A lifelong New Yorker, I have long equated loft spaces with living the real estate dream. The raw, yet well-partitioned apartments–not to mention what I, as a kid, perceived to be the impeccable taste of the people who dwelled in them–were my absolute ideal.
When I moved into a Bushwick loft in 2007, I thought I was made. Even as my soon-to-be roommates and I made the first visit to what would become our new home, I remember whispering, “Wow, we could actually get to live here?”
Two credit checks, one large security deposit, and lots of boxes later, we moved in. True, our lease was commercial, our windows were right above the loading dock, and only two out of three bedrooms were finished. That didn’t prevent most of my friends from remarking on how spectacular our place was. People asked us if there were other available units in our building. We joked about our illegal apartment. We felt cool.
In the Bushwick of 2007, “loft law” was a mysterious code word, a secret that explained how tenants in TriBeCa and SoHo had maintained their now glamorous spaces since the more relaxed real estate days of the ’70s. The initial New York City loft law was passed in 1982. It offered protection again substandard living conditions, unfair rent increases, and unreasonable eviction to tenants in previously commercial spaces.
In other words, the loft law created legitimacy for what would ultimately become an incredibly lucrative real estate development: turning formerly industrial spaces into residential ones. For people who moved in after the set tenancy period, there was no rent stabilization whatsoever. The now legal spaces could be rented out at or above market value, based on demand, and the associated cultural capital of living in them.
I am not the only person who finds loft spaces amazing. Even if the city turns every unused industrial building into legal residential spaces, the demand for loft apartments will still be greater than the supply. Loft conversions, while they do make brilliant use of underutilized real estate and create more housing in a time when it is needed, have long been linked to cycles of gentrification that are at best too rapid, and at worst, devastatingly harmful – not only to previous inhabitants to an area, who may be displaced due to corresponding rent increases in their own homes, but also to the residents who move into the lofts in the first place.
It took until February 2009 for me to shed the fear of losing my apartment at a moment’s notice. My lease had expired a year earlier, and we were living month to month without a rent increase. No new lease was ever mentioned as a possibility. In a way, we had achieved a kind of anti-establishment rent stabilization: as long as we didn’t complain or do anything too stupid, we would no longer have to deal with our landlord. He would routinely cash our checks weeks, if not a full month, late–but he also turned a blind eye when we paid late, or came up a little short. It was a comfortable status quo.
On June 21, 2010, the new loft law passed. Almost immediately, critics spoke out against it, citing the law’s likelihood to speed gentrification – not becauseof the higher level of income associated with loft dwelling in contrast to standard residential apartments, but rather because the law privileged residential space over manufacturing or commercial space. In fact, in a last minute twist, thirteen out of the city’s 16 industrial business zones were excluded from the law, leaving primarily three Brooklyn neighborhoods with new tenant protections: Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Bushwick. Unsurprisingly, all three have been the recent sites of rapid gentrification and demographic shift.
February 2007 found me living in 1,000 square feet, at less than $2 per square foot, with two roommates and a commercial lease. June 2010 found me living in 1,000 square feet, at less than $2 per square foot, with two roommates, no lease, and the renewed belief that I would have to move. My fear had three main prongs: first, that my landlord would attempt to evict me so as to avoid his responsibilities to tenants who met the loft law’s required tenancy period; second, that even if he didn’t evict me, the cost of improvements to the building would be eaten by the tenants, resulting in a rent increase that would catapult my cost of living beyond my current means; third, that even if everything remained financially stable, code violations on the building–now on the map as a place where people actually live–would result in forced eviction by the city.
I became the poster child for loft living. Less than a week after the loft law passed (when, in truth, the specifics of the law were still a bit up in the air, as they remain until this day), I had received phone calls from reporters at the NY Post and the New Criterion. A photograph of my apartment ran in Metro New York, although I asked for my name to be kept anonymous, resulting in a series of phone calls and texts asking me if I was “Sarah.”
But laws on the ground can be very different from laws on the page. We’re not up to code, but over the course of the past few months, my building has acquired the following:
- A banister for the stairwell, which previously had a railing on one side and smooth wall on the other. I fully support this improvement, which was constructed over the course of one afternoon by two Hasidic boys who looked about sixteen.
- A security gate between the downstairs door and the second floor. This security gate, supposedly installed because the first floor of our building is still a warehouse (as it has been the entire time I’ve lived here), is right in the middle of the staircase, making it nearly impossible for anyone to get upstairs without two free hands for door management, let alone move a piece of furniture into or out of the building. The gate lasted in its locked state for all of three weeks, when some anonymous citizen took it upon him or herself to break the lock and tie the door back. Rather than assuming this act was a random crime, I am choosing to look at it as a tactical response to something that no one ever said they wanted.
- An unprecedented increased in fliers. This may or may not be related. Some of the fliers, it’s true, have been from local organizations like the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Center, which strategically developed a special committee in their real estate office just to address loft tenancy rights and issues. Other fliers, though, just seem like an increase in awareness that my building is residential. People actually live here. People who might call car services. Or order sushi. Or vote in primaries.
Some of the things I was taught to fear by other loft dwellers have turned out to be true–sort of. When the 17-17 Troutman building was hastily evicted in 2007, one of the reasons given was the lack of fire safety in the building. What suffices for a single, open floor factory layout works less well for individual apartment units.
I had an early morning downstairs buzz a few weeks ago from the Fire Department, not because we’d called them, but because they wanted to look at the building. I spent a few moments panicking about the lack of fire escape route in our apartment (as well as suddenly questioning whether or not our sprinklers actually work) before realizing that if they wanted to see my messy living room, they would have knocked already. In fact, I never saw them inside the building, and as far as I know, they haven’t been back since.
I still don’t have a lease; nor has there been talk of a rent increase on my apartment. The easiest way to fund building improvements is by gouging tenants; given that I meet the tenancy period for rent stabilization, I had only assumed that my landlord would gently encourage me to move out, so that new tenants could move in, under a residential and more expensive lease. We continue to have a strange relationship.
Oddly, there was no official word from the building that the new loft law would mean anything to any of us, but suddenly I was receiving calls from a woman in New Jersey accusing me of not paying rent. Given how nice she was on the phone, and how quickly it became clear that she was only calling me because someone told her to, I don’t think it qualified as tenant harassment. The calls stopped at the end of the summer, after I produced bank receipts confirming payment.
These vague combinations of change and non-change make it difficult for me to make predictions for 2011. I no longer feel as attached to my apartment as I once did; in fact, it seems to have taken on a life far beyond mine and my roommates’. As it turns out, loft apartments may be more trouble than they’re worth: my home is a problematic symbol of tenuous urban change.
I’m still glad I live here, but I’m no longer in awe of it. Instead, I’m worried. The difficulty with living in a dream is how easy it can be come a nightmare. My new real estate ideal may sacrifice cool points for longevity.–Chloe Bass
Chloë Bass is an artist and community organizer based in Bushwick.