voter diaryby 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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
"Your wife must be quite a famous artist,"
"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."
"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
"Well, I'll think about it," I said.
"Thanks for letting me know it's
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
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
"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
"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
"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
"I'm sorry to hear that. I'm sure there's a
solution, you just can't get to it right
"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
"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
"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
"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
"Sure," he said. "But did you ever try to
make money off artists?"
"No, I just register people to vote,