New York

A People’s History of NYC’s Jeopardized Loft Law

As Albany considers amending the landmark affordable housing law, here’s a look back at its creation

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In the minds of most New Yorkers, a rent-stabilized loft is a Holy Grail you’d need a time machine to access.

But as it turns out, there’s a law on the books that can create rent-stabilized lofts with the stroke of a pen. It’s helped keep thousands of New York artists in the neighborhoods they love and slowed the march of gentrification. It also can turn preexisting spaces into rent-regulated housing.

State lawmakers are considering an update to the Loft Law, which was first passed in the early 1980s. Depending on how negotiations in the Democrat-controlled Assembly and Republican-run State Senate go, affordable live/work spaces for New York’s artists, and affordable housing in general, could suffer a devastating blow.

The Loft Law was created in the late 1970s as the city was grappling with economic disaster and the loss of its manufacturing industry, which left hundreds of buildings empty. Landlords were happy to rent these buildings to artists seeking cheap places to work and live. As Chuck Delaney, tenants’ representative on the Loft Board (which supervises loft conversions), put it: “The artists were kind of like hermit crabs that found these empty shells and came and settled in them.”

By the time the initial five- and ten-year leases on these spaces began running out, neighborhoods like SoHo and Chelsea were becoming hip and desirable. Landlords began jacking up the rent.

In an effort to stay in the spaces in which they’d invested considerable time and money, artists began asserting their rights. Back then, if a landlord was found to be knowingly renting manufacturing space to residential tenants without the appropriate certificate of occupancy, he could neither evict the tenants nor collect rent.

This meant tenants could stay in their spaces indefinitely, provided they didn’t mind living in illegal deathtraps.

As David Frazier, a housing attorney specializing in tenants’ rights, notes, the 1982 Loft Law came into this climate as “kind of a grand bargain” between tenants and landlords.

If three or more units in a building were shown to have been continuously inhabited for twelve months during the eligibility window of 1980–1981, the landlord was obligated to bring the building up to code. (The tenants could also be asked to kick in some money toward this.) Landlords also received the right to collect rent, albeit according to rent-stabilization guidelines.

Tenants received a safe, rent-stabilized dwelling and all the rights that came with official tenancy, including heat, hot water, and not having to wheel their appliances into the closet when city inspectors came by.

Between the original 1982 law and a 1987 update, roughly 900 buildings encompassing up to 6,000 units became covered. About 700 of those buildings have since been brought up to code. The law has been periodically extended by the state legislature, usually in exchange for something Republican lawmakers wanted.

In the 1990s and 2000s, artists began moving to formerly industrial areas not covered by the original law, and the window of eligibility began to make things tricky for those seeking coverage. In response, a group spearheaded by the late Assemblyman Vito Lopez updated the law in 2010 with a new window of eligibility (2008–2009), new zones of coverage (Brooklyn and Queens), and additional protections.

“It’s helped me stay in the neighborhood, which I could definitely no longer afford [otherwise],” says filmmaker Zefrey Throwell, who’s lived in his East Williamsburg space since 2008. “When people talk about gentrification, this is directly what we are fighting. We are fighting to keep people in neighborhoods.”

Filmmaker Paul Wilson is a second-generation loft dweller who moved into his filmmaker wife’s Williamsburg space in 1999. He says the law made it easier to raise three kids there.

“The year my son was born — he’s fifteen now — you could see your breath inside in the winter. It was so cold you didn’t want to shower,” Wilson said.  “Now it’s fully decent housing.”

The Loft Law has also had increased the safety of the buildings, an issue that recently received national attention with the December 2016 fire at the Ghost Ship DIY space in Oakland, California, that killed 36 people.

“I think the main reason we haven’t had a Ghost Ship here is the Loft Law,” Frazier said. “As imperfect as the implementation has been, it has resulted in basic health and safety issues being addressed. It enables the city to know where people are, so if there’s a fire, they can take the appropriate response.”

