is renter protection the thorniest (and separable) piece of the Soho artist in residence puzzle?

[update: I added some more to the mix with my March 7, it is impossible to prove that the Soho artist in residence regulations are a resale problem unless ‘victims’ come forward]

once more into the breach
It has been quite a while since I have touched directly on the A.I.R. program and its impact on the mother of all Manhattan loft neighborhoods, Soho. And I am rather late to the party in commenting on an article from two affiliated downtown papers. I saw Non-artist residents feel like ‘criminals’ in Soho, lawyer says at the time it was published in the Downtown Express a month ago (and later came across it in The Villager), bookmarked it for future use and … here we are, lo these many days later. But some stories are timeless, no??

I hope that I don’t come across as condescending in saying that I was surprised at how good the article is.  Aline Reynolds gets the by-line, and her piece is thoughtful, even-handed, and has some nice writerly touches (the headline, for example, is a nice bit of Grab You). Here’s the nut:

“It’s really an affordable housing question,” said [Sean] Sweeney [of the Soho Alliance]. “By maintaining the zoning, you’re maintaining the ability of artists — of whom there are thousands — to live here.”


Conversely, artist residents who have certification and wish to leave the area are bearing the financial burden of the outdated law, according to [Margaret] Baisley [a long-time and well respected Soho real estate attorney].

two different problems, confused by one label
Sean Sweeney has made that same point many times, in many places (including in comments on the A.I.R. Mother Post on this blog; November 12, did the NY Times just write the obituary for the Soho real estate market?), just as Baisley and others have made her point. In my own little mind, I have long over-looked Sweeney’s point, probably at least in part because I focus on sales instead of rentals. It is now sinking in.

Maybe the political solution to this ‘problem’ needs to start from that recognition: that artists who rent space in Soho view enforcement of A.I.R. as essential (not just ‘not a problem’), while artists who own in Soho view potential enforcement of A.I.R. as a drag on the sales market for what may be their most valuable hard asset. The nearly universal zoning of Soho as Manufacturing doers not distinguish between rental buildings and coops or condos, but perhaps it could. Or perhaps there is another work-around the zoning classification problem, just as A.I.R. was originally a work-around.

However crafted, a political solution that might be broadly palatable could retain A.I.R. (and other rent restrictions and building code protections) for rental buildings already covered by A.I.R., but exempt coops and condos. You might also have to address (limit?) future conversion of current rental buildings by landlords who would prefer a coop or condo when tenancies terminate (i.e., residents move or die), but otherwise this should work simply.

This bifurcated approach might also prevent some of the class warfare rhetoric that is oh-so-quotable. Such as Mr. Sweeney in that November 12 New York Times article (Suddenly, SoHo Heeds Law Limiting Lofts to Artists):

Echoing the tension that still exists between the old SoHo and new, Mr. Sweeney added that he would rather see a banker’s closing fouled up “than to see a pioneer evicted because that financier’s trophy wife wants a crystal chandelier in the lobby.”

Mr. Sweeney’s quote was immediately followed by one from a real estate agent who may have said a great many reasonable things that never made it into the article, but was quoted as offering a “solution” that many artists (and others) found rather … inadequate:

“Why don’t we come to some respectful decision with the artists who live here?” she said, suggesting perhaps a “fabulous sculpture praising the people who were pioneers.”

No one should be surprised that Soho artists who rent space seem to prefer being able to continue to use and live in the space rather than a “respectful decision” that trades their space for a “fabulous sculpture”.

hyperbole has a home (it is not here)
Just in case you were thinking that my use of the term “class warfare rhetoric” is overblown, look at this paragraph that leads off a monthly market report by a well respected group of downtown sales agents:

Is it true that the REAL story behind the forceful lobby to maintain the antiquated ‘Artists In Residence’ program in SOHO has little to do with art, but everything to do with a small group of artists who RENT their space and don’t want to give up their God-given right to eternal cheap rent? We hear that artists who OWN their lofts (the ones who risked their life savings into these buildings) do not support AIR status anymore. If the City wants an ‘Artists in Residence’ program, we are all for it. But it should have been enforced decades ago. Now the entire neighborhood would be devastated by this, so maybe it’s time to find another enclave for artists that the City is willing to pay for. Maybe a neighborhood closer to art galleries as 90% of the Soho galleries moved out and the retail environment has little or nothing to do with art.

