New York's Loft Law Protects People of Color from Further Gentrification

An amendment to the Loft Law, a little-known piece of New York City tenants’ rights legislation, has become the center of a heated argument over affordable housing in north Brooklyn. The law requires landlords to bring their covered manufacturing, commercial, and warehouse buildings up to residential fire, health, and safety code standards. It also protects eligible residential tenants in those buildings from eviction and rent hikes. The amendment would expand the number of tenants eligible for Loft Law protection.

Recently, State Senator and Democratic socialist Julia Salazar — who has distinguished herself as a voice in the fight for universal rent control — turned against the law despite its record of providing stability for low-income tenants. Salazar and her staff claim that the law aids gentrification and undermines the livelihoods of people of color, who have already been deeply affected by gentrification in New York City.

The Loft Law grew out of the decline of American manufacturing, which began in the 1960s due to a range of factors including automation and outsourcing. Industrial spaces throughout New York City sat empty for decades before landlords began renting them out. Many people lived cheaply in these otherwise empty industrial spaces, forgoing a kitchen or bathroom in favor of space and light. However, many of these loft spaces required repairs and refurbishment brought on by unsanitary conditions, industrial refuse, and crumbling building infrastructure that led to rusted pipes and unaddressed infestations.

“The city was well aware that this was going on, and well aware that it was illegal. But the city looked the other way, because if they didn’t then these spaces would remain vacant [and] the landlords wouldn’t get a rent roll. They wouldn’t be able to pay their taxes and there would be problems all the way down the line,” explained Robert Petrucci, a loft tenant since the ‘70s.

However, this environment contributed to reduced rents and made the spaces particularly attractive to small business owners and artists. Yet these residents were prey to eviction at any moment as they were illegal tenants. Written in 1982, the Loft Law addressed the fact that a new population had taken up residence in what had been exclusively industrial zones.

“Everyone was somewhat complicit in this illegal situation, which is why the Loft Law came about to address it, to slowly legalize these spaces, require the tenants to share in the cost of bringing the building up to code [and] eventually give the tenants who were originally in place rent stabilization [and] protection,” continued Petrucci, who now works as an attorney for tenants seeking Loft Law protection.

Last month, JSalazar pulled her support for the law, claiming it and its beneficiaries cut working-class communities of color off from upward mobility. She now claims the tenants and their homes are a stop-gap for luxury development and also a threat to manufacturing jobs, which would, in theory, render community members homeless. Salazar’s concerns aren’t off base; an annual report by the Coalition For the Homeless shows New York has a larger population of homeless people then it did during the Great Depression. Sarah Ludwig, founder and co-director of the New Economy Project, recently told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle that 167,000 pre-foreclosure notices were sent out in New York state in 2017 — the most affected areas were in Brooklyn. In a February 26 tweet, Salazar said that 20,000 jobs in Bushwick, Williamsburg, and Greenpoint are at risk, and claimed that deals made by the late Assemblymember Vito Lopez leave north Brooklyn manufacturers vulnerable to displacement. She also cited a Gotham Gazette op-ed, which argued that manufacturing jobs offer lower-income people of color opportunities for advancement and that the Loft Law inhibits their growth.

Proponents of the new amendment generally feel Salazar’s comments are a misrepresentation of the Loft Law; some have gone so far as to call it “slander.” An expanded Loft Law might actually increase opportunities for low-income people of color. A north Brooklyn business report considered current zoning trends and noted that even though “mixed-use buildings face design and even financial challenges,” loft spaces could offer a viable path to expanding local manufacturing.

There is, however, little evidence that people who live in converted industrial spaces are to blame for job scarcity. Petrucci thinks that Salazar’s opinions are based on a misunderstanding of what caused manufacturing to leave local areas.

“There was a lot of ... abandoned manufacturing space [in 1982]. Not because manufacturers were being displaced by ... residential loft tenants,” Petrucci told The North Star. “The spaces were already vacant and often vacant for long periods. People were losing their jobs not because manufacturers were being displaced by live/work artists and artisans, but because manufacturing jobs had already moved south, and then overseas, and the NYC businesses could no longer compete in the global marketplace.”

Loft tenants have been historic scapegoats when it comes to the decline of local manufacturing, which “left of its own accord,” Petrucci noted.

