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Mayor signs executive order to avoid displacement of artists

Mayor Catherine Pugh signed an executive order Tuesday that will allow artists to remain in their work and living spaces despite code violations, so long as the buildings "do not represent an imminent threat to life or safety."

At the recommendation of the Safe Art Space Task Force, Pugh said city officials will cooperate with property owners and tenants to correct code violations.

Jon Laria, co-chair of the task force, said the executive order was a "practical, short-term step" that reflects the task force's goal of creating "a cooperative effort among the city regulators, artists and owners of these buildings to try and maintain their occupancy."

Pugh formed the task force in December to create "safe, cost-effective" spaces for artists after the city's abrupt closing of the Bell Foundry, a Station North warehouse transformed into art studios.

City housing officials shut down the building after finding a variety of safety violations and evidence tenants were living in the building, even though it had not been permitted for residential use.

The Bell Foundry closing came days after a fire killed 36 people attending a concert at a repurposed industrial building in Oakland, Calif.

The closing sparked a debate between artists in the city, who said they couldn't afford better housing, and city officials who argued that public safety is the highest priority. Katy Byrne, a high-ranking housing official, described the Bell Foundry as a "tragedy waiting to happen."

Pugh's order said city agencies will avoid displacing tenants when possible, but "all code violations shall be cured within the time prescribed."

Baltimore musician Dan Deacon, a member of the task force, said any steps the mayor takes in ensuring artists aren't unnecessarily removed from their homes and workspaces is a positive development.

"It just takes one year of a situation like this to completely eradicate decades of cultural growth," Deacon said. "It's great to see City Hall is taking it seriously. It'll be interesting to see how it gets implemented."

Representatives of city agencies, including housing and the Fire Department, have said at task force meetings that they are not actively searching for noncompliant buildings, but have merely responded to residential complaints.

The task force will hold its final meeting on May 16, after which it will formally make recommendations to Pugh. Laria encouraged members of the arts community to take the task force's anonymous survey, at Responses from the survey will influence the group's recommendations, Laria said.

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