In the shadow of the McKibbin Lofts, tenants walk to a meeting hosted by Assemblyman Vito Lopez about the effects of the Loft Law. — Photo by Aaron Short)
A month has passed since Governor Paterson signed the Loft Law extension, and two noticeable effects have occurred. Artists are clamoring for more explanations about how the law will apply to their specific living situation. And some loft tenants believe the new law played a role in visits from city inspectors.
Last week, artists living in a two-story Clinton Hill loft, known in underground circles as the host of Rubulad parties, were briefly vacated by the FDNY, which responded to complaints of illegal parties. Rubulad artists invoked the consequences of the Loft Law as one of the reasons why the building was targeted, though several governmental sources insisted that this was not the case and the building had a long history of violations.
Either way, the response from city and state representatives was almost immediate, particularly Assemblyman Vito Lopez and Councilman Steve Levin, and city buildings inspectors tamped down additional reviews of loft buildings.
Lopez and Levin, meanwhile, have been dealing with loft tenants’ concerns. The pols hosted a town hall forum at Our Lady of Pompeii Church — neighbors to the infamous McKibbin Lofts "hipster dorms" — for area artists to have their questions answered by Loft Law experts and Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council (RBSCC) attorneys.
Landlords will have six months to register illegally converted industrial lofts with the city, or face heavy fines, up to $17,500. It remains unclear how much of the costs of building upgrades will be passed to existing tenants.
In the past few days, another round of articles have come out about the effects of the Loft Law, including a piece in the New York Times which interviewed a Bushwick artist and a Greenpoint artist about their apartments.
Feedback from the artists interviewed in the piece was cautiously optimistic, which was similar to the reaction at Lopez’s meeting.
The 150-person crowd consisted of many long-time artists in the neighborhood who were grateful for the additional rental protections the Loft Law would provide.
Usually town hall meetings are called to drum up support before significant legislation, such as health care reform or a development project, is voted upon, but Lopez reversed this forum, seeking to inform constituents and hammer home a few political points for good measure.
The most blatant example? Lopez and Levin aides circulated copies of a letter signed by Councilwoman Diana Reyna, Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, Congressman Jerrold Nadler, and Councilman Brad Lander, opposing the Loft Law because of its negative effects on Brooklyn’s rapidly vanishing manufacturing sector.
Lopez pitted these concerns as political opposition to the interests of Williamsburg’s artists — his constituents.
"They say none of you work… you have a job and a half," said Lopez, adding later, "You read the blogs, that this is a new issue, I’m doing it for votes… [The argument that] manufacturing jobs are coming back. It’s delusional."
Most of the questioners avoided politics entirely, mixing effusive praise for Lopez’s long-time advocacy on behalf of tenants with specific questions to their living conditions. One artist even admonished a colleague for pointing out that the Loft Law could displace artists in Bushwick just as artists were priced out of SoHo in the 1980s and DUMBO in the 1990s.
Lopez’s response was less direct but more practical.
"The question here is so outrageous," said Lopez. "This law will protect people who want to be protected. This is not going to come in and destroy manufacturing. This is a bill that gets you protection. This is a good bill that protects people in this room who live here. I haven’t seen manufacturing come in for 45 years. Can I make the bill better? I would have loved to. Would that have passed? No."
Questions ran the gambit from simple requests such as why loft tenants need a lawyer to complicated queries about limited liability corporations and subleases after a loft is subdivided. (Answer: A lawyer will understand how the Loft Law will apply to all those situations).
A number of questions were not raised, regarding the eligibility of lofts with active heavy manufacturing occurring inside some units and the costs that tenants would be responsible for during a building’s upgrades in order to meet city safety codes.
Laura Braslow of local arts organization Arts in Bushwick was disappointed the meeting did not address these issues instead of swerving into political topics that often did not relate to artists’ concerns.
"I hope important questions like these will eventually be addressed, so this law can really work for us," Braslow told the Greenpoint Gazette.
Still, she credited legislators and tenant advocates present for their efforts.
"If it were just politics, they wouldn’t do all this outreach and get people into the Loft program," said Braslow. "They’re not just passing a bill to pass a bill. There’s more going on there for them. They actually do want to get protections [for loft tenants]."
It was the experts who brought some subtlety to the discussion.
Loft Board member and photographer Chuck DeLaney, a member of the body that will ultimately have the most influential role in how the law will be enforced, noted that landlords were more of a concern for tenants than industrial businesses or rival politicians.
"Lofts in Manhattan in the 1980s were goldmines, but the only thing about that was that landlords wanted to get that piece of dirt, you, out," said DeLaney. "Having you here is a lot better for manufacturing than having the people who would replace you through gentrification."
And attorney David Frazer, whose firm has represented hundreds of loft tenants in legal disputes, anticipated an increase in tenant harassment as a consequence of the Loft Law as tenants and landlords will argue about the price of rental increases before rent stabilization kicks in.
"Whatever relationship you have with your landlord is going to be very different this day forth," said Frazer. "Now, landlords are going to start spending some very real money. It’s going to be very costly to legalize. Landlords are not going to want to spend that money. The easiest way to do that is to get rid of tenants, and you’re going to have to start looking for ways to protect yourself."
Lopez and tenant advocates understand this is a process which will unfold over several years. While Lopez and his allies are sensitive to any criticism of the Loft Law — perhaps Lopez’s most significant legislative accomplishment this decade — political observers such as author and sociologist Nicole Marwell believe Lopez and RBSCC’s motivations are more complex.
"[Ridgewood Bushwick] is providing a service that they’re funded to do in some way and to the extent that they reach a new constituency, that’s the overlay of politics and service provision in the city’s nonprofits," said Marwell. "Surely they understand the politics to it, but is it some nefarious plot? No. Part of the business of RBSCC is to help tenants dealing with rental harassment."