The Loft Law and Musicians: What’s the Story?

People-Powered Politics: Tempo 802

Volume CI, No. 10October, 2001

Chuck DeLaney

Earlier this summer, 802 member Jimmy Owens pointed out that the Loft Law is of great importance to many musicians, and urged Allegro to report on it. I moved into my loft in 1976, began working for Local 802 as a freelance photographer when the Members Party took office in 1982, and over the years I’ve met lots of 802 members who also live in protected lofts. As one of the founders of Lower Manhattan Loft Tenants, the principal group that lobbied for the Loft Law, it’s clear to me why it should matter to musicians.

As the law currently stands, it protects tenants who built lofts in the 1970s by giving them a right to stay in the homes that they built, with a form of rent stabilization. In exchange for this, the landlord who does the necessary legalization work to comply with the law and gets a residential certificate of occupancy is allowed to pass along part of the cost of that work, in addition to collecting annual rent stabilization increases. This is intended to compensate the landlord for doing that which, by law, he was required to do before he was allowed to rent to tenants in the first place!

The Loft Law and its history – and, most important of all, the current long-shot possibility for its expansion – is the small story. I’ll get back to that in a minute.

First, what does all this have to do with musicians, most of whom don’t live in lofts? It’s important because this is a segment of affordable housing that was created by tenants for tenants. More specifically, this is housing created by artists, for artists. And after we created it, we protected it through political organizing and hundreds, if not thousands, of lobbying trips to Albany. The Loft Law now protects perhaps 10,000 tenants.

History was made in 1982, when a bunch of artist tenants prodded the state Legislature – with a lot of help from then-Senate Minority Leader Fred Ohrenstein, Greenwich Village Assemblymember Bill Passannante, and other legislators – to pass a law that allowed artists, musicians and other tenants to stay in lofts that they built. This was a tremendous achievement, given that the buildings department, which was widely viewed as totally corrupt, offered little help to tenants, and the 1970s had marked the end of any sustained effort by the city to build affordable housing.

I’ve met a lot of musicians in my almost 20 years working for Local 802 and I know that some of you have it pretty good, as far as housing is concerned. Maybe you own a co-op. Maybe you live in the suburbs in an actual house. Good for you.

But many rank-and-file musicians aren’t so secure. A lot of 802 members depend on a rent-stabilized or rent-controlled apartment as their base of operations. Some of you live in protected lofts. Some have moved into rental lofts that aren’t protected, in the last ten or 15 years.

The same game is being played all over again in neighborhoods like Brooklyn’s Williamsburg and Manhattan’s West Chelsea. Real estate is red hot, and there’s a bull’s eye on your back. Your loft is a gold mine if only the landlord can get the dirt out. That dirt is you. No matter how high your rent, the landlord doesn’t want someone whose income rises and falls from gig to gig. Your landlord wants a sucker with a day job. Preferably a six-figure day job.

Loft tenants constantly stress to elected officials on the state and city level the importance of the arts to the economic well being of both the city and the state. We explain that it’s the worker artists who play a large part in making the whole thing work. Whether it’s club dates, an orchestra pit or a jazz bandstand, musicians are a big part of the mix.

Too often the politicians think of the arts and all they see is stars. As we all know, stars may have struggles – but decent housing isn’t one of them. A photographer buddy of mine has a loft in Tribeca that rents for about $1,000 a month. It is, you won’t be surprised to learn, his home and studio. Last year pop star Mariah Carey bought a three-floor co-op loft on that block. The reputed purchase price? Nine million. That’s why the lofts are gold and we are the dirt that is keeping real estate players from that gold.

Like other rent protection laws, the Loft Law expires from time to time and must be renewed. This is always a battle. It’s already been extended briefly three times this year, and now is set to expire on Oct. 15. The law’s renewal – and its possible expansion to protect newer loft tenants – is tied up in this year’s Albany budget battle. We are, to put it simply, being held hostage. That’s a whole other story.

If you live in a loft and want to get involved, call the Lower Manhattan Loft Tenants’ hotline at (212) 539-3538 and leave a message. If you don’t live in a loft but want to see more affordable housing in New York for artists and other regular folk, you need to join the press to put affordable housing on the agenda for the new city government we’re about to elect in November.

Like other issues such as education, all pols can talk the talk when it comes to housing. But to get the job actually done, it’s up to musicians, artists of all stripes, and other people who think New York isn’t just for the rich, to lean on elected officials to make them walk the walk to protect existing affordable housing, and to create more of the same.

Photographer Chuck DeLaney is on the Steering Committee of Lower Manhattan Loft Tenants and serves as the Tenant Representative on the New York City Loft Board.