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the artist-
voter diary 
by Larry Litt

[Editor's note--On June 24, in a move that promises to be widely felt by lower- and moderate-income New Yorkers who pay rent, the New York City Rent Guidelines Board approved the largest rent increase in seven years for the city's 1,000,000 rent- stabilized apartments--five percent for one-year leases, seven percent for two year leases. At the same time, up in Albany, Gov. George Pataki and State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver are battling over the state's billion-dollar 1997 budget. Caught up in the horse-trading is something called the "loft law," a piece of legislation of central importance to some residents of lower Manhattan's most luxurious living spaces--the so-called artists' lofts in SoHo and Tribeca. The law effects about 10,000 tenants who live in buildings ordinarily zoned for commercial use, most in Silver's district. If the law lapses, many landlords will begin eviction proceedings. Tenants who fall under the loft law basically receive the same protection as tenants in rent-stabilized apartments. That can mean low rents and protection from eviction. Except that the housing in question is an artist's loft, not a crumbling tenement apartment in a bad neighborhood. Believe it or not, tenants in SoHo and Tribeca still have to go before the Department of Cultural Affairs and prove that they are artists. Some advocates have painted the battle over the loft law as an art-world issue, central to the survival of New York as a visual arts Mecca. (The law was launched back in the 1960s by George Maciunas and the Fluxus artists, who considered the artist as a kind of shaman who deserved special European-socialist-influenced consideration when it came to real estate.) Others call it an economic issue of importance only to a select group of luxury tenants. One thing we know: the relationship between utopian notions of SoHo as a special community of artists and the realities of New York real estate are a dense and thorny thicket. We asked long-time arts activist Larry Litt to guide us through this particular briar patch. He submitted the text below some weeks ago, well in advance of any vote on the above-mentioned bill. We would have posted it then, but you know how much time these modern labor-saving computer devices can take.]
We parked our table for the voter-
registration drive at the corner of 
Broadway and Spring Street. Hot and muggy, 
chance of thunder showers later in the day. 
Bottled water and potato chips for 
survival. We're trying to register artists 
to vote, a simple task that we hope will 
eventually increase government support for 
the arts.
Our signature-gathering technique is 
something like a pitchman's spiel. "Are you 
a registered voter?" I ask, with deeply 
personal sincerity. When someone reacts 
even slightly I continue. "Are you sure? 
Have you moved since the last time you 
voted? Do you have friends or loved ones 
suffering from disenfranchisement?"
Up walks a woman in overalls. Late 30s, I'd 
guess, but with a determined look in her 
eyes. "I'd like to leave some information 
on this table about the loft-law renewal," 
she says. "Is that okay?"
"In good conscience, I can only display 
nonpartisan literature."
"This is a nonpartisan issue," she insists. 
"We want the loft laws renewed so that 
artists can continue to live in converted 
lofts at reasonable rents."
"Hmmm. How can I get a loft at a reasonable 
rent?" I ask.
"Well, it's too late. There was a time in 
the `60s, `70s and early `80s, but that's 
over. If you want a loft now, you have to 
pay a fixture fee to the artist who fixed 
up the loft. Mine goes for $150,000. But I 
wouldn't move for all the money in the 
world. Where could I get another loft?"
"Anyway," I ask, still trying to keep my 
voter-registration table nonpartisan, "what 
good will leaving your info here do?"
"We--the downtown arts worker-loft tenants, 
that is--are lobbying the New York State 
legislature until they vote to renew the 
Loft Law, which expires this June 30. We 
have to motivate people to write their 
state representatives to tell them how 
important artists are to the economic life 
of the city. We're an industry. We're the 
reason people come to New York. We need 
reasonable rent."
"What about artists who don't have lofts 
with reasonable rents?" I wonder.
"Well, that's their problem. Right now I'm 
concerned about the artists who do have 
lofts and face eviction! Can I leave our 
material here?"
"Sure," I say, softening. "Sounds likely to 
me there are members of all political 
persuasions living in lofts with reasonable 
rents. By the way, if you happen to hear of 
any great lofts at reasonab...."
"I'm an artist, not a real estate broker. 
Thanks for the help." 
She put down four piles of paper: two Day-
Glo and two white, covered with text about 
the loft law. I was reading one of them 
when a man in a suit carrying an attaché 
case strolled by.
"Thanks for your help, buddy. We're trying 
to save our loft. My wife is an artist. She 
loves living and working in SoHo. 
"What do you do," I asked.
"I'm a dentist. Can't have a dentist's 
office in a loft and live there as well. 
Too bad. Most artists I know need a good 
dentist. But when they need me, they'll 
travel." 
"Your wife must be quite a famous artist," 
I said.
"Actually, she was active in the `70s and 
early `80s. That's how we proved she was an 
artist. Now she's an interior designer. 
Gotta change with the times. Thanks again 
for your help."
