The affordable housing crisis in Sarasota-Manatee, illustrated in a photo exhibit

When photographer Susan Sidebottom set out to document the affordable housing crisis — amid reports of skyrocketing rents, low housing stock and shortages of building materials — one thing occurred to me. spirit: people.

More than anything, Sidebottom, 53, wanted to capture the essence of locals in this struggle to keep a roof over their heads. And she knew Florida was where she wanted to do it.

Sidebottom, originally from rural North Carolina and now based in New Jersey, had long thought about tackling this problem, drawn to Florida for its pivotal role in the 2008 housing crash.

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During her research, she chose Sarasota as the site for her project, finding a powerful mix of factors: a great shortage of affordable housing, huge demand, and a huge influx of people moving here to settle in “this idyllic place. says – to find “their place in the sun”.

After almost a year of work, that’s what she’s decided to name her next photo exhibition – “A Place in the Sun” – which will be held at the Art Center Sarasota from March 17 to April 30.

At the heart of his photo project are people who work hard but “are being left behind in terms of affordable housing,” Sidebottom said.

“There are others here who are looking for that and working on it,” she said. “They see the area as a place where they can do that, but they struggle more because of the lack of affordable housing and other necessities.”

As Sidebottom investigated the area, she encountered a welcoming nonprofit community working aggressively to address housing challenges. The Gulf Coast Community Foundation referred her to other agencies, primarily Harvest House, who introduced her to the individuals and families she serves.

“I focused on the people and presented the issue through the people,” Sidebottom said. “I could never claim to be an affordable housing expert nationwide or in Sarasota.”

Still, Sidebottom, who grew up in rural North Carolina with extended family members dealing with substance abuse and prison issues, was aware of how overwhelming a situation could become.

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“I know when people work hard and apartment prices are sixty to seventy percent of their income, they’re not going to make it,” she said. “They’re always going to be on services because they can’t do it on their own, earning a salary that’s not a living wage… It doesn’t work. The calculations do not match.

Sidebottom has spent her career photographing “working poverty” as she describes it – including a recent project on the food insecurity plaguing Iowans, despite the state being the national breadbasket of the production of soybeans and corn.

She was the recipient of the National Council on Aging’s 2020 Award of Merit for her photographic work on homebound older adults and won grants for her project titled On the Edge: Homeless and Working Among Us.

With “A Place in the Sun,” Sidebottom sought to illustrate the affordable housing crisis through the people caught in its grip, spending days and weeks getting to know them past this difficult time in their lives.

“There are a lot of things we talk about, not just their struggles, because I care about them and understand them as a person outside of their challenges,” she said.

Sidebottom strived to portray their humanity, telling their stories through the spaces they occupy – their hopes and their individuality, showing that they are more than this moment of pain.

“I want to present them with grace and dignity, and an appreciation for what they’re going through,” she said.

Sidebottom’s exhibit was underwritten by the Gulf Coast Community Foundation. A portion of the proceeds from the exhibit will go to Harvest House, a non-profit organization that provides affordable and supportive housing programs, as well as comprehensive services for individuals and families.

Harvest House COO Shaelina Holmes watched Sidebottom at work and the transformation that took place on customers’ faces when they saw themselves portrayed in his photos.

“They lit up. They felt seen, they felt heard, and frankly, they felt beautiful, because they are,” Holmes said.

Very often, Holmes said, Harvest House clients have social experiences that drive them to despair — experiences for which they are blamed, from traumatic childhoods to the current housing crisis.

They end up feeling trapped and defined by those circumstances, she added, which is why it was so captivating to watch them see themselves in a new way, from the other side of Sidebottom’s lens.

“I saw one of the customers receive the framed photo. She now saw herself as beautiful, as Susan did,” Holmes said.

“A Place in the Sun”

From March 17 to April 30. Art Center Sarasota, 707 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. 941-365-2032;

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