Even so, the Loft Law has loopholes and is perpetually in danger of expiring or being amended.

When the Loft Law was updated in 2010, then-mayor Michael Bloomberg pushed through amendments designed to restrict the number of units eligible for coverage. For instance, while a lack of windows or basement location was once treated as a compliance issue for landlords, units with either are now excluded outright. He also got many of the city’s industrial business zones axed from eligibility (although notably not most of North Brooklyn and Long Island City), added an application deadline, and put sunsets on the new protections. (The latest deadline passed on June 15, 2017, and has yet to be extended.) Bloomberg justified these new restrictions by saying he was trying to protect the city’s remaining manufacturing industry.

The Bloomberg exclusions, as they are called, left out hundreds of units that would previously have been covered, including the long-running art space The Cave. Founded by Japanese-born artist Shige Moriya in 1996 and run in conjunction with Colombian multidisciplinary artist Ximena Garnica since 2004, the Williamsburg live/work space is a well-known hub for visual art, theater, dance, and community events like block parties. When the pair applied for Loft Law coverage in 2014, their landlord opposed them on the basis of the law’s new “exterior window” rule, which requires that all spaces have at least one window that faces a street.

While The Cave has a front wall built out of cinderblocks that contains windows to the street, the landlord’s legal team argued these were “internal windows,” as they are recessed from the front of the building by thirteen inches. Moriya and Garnica are still awaiting a decision from the Loft Board on whether they can keep their home of 21 years.

“The law as it’s written right now is a platform for massive legislative battles,” Garnica said. “I really thought the Loft Law was something that was going to protect us and bring our place to health and safety standards, and we were all going to be out of the shadows.”

Her own legal battle inspired Garnica to get involved in the current fight to change the law.

Along with the other members of the New York City Loft Tenants association, she has frequently gone to Albany to lobby state lawmakers to pass a measure called the 2017 Loft Law Clean-Up Bill, or Bill 8409, often wearing the “symbolic art” of homemade window costumes.

Sponsored by Manhattan Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, the 2017 Loft Law Clean-Up Bill would get rid of the Bloomberg exclusions and remove the application deadline. It would also add a new period of eligibility encompassing January 1, 2015, to December 31, 2016. It doesn’t contain everything tenants were asking for — for example, the rent increase milestones and reduced size requirements added in 2010 still sunset in 2019 — but it’s a start.

Brooklyn Assemblyman Joe Lentol, a co-sponsor of the bill, said he wants to do right by New York City artists.

“These are struggling artists who may be painting the Picassos of the future, and may have better sculptures than we’ve seen since Michelangelo,” he said. “They deserve our help, just like any interest group….The rents are already too damn high!”

Lentol is unsure of the bill’s chances, and believes it will have a hard time in the State Senate, where Republicans maintain their razor-thin majority thanks to a group of breakaway Democrats.

“A lot of the Republicans in the senate are more landlord-oriented than they are tenant-oriented,” he said. “They don’t look at the big picture of tenants losing their homes and being out on the street.”

Melissa Grace, a spokeswomen for Mayor Bill de Blasio, said in an email that “the mayor is committed to ensuring we have safe housing options for all New Yorkers, and we are working closely with leaders of the Assembly on this bill.”

While it seems unlikely that the Loft Law will be killed outright — upstate Republican Betty Little has already introduced a competing bill in the Senate that is just a “straight extender” with concessions to landlords — how it will change is far from certain.

With just a few days left in this legislative session, Lentol said it’s crucial for concerned citizens to call or write their representatives to support the bill.

“People who care about keeping gentrification at bay really have to call their Assembly members,” Garnica said.

“New York is an ecosystem,” she continued. “Live/work spaces are one part of this big ecology that makes [New York] multicultural and multidimensional and exciting, and, as people used to say, the capital of the world. We need all these different parts for an ecosystem to be alive and vibrant.”

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