don’t come from a large group of people that don’t feel safe and secure and [like] they’re cared about. We don’t feel like we’re cared about. And that’s, I think, probably the hardest thing. I think that that’s harder than having raw sewage come up into my bathtub 11 times.”
TAL is what it says on the tin: an affordable residential space for artists in Truckee. The genesis of the art-focused community came from the late Ali Youssefi, whose father, Cyrus Youssefi, is president of CFY Development, a developer and manager of the units.
“It’s taken longer to find our footing as an artistic community than what we thought,” Cicerone said. “And I think the goal of everybody and ownership, myself especially, is for TAL to succeed as an artist community where we as owners create a cooperative space that the artists can use to showcase their art and to express themselves.”
If people knew what was happening in this building, they would all be walking this direction.”
~ Kristen Ambrose
A sister artist lofts in Sacramento, the Warehouse Artist Lofts, also took time to hit its stride — about two years for the community to come together, said James Kinloch, a CFY regional manager, last year.
TAL is starting to get there. Just under two years after TAL began hosting residents (a miracle in itself considering the number of languishing affordable housing projects in the area), its inaugural First Friday was held May 4 and 5 at 9848 Donner Pass Rd. in the ground-floor east corner gallery, known as Gallery 9848.
“Our goals were to create a way for artists to show their art and essentially not be juried, not be judged, and not be given a fee to do so, which is not normal of art shows typically,” said Ambrose, part of the six-member TAL gallery committee that meets weekly. “… There’s so many ways that it can be prohibitive for a lot of artists to take that next step and try to sell something or to get eyes on it. We accepted everything from visual performance, spoken word, graphic design, everything. We put no limits on it and just wanted to see what would come out of it.”
Gallery 9848 doors will be open every first Friday of the month, from 4 to 7 p.m. Alpenglow Gallery, Art Truckee, and Piper J Gallery are unifying their advertising with the new spot “so that people will walk from Piper, who is at the far other end of town to the middle of town where Alpenglow is to the other far end of town,” Ambrose said. “That’s our goal.”
The gallery will be open during Truckee Thursdays and occasionally on Saturdays as well. More information can be found on Facebook at facebook.com/talartgallery, or Instagram, @TALartists. Those with questions or TAL residents who want to utilize the space can email email@example.com.
“The ball is in the court of the residents at some level, because the gallery is perched and ready and excited to open its doors,” Ambrose said. “Now it’s up to the 76 different units and the people who live there to take the next move … What’s important to me is to continue to let the residents know that everyone has equal access. Everyone can be either part of the committee at any time or just be a resident who puts the art in the gallery or becomes a gallerist and volunteers four hours a week to stand there and, you know, chat with visitors. I want them to know that essentially the sky is the limit and we’re ready for them to tell us what their dreams are.”
Local stigma and managing expectations
Community opinion has not been kind to TAL. During an April Town of Truckee council meeting, someone referred to the housing development as “Felony Flats” during public comment.
TAL resident Tamara Greenwood, born and raised in Truckee, has been wrapped up in multiple legal cases surrounding TAL; in one case she filed a restraining order against a neighbor (Craig Schaffer, who no longer lives there) who would harass her family “with fear tactics and escalating engagement in a confrontation,” she said.
More recently, Greenwood testified as a character witness for another TAL resident, Jordan Spohr, who was being evicted in reaction to an altercation with Schaffer.
“Sometime around my issues with [Schaffer], they interacted with my neighbor Jordan,” she recalled. “He had to protect himself when they instigated a fight … [Jordan] was given notice of a potential eviction due to defending himself when [Schaffer] instigated the confrontation and the judge ruled that it was self-defense and … TAL cannot evict him.”
Masters said she’s embarrassed to tell people where she lives because of such a stigma. “I’ll meet a mother at the park. ‘Oh, where do you live?’ I’m like, oh God, I want to lie right now. I want to feel secure and proud of where I live, and I don’t want the community feeling like we’re a bunch of riffraff. Yes, there has been a lot of riffraff here, but that it does not define everyone who is here. I am a local and I’m trying to raise my son and I don’t want to be looked at like I’m a piece of trash.”
We don’t feel like we’re cared about. And that’s, I think, probably the hardest thing. I think that that’s harder than having raw sewage come up into my bathtub 11 times.”
~ Rebekah Masters
Since current property manager Robert Bartevian took the helm last summer — the third to do so in a year — the situation in general has improved, residents say.
“I do think also he has done his best to remedy a lot of the faults that have happened here,” Masters said. “And previous managers didn’t do that. They gave passes to people who were messing up and causing ruckus here. [Rob] evicted a lot of people … Once those people were evicted, things did start to calm down. We used to have the police here every single day for months. I mean, it was embarrassing, frightening. That doesn’t happen anymore.”
Cicerone has been involved in those evictions and commented on the state of move-ins at TAL. He said the same credit policies and fair housing guidelines continue to apply. What seems to be the linchpin for approving new tenants is understanding the need for care services, he explained.
“Even though we haven’t really changed our background check in our underwriting standards, we are sensitive to trying — to the extent that we can within the Fair Housing guidelines — differentiate between applicants that will succeed in an independent living environment, and applicants that require the services that dependent living requires … which TAL does not provide,” Cicerone said.
Kristen Ambrose and her husband, Michael, have had a positive experience once they were able to move in. (For four months leading up to their move-in day, the Ambroses lived in their camper van next to TAL while waiting for the west tower to be complete.)
Since then, they have not had any plumbing or electrical issues in their apartment.
