TechShop, a shared small-scale industrial workspace in Detroit. TechShop Detroit

A new movement seeks to extend the “co-working” model into small-scale manufacturing to benefit low-income workers.

While solving America’s affordable housing conundrum is a priority concern, there’s another dimension worth heavy consideration for low- and moderate-income workers, especially in trying to close wealth gaps: Affordable work space.

There are existing start-up incubators, where enterprising creatives can set up their Surface tablets and Mac laptops on shared desks in communal offices. But what about those who trade less in tech and more in tangible wares, like producing end tables, lamps, and ottomans—the kinds of furniture techies use while dreaming up their next big things? Those folks need work space, but there are few options available for buying or leasing below market-rate prices.

Enter the “maker space,” shared spaces for industrial work, where people can also access shared tools, supplies, and materials. Some even offer classes and trainings to help workers sharpen their craft skills and business acumen.  

Ilana Preuss, founder of Recast City, thinks of these spaces as “gymnasiums” for tinkerers and hobbyists who dream of owning their own businesses. Preuss has been working with cities and real estate developers on ways to grow this small-scale manufacturing sector as a way of fostering growth in job diversity and overall affordability, especially in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.

“When you look at low-income communities and immigrant populations, there might be families with histories of home-based businesses where they just sell bits and pieces of items here and there,” says Preuss. “What if they had a space where they had access to tools, and could take business-development classes in their own language, and were paired with someone who can help get their business running on Etsy?”

There are, of course, people who already run craft-based businesses from their homes. But if they have limited disposable income due to low wages at their day jobs, what little funds they can direct to their products get eaten up by the cost of tools and supplies—minimizing or zeroing-out profits. Using maker spaces allows them to get around more upfront costs and expand their profit margins.

“This could be a path for people who are trying to get out of low-income housing, and also an opportunity for them to build their own wealth, says Preuss.

A few models already exist: There’s The Baltimore Foundery, a nonprofit that provides access to industrial-grade tools and workshops for communities in East Baltimore communities. And the Artisan’s Asylum in Somerville, Massachusetts, also a non-profit, where members can pay $60 a month for weekend access or $150 a month for unlimited workspace time. There’s also the for-profit Tech Shop, which has locations in eight cities, with two more planned for St. Louis and Los Angeles. At a recent conference in Washington, D.C., hosted by the LOCUS and Smart Growth America, private developer Dennis Allen endorsed the idea while discussing the Zidell Yards project he’s helping to build in Portland, Oregon.

What Preuss is focused on now is not only helping cities and developers understand the social equity benefits these maker spaces can create, but also helping them come up with creative ways for financing these spaces. There are a mix of financial instruments available for building affordable living spaces, but far less for affordable work spaces. New market tax credits are one example of a subsidy developers could use, says Preuss, as well as cross-subsidization measures like placing high-end office spaces in the same building as low-cost production spaces.

Some cities are already buying in, like Indianapolis, which just helped launch the Circle City Industrial Complex, which features a 30,000-square-foot section dedicated to incubating small-scale manufacturing businesses. The Portland Development Commission recently put up $3.2 million in grants and loans to launch Portland Mercado, perched in a 7,000-square-foot building where local Latino residents hope they can preserve and improve a couple of home-grown businesses in the community.

That’s the idea: Bottle the creative lightning that already exists in low-income communities so that people don’t get pushed out and priced out when large-scale community redevelopment encroaches. Instead of waiting for a barrage of shiny, new fitness chains to come take up space in these communities, this model gives communities ownership in a different kind of gym—the kind that shapes lives.

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