HOW TO GET A RENT-FREE SPACE
Most nonprofits, especially those with storefront spaces, will tell you that rent can be a burdensome part of the yearly budget. Very often it’s just unavoidable and you have to bite the bullet and pay rent — sometimes at market rates.
But below are some ways that various centers around the world have gotten around, or at least reduced, rent.
Space in Schools
Many writing centers have begun in schools. That is, a given school might set aside a space in which you and your team can operate a writers’ room. There are two distinct advantages to this model. First, the rent is free. Second, you’re able to serve all the students in a given school — especially those students who might not come to a separate writing center located outside their school. Forging a partnership with a local school, wherein they see the value in having a roomful of volunteers within their building, can be a fantastic way to begin. You might later get a second, standalone, space, but working within a school can be a wonderful way to do the work you’re hoping to do, and on a shoestring budget.
Space in New Developments
In many cities, for-profit developers wishing to build new housing have to agree to set aside some of their street-level space for community-benefit organizations. The new 826 Valencia space in Mission Bay is such a place. A developer has built a new apartment building — which will also house dozens of formerly homeless families — and as part of this new construction, they set aside part of the street-level retail space for 826 Valencia. 826 has a long lease and the rent is free. 826 has to do the build-out, but much of that expense was defrayed by charitable contracting companies, electricians, engineers and architects. If you meet and keep current with real estate experts in your city and local government, you might hear about a situation where nonprofits can benefit from this kind of set-aside arrangement.
This works well for everyone. Many working families send their children to the local branch library after school. They tell their children to walk from school to the library, and that they will be picked up from the library after the parents finish work. This creates an issue for many libraries, in that they have dozens of kids and not enough staff to supervise all of them. The Williamsburg branch of the Brooklyn Public Library had such a situation back in the early 2000s. Dozens of kids would come after school and would occupy all the computers, playing video games and being not-so-quiet middle-schoolers. The librarians asked 826NYC if they could help. A partnership was forged. The Williamsburg branch gave 826NYC a room in the basement of the building, which 826NYC converted into a beautiful superhero-themed tutoring space. Although at first the middle-schoolers still preferred to play video games, slowly they came to appreciate the advantages of getting all their homework done by 5pm, as opposed to procrastinating until 9pm. So the tutoring room got full and remains full and thriving to this day. Check with your local library. They might have space for you, whether it’s a room or a few tables. As with working inside schools, these are wonderful partnerships. And you get to work with some of the world’s best humans: librarians.
Every city has eccentric developers who want their buildings to have the right, or even odd, mix of tenants. Maybe they’re community-minded. Maybe they have just that right amount of weirdness where they want a strange-themed storefront as part of their property. But this has worked for many nonprofits in the past. Instead of renting to Domino’s or an enterprise that might go belly-up in a year, the landlord might prefer to give a long-term lease at a favorable rate to a nonprofit that will be there for the long haul.
Whatever you do, don’t assume that paying market-rate rent is a necessity. Look around. Talk to as many realtors and property owners as you possibly can. Someone will likely have an idea for you. And whatever you do, don’t sign a lease that will cripple your ability to operate. Be realistic about your fundraising capabilities, and how much you’ll be obligated to raise every month just to cover rent.