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The Art Of Housing

The Art Of HousingTufts graduate student Audra Ladd—a rare hybrid of artist and economist—is trying to make space in Somerville for the city’s artistic community through a prestigious public policy fellowship she received from Harvard’s Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [06.19.06] Sporting multicolored galoshes, dangly wooden earrings and a colorful paisley top, Audra Ladd looks the part of the free-spirited artist. But a slick business suit seems like equally fitting attire for the Tufts graduate student who has a plan to revolutionize Somerville's urban landscape this summer by carving out space in which the city's artistic community can thrive.

"I'm taking a look at the opportunity to develop an artist housing program," said Ladd, a graduate student in the urban and environmental policy and planning department. "There are quite a few artists that live and work in Somerville and I'm trying to identify opportunities for them to stay."

Ladd's work will be funded through a prestigious fellowship from the Rappaport Institute at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Ladd - the first Tufts student to receive a Rappaport Institute fellowship -was one of only 12 public policy fellows selected by the institute to spend 10 weeks this summer working in state and local government offices in Greater Boston. The goal of the fellowship, according to Ladd, "is to work on a problem that affects the public and try to find innovative ways to solve it."

"I'm really honored that [The Rappaport Institute] selected me; it was a very competitive process," admitted Ladd, an avid potter and painter with business smarts.

Arts and Smarts

With a background in economics and political science, she has done management consulting for large companies and non-profit organizations, including Women's Rural Entrepreneurial Network in New Hampshire-a job that sparked her passion for providing training and consulting to small businesses and entrepreneurs, particularly artistic ones. She has also worked for the Center for Women and Enterprise in Boston, helping artists, businesses, and entrepreneurs to get their businesses running smoothly.

Since 2005, Ladd, who describes art as her "creative outlet," has also served as director of Somerville Open Studios, a non-profit dedicated to increasing the public's exposure to local artists. For her fellowship, Ladd chose to tackle an issue she deals with everyday: Somerville's skewed housing-artist ratio. While the city-the most densely populated in New England-boasts an impressive artist population, the reality is that it faces a major housing crunch with limited space where artists can live and work.

"The creative class is a type of worker that many cities are trying to attract because they produce creative capital in a number of different industries," Ladd said. "[Artists] tend to innovate more quickly than other workers. Also they can help traditional businesses develop faster. I think that [Mayor Joseph Curtatone] has recognized this is something he would like to pursue."

In an effort to explore options to retain the city's artists and attract new blood, Ladd will spend the summer working in Somerville's Office of Strategic Planning. Although she said the city already does "great work," Ladd acknowledges there are some roadblocks to creating affordable artist housing.

"There are a couple of challenges with Somerville," she explained. "The housing stock is really two- and three-family homes, which isn't ideal for artists. The city doesn't have much funding for a program like this that would involve real estate development."

Giving Back

A more pressing issue is that even though Ladd sees firsthand the housing demand among artists in Somerville, there has never been a comprehensive study of the artistic community's needs. She hopes her work with the city will lead to this type of data collection.

"One potential outcome of this project could be a survey-based artist needs assessment that is sent out to the entire artist community asking them to prioritize what they most need: live/work space, work space, or commercial space."

After Ladd finishes her fellowship and issues a final report, Somerville residents may see other outcomes as well, including empty storefronts turning into galleries, garages becoming studios and municipal buildings converting into artistic incubators.

With plans to leave Tufts in the fall and fulfill her remaining degree requirements at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Ladd may not get to see the fruits of her labor. However, she is grateful for the opportunity to assist her fellow artists, while helping to improve one of Tufts' host communities.

"I'm really invested in this community," Ladd said of Somerville. "I wanted to stay here and give something back."

--Michaelann Millrood

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