Luxury development is also driving out manufacturing jobs, he observed, and expanding loft tenancy could counteract this trend. While landlords have a vested interest in replacing industrial space with luxury housing, more loft tenancy could help safeguard and expand the number of available manufacturing jobs, while protecting tenants through rent stabilization. These tenants also are generally more tolerant of the noise and logistical complications that come from sharing living space with an active manufacturer; luxury renters are less accommodating and do not have an interest in sharing their building with a workspace. Also, many loft tenants are small business owners who use their homes for welding, metalworking, and carpentry among other trades.

Petrucci noted that the first generation of loft tenants was largely white, though this has changed over the years due to a variety of factors, including dwindling access to affordable housing and sustainable employment. This, and a recent story about a millionaire exploiting the Loft Law, may account for the Salazar team’s perception that loft tenants are generally white and rich.

But Mateo Cartagena — a tenant in one of Bushwick’s massive, and mostly empty, factory buildings — believes this is incorrect. He grew up as part of a working class Puerto Rican community in Jersey City before making his way to Brooklyn. His background and the organizing he participates in to defend his home contradict much of the narrative that has been growing around the Loft Law.

Cartagena said he saw an atmosphere of division surround north Brooklyn’s reaction to the proposed amendment and the Loft Law in general that boils down to loft tenants’ perceived identities. He recounted an interaction with other organizers at a community meeting. “They're saying that we're on the side of the developers and that we're a bunch of rich white people,” he said. “We were saying.... 'I could see why you have this idea but it's coming from ignorance, it's not us.'”

In fact, his building is an example of how manufacturing can coexist with residential space. The first floor has an active architectural coatings factory, and almost 100 people are living above it. When the power goes out, which happens frequently, they must coordinate with the workers as the breaker is located in the factory. They also deal with flooding due to the building’s aging plumbing. Despite having filed a Loft Law application in 2012 and 2016, they have yet to receive legal protection.

“It’s not exactly luxury development,” Cartagena remarked sardonically. Once tenants of his building are under Loft Law protection, its landlord will be obligated to perform outstanding repairs. This is vital for Cartagena and his seven roommates. If they lose this home, some will likely have to leave New York. Cartagena’s childhood allows him to understand why Salazar’s narrative could appeal to people who are afraid of gentrification. He said those emotions "come from such a real place … especially [from people who] have been in Bushwick for … 40 years who have seen their family be displaced. And, I empathize with that.

“My whole family lived in my neighborhood when I was 3 years old. By the time I was 13 years old, all of them had moved out except for a few people,” Cartagena continued. “There was this huge Puerto Rican community that was there. That was all displaced by yuppies. I saw it happen there and I’ve seen it happen here.”

Cartagena said that Loft Law tenants will focus on overcoming these recent divisions and that they are building relationships with other rent control organizers. They will continue this work despite a sense that they have been mischaracterized as affluent, transient, and white.

Salazar’s new position caught loft tenants off guard, many of whom voted for her because she pledged that they would have no fear of eviction. Salazar and her team initially responded to this confusion and frustration by becoming combative; the senator called Loft Law attorney Michael Kozek a “monster" and accused him of stealing from loft tenants. Tenants still hold out hope that Salazar might change her mind and support the amendment again, but her new position is difficult to place. In a March 11 tweet to a tenant, she said her office is “seeking to allow currently occupied loft units to apply for legislation.” Salazar did not specify how that could be accomplished without expanding the Loft Law. The tenant expressed fears that she would be evicted so that her landlord could have her home re-fitted for a luxury office. Salazar assured her that the area’s zoning would not allow that, but her response did not acknowledge that the tenant’s unit is not zoned as residential, meaning that anyone living there would need loft protection.

The heart of the Loft Law controversy appears to stem from the Salazar camp’s misplaced ideas about what caused the decline of local manufacturing and the rise of luxury development. Live-work tenants cannot be blamed for north Brooklyn’s predicament. Yet Salazar and her staff seem committed to pushing them from the center of the fight for affordable housing.

About the Authors

Skanda Kadirgamar is a Brooklyn-based reporter who grew up in New York and now covers housing, labor, and South Asian diaspora activism. O F Cieri is a New York historian and author with her first work of fiction being published by Nine Star Press in summer of 2019.