Imagine a downtown artist’s loft with brick walls, sunlight streaming through tall, arched windows, space that measures in the four-digit range, and a three-digit rent. The tenants may not be rich in the stocks-and-investments sense, but as far as real estate goes, they’re loaded. In this town of tub-in-the-kitchen tenements and smaller-than-a-shoebox studios, wealth can be calculated in square feet, closets are currency, and loft-dwellers are the ultimate conquerers of space.
But these days, city artists are worried that, any time now, they could be robbed, and by the state legislature no less. That’s because the loft law, which allows them to live and work in commercial spaces, expires on June 30. Originally passed in 1982 and renewed periodically since, the law must be reenacted by the state legislature to be effective. But the law’s late June end date has thrown it smack into the middle of a protracted and heavily political state budget battle and has turned the housing law into what Albany Republicans have called “a secret weapon” to force pro-loft Democrats into supporting GOP issues.
As of this writing, the loft law has not been renewed and is expected to limp along on short-term extensions until the budget is resolved. But while the law’s tenuous status makes loft-dwellers nervous, it’s not expected to be scrapped altogether. Says Bill Hall, a sculptor and cochair of the Lower Manhattan Loft Tenants group, “I have every reason to believe [Democratic Assembly Speaker] Shelly Silver,” whose downtown district includes most of the city’s 835 loft buildings, “will make sure it happens. It just takes time.”
The law is not only tangled up in Albany politics— with Senate Majority Leader Republican Joe Bruno holding it hostage to GOP budget demands and Governor George Pataki trying to leverage it to force things like extended cuts in Medicaid— it is also entwined in the ambitions of power brokers. First, there’s the partisan skirmishing between Silver and Bruno (who waged the famous 1997 Albany attack against rent laws). Add the war between Pataki and Mayor Rudy Giuliani— two Republicans competing for national attention. “Anything Rudy wants, Pataki won’t do,” says one loft tenant. “With all the ambitions and egos, it’s hard to call.”
Loft landlords are trying to use the window to loosen the law and have drafted a bill— which still lacks a sponsor— that could effectively force half of the city’s 10,000 loft tenants out by removing buildings that dedicate less than 51 percent of their gross square footage to residential lofts. Sources say the draft is unlikely to go anywhere. Tenants have a bill, passed in the Assembly, that would extend the law until 2004.
While the loft battle surfaces periodically in Albany, another conflict simmers more regularly here in the city. Artists argue that they could not afford to live here without the privileges extended by the loft law, which allows for residential and studio use of commercial spaces and keeps rents low while landlords bring buildings up to housing code standards. But that argument is irritating to many nonartist tenants who pay sky-high rents for tiny apartments and who would just as soon paint or sculpt instead of working tedious jobs to pay the rent.
“There is an awful lot of resentment because the housing market is so unfairly checkerboarded in this city,” says Sharon Zukin, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College and author of a book on loft living. “The laws dispose people to a dog-eat-dog mentality. Of course, it’s the owners and developers who have a major share of the benefits.”
Indeed, a simple Saturday saunter through Soho or Tribeca shows that loft districts settled by artists decades ago have transformed neighborhoods from desolate warehouse districts to overcrowded shopping strips, with property owners as the ultimate winners. More plainly, artists act as a social detergent for developers, moving in and cleaning up forgotten neighborhoods until they become livable and finally attractive to nonartists. In the end, the neighborhoods become so hygienic, artists who are newcomers can no longer afford to live there. (Only commercial buildings that were occupied by residential tenants from 1980 to 1981 are covered by the loft law, and no more are coming on line.)
“The role of artists is sort of a double-edged sword because their presence made the way they live an attractive commodity itself,” says Zukin. “Lofts became desirable to nonartists, partly because the media, like New York magazine and The New York Times, were eager to break the news to their readers about a new chic way to live. The development of loft districts was the beginning of using culture as an economic development strategy. The ability to turn these abandoned industrial spaces into something else that looked cosmopolitan and sophisticated really gave a big cue to cities about the future importance of gentrification and attracting certain parts of the middle class.”
In fact, in a 1977 New York Times article, Zukin warned against efforts to create loft zones in Soho and the Garment District, warning that such a move “represents a costly travesty of heterogeneity that will produce, at best, a copy of the [then recent urban] renewal of the Upper East Side. We will see yet another quarter of monolithic, high-rent residences and shops, surrounded by drastically reduced ‘ethnic’ and ‘atelier’ zones.”
Soho’s current consumer culture proves Zukin right. “When you have a neighborhood with multiple branches of Louis Vuitton, cosmetic stores, and consumer goods, it’s really quite something different,” Zukin said in a recent interview. “It’s not a local neighborhood anymore, and it’s not an artists’ group anymore. It’s an urban mall, and I don’t know whom to blame for that. The loft movement turned into a market a long time ago. It still has the cachet of a movement, but not much spirit.”
Bill Jordan, a photographer who has lived on Lower Broadway for 22 years, calls his neighborhood’s commercial explosion “a mixed blessing. I’m ambivalent because I don’t like the crowds, but the larger-scale stores are— someone will kill me for saying this— more stable” than smaller shops that once populated his Broadway block but that have now been replaced with chains like Old Navy, Banana Republic, and Club Monaco.
Longtime loft-dwellers themselves have mixed feelings about the evolution. “As far as people being resentful that we have big spaces for low rent, what can I say?” asks sculptor Hall. “These neighborhoods were created by artists who needed space for their studios, and it’s difficult to be apologetic. At the same time, I understand. You’d have a hard time moving to Tribeca now even if you were a stockbroker. The loft prices are unbelievable.”
Research: Nellie Abernathy