Brooklyn Tenants and Community Groups Reach ‘Tentative Agreement’ Over Loft Law

Natasha Ishak

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After weeks of intense debate and contentious encounters over the new Loft Law Bill, tenants in interim loft residences in North Brooklyn seem to have reached a “tentative agreement” with opposing community groups. Disagreements appear to have come to an overnight cease. Well, at least for now.

The Loft Law Bill was first passed almost 40 years ago by the state legislature to regulate industrial buildings that were illegitimately converted into living spaces. The original bill sought to disallow more industrial units from being illegally converted into residences, while granting protection to tenants already residing in such units so that they could continue to live there legally.

An amendment in the bill, proposed by former Assembly Member Vito Lopez years ago, granted a path to legal residency for tenants that occupied these spaces between 2008 and 2009. But the final version prohibited these residential conversions from occurring in most of the city’s specially designated Industrial Business Zones (IBZs). Only three out of the city’s 16 IBZs, including areas in North Brooklyn, were exempt from this provision. In other words, residential conversions could still be allowed despite the IBZ designation. That sounds like the end of that problem, right?

However, a new bill proposed by Senator Julia Salazar and co-sponsors in the Legislature would expand protections and provide a pathway to legal residency for loft tenants occupying units between 2015 and 2016. Meaning, more loft tenants currently living in illegitimate units would be protected.

Local business groups and Councilman Antonio Reynoso have argued that an expansion of the existing Loft Law Bill would threaten manufacturing jobs by taking away industrial spaces to be used for housing instead. Councilman Reynoso believes that the new exemptions should be reconsidered, as it could potentially allow increased residential re-zonings in North Brooklyn.

The North Brooklyn IBZ, according to Council Member Reynoso, has already experienced significant loss of economic opportunities for communities of color who are mostly working industrial jobs.

“By placing an exemption in the loft law for these areas in North Brooklyn, the bill will completely undermine existing and planned industrial protections and catalyze economic gentrification, furthering the already rampant residential displacement in our community,” Councilman Reynoso said in a statement released last week. “We cannot let the political ghosts of the past continue to drive bad policy.”

Neighborhood advocacy groups, like Churches United for Fair Housing (CUFFH) and the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD), also voiced their concern about the new bill.

“There is a pressing need for affordable housing in New York City,” the ANHD’s statement read. “The solution to that problem is to build and preserve truly affordable housing, not to incentivize the illegal conversion of space that has been designated as a manufacturing zone.”

Loft tenants in the North Brooklyn IBZ have advocated keeping the exemption over their district in the expanded bill, so that they may be eligible for legal residency. After a group of tenants claimed that Senator Salazar changed her stance, and was now in favor of discarding the exemption, the senator wrote: “We want to protect loft tenants while also protecting the people employed by 20,000+ manufacturing jobs in the IBZ.” She added: “This would not mean eviction for 400 tenants.”

A recent photo posted by tenant David Johns at 538 Johnson Avenue, one of the lofts that would be affected by the new bill, showed that a swath of eviction notices from the landlord had been put up in the building. Johns said that residents will continue to live in fear unless the expanded protections are included and passed in the new bill.

“This [new Loft Law Bill] doesn’t incentivize people moving to these neighborhoods speculatively, it protects the people who have lived in these neighborhoods for years from being evicted,” Johns, who has lived at Johnson Avenue for three years, said. “Without these protections, I will have to move, and the building would get sold, re-developed. I guarantee you I am a more desirable neighbor in this community than those who would take my place.”

A spokesperson for Senator Salazar said that their office was involved in connecting loft tenants with other community groups to reach a list of principles that would be the framework for the bill. After the community meeting, tensions between loft tenants and opposing groups have appeared to reach a temporary truce.

“The idea is that it’s actually possible to [protect existing loft tenants and prevent jobs displacement],” Senator Salazar’s Communications Director Michael Carter said. “So that’s why it’s important that we’re getting all the stakeholders together to talk about what our shared future looks like.”

The community agreement lists three principles that all groups want to have worked into the new bill: protections for current loft tenants, safeguarding existing jobs, and prohibiting future conversions of illegal housing spaces.

As for the eviction notices received by loft tenants at Johnson Avenue, Carter said that the senator’s office has reviewed the letters and concluded that they are not legally binding documents from the city marshal. The office is working with tenants to figure out the next steps that residents need to take to maintain their protections. The new Loft Law Bill is expected to be voted on by the Legislature in the upcoming week.

Cover image courtesy of Phil Buehler.

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