The notion that artists should pick up and follow gallery owners if the gallery owners are priced out of an area (or choose to move for any reason) is … problematic. Not that it would cause a trail of tears or anything (that would be hyperbole), but it seems a little cumbersome. And impractical. And (if renters were ‘protected’ by A.I.R., while owners were protected from it) unnecessary.

decriminalize non-artists!
I am surprised that someone thinks it would be a “stigma” to live as a non-artist in Soho, as opposed to a non-artist being concerned that there might be DoB problems, or mortgage problems, or resale problems, but apparently there is at least one person who felt that way (from the Reynolds piece):

One attorney [Baisley] represented didn’t want the stigma of living illegally in Soho, so she moved elsewhere.

“We don’t think you should make criminals of people who want to come into this area,” Baisley said. The Buildings Department, she continued, should focus on collapsing cranes and other hazardous issues, rather than hire “artist police” to penalize Soho and Noho residents who lack artist certification.

landlords may still be screwed, but …
The artist owners and the ‘illegal’ non-artist owners benefit if the A.I.R. rules are changed; I don’t see who the losers are if that is changed. On the rental side, the status quo is preserved, so landlords continue to lose by only being able to rent to a small slice of the market and by being unable to convert the building to a family residence (unless there’s an artist in the family).

If the city (and the Soho Alliance) continue to see a benefit from having a cultural zone in which one class of residents is preferred to another solely by their artistic activity, that won’t change by letting artist-owners sell to non-artists freely. (Whether that has been or can be accomplished is a different question.)

real world impacts
The Reynolds piece contains a sadly brief litany of real world impacts of the A.I.R. rules, a subject that has frustrated many people trying to understand whether (and to whom) A.I.R. really matters, or is just a way to … say … get a front page placement in The Times, or an idea to be recycled every few years in New York Magazine.

Now we know about two situations similar to a story that Sweeney has already told in Comments here (and, no doubt, elsewhere):

[1] One couple — the wife is a filmmaker, and the husband is a television director — said the zoning is designed to protect artists who have lived in the neighborhood for decades. ***   

The couple’s landlord [on Crosby Street] has tried to evict them and their neighbors every year since the 1980’s, when they moved in. …   

“What has protected us is that we have artist’s certification, and he doesn’t,” said the wife. This is why, she explained, the landlord is denied the right to vacate the building every time he tries to evict his tenants.


[2] Peter Reginato, a sculptor who rents a loft on Greene Street, agreed that the artist’s certification requirement protects artists from predatory tactics by landlords, like his own, who has tried to evict him several times in the last 30 years. ***   

Like in the Crosby Street couple’s situation, the arbitrator in Reginato’s case continues to dismiss it because the landlord isn’t a certified artist.

I wish Reynolds had gotten some details on this anecdote about doormen who laughed but did not get the last laugh:

[DoB] inspectors were knocking on the doors of Soho lofts and demanding to see certification, which was also required back then for the building to gain a valid certificate of occupancy. The buildings’ doormen, Baisley said, would laugh them out the door, telling them the statute hasn’t been enforced in 25 years.        

But when the inspectors returned with the proper paperwork, she said, they would start doling out violations to anyone living there illegally.

But Reynolds and Baislely touch on a real practical problem in gaining data, with a poorly edited sentence that almost certainly has a missing “non-”, which I have helpfully added:

Trying to tally the total number of [non-]artists in the area by knocking on doors or otherwise, would be a useless venture.


“No one will put their hand up and say, ‘I’m living here illegally, please rezone the neighborhood,’ ” [Baisley] said.

does it dampen the resale market?
Baisley asserts yes (my bold):

It’s very tough to find buyers who comply with the statute, and can pay the price, or who want to assume the risk of moving into this area and living illegally,” said Baisley.

I don’t know. When I figure out a way to test that proposition, I will let you know.

© Sandy Mattingly 2011

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