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In late October 2017, less than two weeks before New York City’s mayoral election, Mayor Bill de Blasio held a press conference at 475 Kent Avenue in Williamsburg, a former manufacturing building that is home to dozens of artists and other live-work tenants. “There’s gotta be a place in this city for people who are creative even if it doesn’t make them wealthy, and this is what we defend today,” he said optimistically.
Three months later, with no evidence of the city’s plan for defending them, tenants of 475 Kent Avenue, 58 Grand Street, 79 Lorimer Street, and other loft buildings came to the meeting of the New York City Loft Board to signal their frustration. Packed into a small hearing room in a nondescript building near City Hall this afternoon, some 40 protesters sat and stood, mostly in silence, brandishing signs accusing the Loft Board and the Department of Buildings of favoring real estate developers and landlords over tenants.
“The law itself was written to protect tenants’ rights, and that’s not always what you see happening,” Stephen Levin, the New York City Council Member who represents the section of Williamsburg where 475 Kent Avenue is located, told Hyperallergic after today’s meeting. “There needs to be greater transparency in the way the Loft Law rules are made and we need to have more active engagement from the Loft Board.”
Originally passed in 1982 by the New York State Legislature (and amended in 2010 and 2013), the city’s landmark Loft Law was intended to protect tenants, making it easier for them to bring former commercial and manufacturing spaces up to code and convert them to residential, rent-regulated units. However, according to Mayor de Blasio, the city has lost nearly 30% of its rent-regulated lofts over the past 15 years. According to many of the tenants of 475 Kent Avenue I spoke to on Thursday, dozens of the building’s 100-plus units now sit empty following a string of evictions since the building was sold last summer. Many loft tenants complained that the city does not act quickly or decisively enough to protect them, leaving them vulnerable to landlords who would rather force them out and raise rents.
“If things were going well, we wouldn’t be here,” Eve Sussman, an artist and tenant at 475 Kent Avenue, told Hyperallergic. Her home and studio was the venue for de Blasio’s press conference in October. “Tenants are the only ones who aren’t making money in this situation — landlords are making money, developers are making money, architects are making money, lawyers are making money — and yet the onus is on us to come out and protest and try to protect our rights.”
Still, Sussman remained hopeful that Mayor de Blasio would make good on the commitment to loft tenants that he voiced last October. “I want to believe the mayor’s people when they tell me the talks we’re having are productive,” she said. “I feel for him, because real estate interests give so much money to the city and he’s stuck between a rock and a hard place. But if you don’t actually want to help tenants, don’t make a show of saying you want to protect them.”
In spite of the protesters filling the room, the Loft Board meeting proceeded fairly swiftly. Early on, one protester was escorted out, ostensibly for blocking the view of the video camera recording the meeting. Executive Director Helaine Balsam recapped the board’s activities in 2017; Tenants’ Representative Chuck DeLaney asked about heating complaints during New York City’s recent cold spell, prompting a discussion of heaters and carbon monoxide detectors with the Board’s Fire Department Representative, Richard Roche. The Board then voted on a number of cases involving loft buildings in Lower Manhattan, North Brooklyn, and Dumbo. When the meeting concluded, protesters unfurled a large orange banner proclaiming: “Preserve Live-Work Homes.” The mood remained cordial despite the crowd’s obvious frustrations with the Board’s activities.
“A lot of the problems with the Loft Law — not all of them, but a lot — were created by some of the mean-spirited and exclusionary rules that were introduced to the 2010 amendment at the last minute,” DeLaney told Hyperallergic after the meeting. “For years the Loft Board meetings would happen and there would be nobody in the audience, so people coming out and taking notice is very important in making the Board more responsive.”
The next public meeting of the New York City Loft Board is scheduled for Thursday, February 15 at 2 pm at 22 Reade Street (Tribeca, Manhattan).