"That's okay. By the way if you hear of any 
available lofts, I'm interested."
"Well, now that you mention it," he says, 
"ours is for sale. I mean the fixture fee 
is the asking price."
"How much?"
"With all the work we did, we couldn't take 
less than $400,000. My wife is a 
professional, and we only used the best of 
everything. It's kind of a showcase for her 
design company."
"Well, I'll think about it," I said. 
"Thanks for letting me know it's 
available."
He walked off whistling a happy tune. 
I started dreaming about where I would get 
the ready cash to buy the fixtures in a 
living loft. Certainly not from registering 
artists to vote. I wondered if it were 
still possible to marry into a well-
appointed loft. Or perhaps I could sell a 
screenplay to Hollywood about the art 
world....
My reverie was broken by a woman carrying 
two shopping bags full of groceries. Early 
40s, pretty natural look, stressed out, not 
even a shopping cart to help her. She 
looked at the loft law info on my table for 
a long minute. Then she stared at me and 
said, "I lost my best friend because of 
that stupid law."
"Come on, it can't be that bad a law," I 
said, my curiosity piqued by her fixed and 
pitiful gaze. 
"Yes, it's true. I live in a building that 
was rented out to artists by a cheap 
landlord. That was in the early `70s. He 
didn't want to do any work on it, so he 
rented all the floors as artist-in-
residence lofts. We barely had heat. The 
elevator never worked and still doesn't. 
The roof and back wall leak. But it was 
home and a big studio for all of us. The 
tenants became best friends, with as common 
enemy, the landlord.
"Then some of the renters made a little 
money in the early `80s. Me too. We got 
together and formed a tenants group to 
demand more services from the landlord. He, 
of course, told us he hadn't made a nickel 
on the building and therefore wasn't 
required to do anything. But, he said, if 
we wanted to pay market value for our lofts 
he would do some maintenance work.
"We talked about the possibilities for 
months. Then we decided to pool our 
resources and buy the building from him. 
Except that, a couple of renters didn't 
want to buy their lofts. The rest of us 
formed a corporation anyway to buy out the 
landlord. The tenants who didn't buy had to 
go along with whatever our corporation 
wanted.
"My best friend was one of the ones who 
didn't join the corporation. She said she 
didn't see a reason to buy when she was 
paying such cheap rent already. I argued 
that it would make a quality-of-life 
difference to get the roof and walls fixed, 
to get the elevator working. She told me 
she didn't care about the elevator, she 
lived on the second floor. And as far as 
the roof and walls, well, if the 
corporation fixed them, they'd have to fix 
hers too.
"And it's been like that all these years. 
We used to be tenants, now we're the 
landlords. If we could get her out and sell 
her loft we'd have the money to fix the 
elevator and the roof. But we can't evict 
her, she's protected by the loft law.
"What makes it work, what makes it hurt us 
all, is that she sublets two studios she 
built in her loft. She's actually making 
money on her space. And there's nothing we 
can do about it. No one in the building 
talks to her, she can't come to the 
corporation meetings, and we all secretly 
wish horrible things on her. She was my 
best friend," she said sadly, her voice 
quivering.
"I'm sorry to hear that. I'm sure there's a 
solution, you just can't get to it right 
now."
"The only solution for us is to end the 
loft law. Then she'll either buy her loft, 
pay us market rent, or we'll evict her." 
"What about her art?" I asked as a 
diversion.
"Her art? Who knows, who cares, who has the 
time. Our property is our priority now." 
She looked down at the info again, shook 
her head, picked up her bags, turned and 
walked on. Then she looked at me and said, 
"I better get going, I have to climb six 
flights before I rest."
I continued to sit there, giving out 
registration forms and talking to people 
about the upcoming primaries. Suddenly, a 
guy in wrinkled work clothes walked by, 
stopped short, stared, and walked up to the 
table. He had a belligerent look in his 
eyes. He was glowering at the loft law 
literature.
"You live in a loft?" he demanded to know.
"No. Wish I did. I live in a tiny apartment 
for a whole lot of money in the East 
Village."
"Well, let me tell you something. These 
loft people are taking advantage of this 
city. I own a building I inherited from my 
father. There's all kinds of doctors and 
lawyers and stockbrokers living in it. They 
got in somehow. What this city needs to do 
is find out who the real artists are. Give 
them a test. If they pass, then they can 
get a break for a few years. But if they 
give up art, pay market rent. I'm losing a 
fortune on these guys and there's nothing I 
can do about it. And the city's losing tax 
money. I hope the loft law expires and they 
all have to pay market rents. Like you, 
like everyone else."
"Sounds like the classic historical 
struggle. Loft tenants on one side, and 
landlords on the other. That's the way it's 
always been, and the way it's always going 
to be. Hopefully a compromise can be worked 
out."
"Sure," he said. "But did you ever try to 
make money off artists?"
"No, I just register people to vote, 
thanks."