Fact: It used to be much cheaper to live in San Francisco. The eras of our city's greatest cultural output (say the 1940s to the 70s) were also eras when rent was relatively cheap, and the more expensive rents get, the fewer artists who are going to be able to make a go of it here. A new project is launching called San Francisco Art Houses that hopes to address that dilemma, creating live-work spaces around the city that could be leased to artists for nominal rents.

The project is the brainchild of local writer and one-time Caffe Proust owner P Segal, and as she writes, "Cities need artists. This city lost a fortune of creative energy [in recent years]. Returning artists to San Francisco is like replanting native plants and reintroducing indigenous fauna, restoring a balance in the human biosphere." She points to the long-ago demolition of the Montgomery Block (pictured above), a building that survived the '06 earthquake and served as a refuge for artists including Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Robert Louis Stevenson, George Sterling, Jack London, Diego Rivera, and Frida Kahlo. What stands in its place now is the TransAmerica Pyramid.

She also makes the important observation that art that makes money tends to come only after many years of practice and struggle, unlike other ways of money-making. "The struggle to produce something marketable may take decades, while an artist matures and develops ideas," Segal says. "San Francisco has no place left for the unfolding of creative genius, except for the genius of brilliant commercial commodities that make fortunes."

Segal's concept is to raise money through private and/or corporate donors, and ultimately perhaps to find property owners willing to donate property for the cause of artist housing. (Sidenote: One of the last remaining similar types of buildings affordable to artists in the city, 1049 Market, has been embroiled in an eviction battle for the past year.)

She hopes to build enough support for the project that multiple, semi-communal live-work complexes can be established around the city, each one housing a community of professional artists. "I am tending towards the Westbeth model of rent," she tells SFist as her concept takes shape. "If you have a great year, you pay more rent the following year, but if you have a terrible year, you pay less. Someone who does very well would probably rather buy their own place elsewhere and create a vacancy." Otherwise, there would be no limit to how long an artist could reside in one of these buildings, but organized community participation would be required.

There would of course be an application process to get in, with peer review by other artists in one's medium.

She tells SFist, "This project is for people for whom art is a professional priority and not a hobby. Having a full time job doesn't make a second career in art secondary, by any means; it just means they have to work all the time."

A crowd-funding site may be in the works soon, but in the meantime Segal asks that any interested parties or potential donors to contact her via email.

Update: Here's the crowdfunding campaign, just launched, to raise a modest $2,500 in seed money.

[San Francisco Art Houses]