“If someone asks where I’m from, I’ll say, ‘Oh, we’re from the infamous TAL. But I have to tell you, it’s actually a really wonderful place,’” said Michael Ambrose, a landscape photographer who operates a self-titled gallery at the Tenaya Lodge in Yosemite National Park. “I’d rather be a spokesman for the place and have it be positive than not, because honestly, from our perspective, there’s absolutely zero to complain about. We even have quiet neighbors.”
That’s not to say his expectations have been perfectly met. Rather, they’ve shifted.
“We were under the impression that the entire [Truckee] Railyard project was going to be this thriving thing that was going to be all happening,” Ambrose said. “We were going to be walking down to [a grocery store] in the middle of a snowstorm for groceries. We were going to be enjoying concerts in the new amphitheater over here. And in my dream, I was gonna be opening a gallery in TAL and walk down to it. And the reality has been different.”
Doug Wiele, founding partner of Foothill Partners, a railyard developer, informed Moonshine that plans to open other structures are on the horizon. Phase one of Old Lumberyard, a restaurant and bar expected to begin construction in the next few weeks, and Market Square Truckee, a retail/mixed-use shopping district, are scheduled to open fall 2024 and fall 2025, respectively.
Masters, meanwhile, plans to start a blog, the TAL Diaries, thetaldiaries.com, sharing her experiences living there, the good and the bad. “This is for the community and myself to get the right story out,” she said. “I fear the backlash from the community, but at the same time, I hope that they kind of check themselves as each post comes out and believe what I’m saying … And then maybe check themselves a little bit about everything they’ve been saying since this place opened.”
‘The problem is the sewage’
Frustration by those at TAL is not just externally experienced. Similar to last year’s Moonshine Ink article, Growing Pains at the Truckee Artist Lofts, plumbing issues continue to plague residents.
Since she moved in at the end of July 2021, Masters has had sewage problems in her apartment 11 times. When she spoke with the Ink in mid-May, she was on day 24 and would ultimately spend 30 days not having access to a bathroom in her apartment, instead utilizing the one in the unit next to hers.
Greenwood has had her toilets replaced and as recently as February this year, had sewage coming out of her bathtub drain and under the toilet. Last month, she started to smell what seemed like gas in the hallway of her building. When Southwest Gas showed up to assess, she asked what the situation was: “They said, ‘We tested everything. It’s good. The problem is the sewage. What you’re smelling is sewage, not rotten smell, not sulfur smell. You’re smelling sewage.’”
Greenwood said TAL bought a snake machine for cleaning drains, so she knows the plumbing issues are not just limited to her and Masters, who live in different buildings.
Bartevian, TAL’s property manager, says that of the 77 units, seven over the past two years have had sewer issues. “No pattern to the problems,” he wrote in an email. “Two units on first floor, [the] rest on [the] second, third, and fourth floors randomly located in the two towers.”
Cicerone, who says he checks in on TAL on a weekly basis, is aware of isolated incidents since the doors first opened to residents: “Generally, in a multi-family project, issues deal with heating ventilation and cooling, plumbing, and electrical — those are the three sort of the primary areas. And there are a variety of different issues [at TAL] that have, to me, have been isolated incidences in each of the apartments that we’ve addressed.”
He added that staff reviewed the modular plans, which in general are built in vertical towers, and echoed Bartevian that there were no patterns with the issues.
“They had some plumbing issues, but since the units were manufactured off-site in Factory OS warehouses (I think in the East Bay), the town’s only real involvement was the assembly part on-site where they basically were snapped together when they arrived in Truckee,” wrote town Code Compliance Officer Caitlin Safford in an email. She added the town does not have any active code complaints against TAL.
Kevin Brown with Holliday Development, which built TAL’s modular units, said no plumbing concerns were noted at the Vallejo factory, either. “The work at the factory is under the jurisdiction of the State of California, and that work is inspected and tested before it leaves the facility to ensure it is code compliant and properly installed,” he shared.
Between the lines of living at the artist lofts is the information recently provided to residents, explaining that annual financial assessments were to begin occurring.
Five years ago, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 added a new restriction, or set-aside, for those building low-income housing projects, adding an average income test (AIT) “for unit income ranges between 20% and 80% of AMI if the overall average of the units at the property does not exceed 50% of AMI” (per the California Tax Credit Allocation Committee, CTCAC). At TAL, most of the 77 units are for those making 50% or less of AMI, and anyone making under 30% or over 80% of AMI doesn’t qualify.
AITs have been part of TAL since its inception, meaning the owners must provide detailed reports on the incomes of the building’s tenants — proof that those living in the low-income housing remain, in fact, low income.
“To meet those tests every year, we have to re-certify tenants so that we can submit the required reports to the federal and state agencies showing that TAL meets the AIT test,” Cicerone explained. TAL is Egis’s and CFY’s first AIT project, though it’s now widely used in the low-income housing industry.
Masters said during last year’s recertification, upper management in Sacramento told her that residents “‘would not have to keep re-certifying each year.’ So we are all a bit frustrated that we were told incorrect information.”
On what happens if a TAL resident starts to make more income than the unit’s associated AMI, CTCAC regulations stipulate that as long as one member of the initially qualified household remains in the unit, they don’t have to leave.
However, “the building must continue to meet [the] AIT 50% test,” Cicerone wrote in a later email. “If a household’s income moves a unit above the unit’s initially designated AMI, then to keep the building at the 50% AIT, the next available unit would have to lease at an AMI lower than [its] initial designation AMI.”
He added that there’s a lobbying effort nationally to change the requirement. “… It’s just an inconvenience to everybody. The other two programs [to qualify a project as low-income housing] only require certification at the initial move-in and after year one.”
While the housing project is on a seemingly upward trend, some residents face their future at TAL with wariness.
“I do feel grateful for a lot of reasons,” Masters said about living in the artist lofts community. “It’s just not what any of us thought it was gonna be.”