Soho and Artist-In-Residence are back in the news, oddly

“hunting”? “harassing” really??
I found this headline from DNAInfo Tuesday rather bizarre, Group Hunts Non-Artists Wrongly Living in SoHo and NoHo Lofts, and the article only slightly less so. It sounds as though some folks are targeting undocumented immigrants residents; in fact, some folks are trying to count “artists”. This piece from the same source yesterday, SoHo Residents Decry Artist Survey as ‘Harassment’, continues the targeting theme, but is at least a useful counter to the first one in providing another side of the coin. Why all this reporting wasn’t included in the first piece is beyond me, assuming that DNAInfo considers itself journalism; but if DNAInfo considers itself a blogging platform, then I get it completely. Happens to me all the time….

The hunting group in Tuesday’s article (The SoHo/NoHo Action Committee) that wants to count believes that there are not many "artists" in Soho (the punctuation is because they want to count people with certification from the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs, a certification that is a formal prerequisite to living in buildings zoned for manufacturing). SNAC appears to believe that it will help them to mobilize to change the rules if they can show how relatively few “artists” there are under current rules. The “hunting” imagery of that article aside, Tuesday’s piece was entirely from the perspective of SNAC, with some “balance” from representatives of the city (DCA and the Department of City Planning); these bureaucrats aside, all the people quoted on Tuesday are in favor of changing the rules.

The decrying “residents” in yesterday’s article are two members of the local community board (CB2; one of whom is a “city-certified filmmaker”) and Sean Sweeney, “head of neighborhood association the SoHo Alliance”; these three are the “Locals [who] are blasting a plan to scour SoHo and NoHo lofts to ferret out non-artists living in spaces earmarked for creative types, calling the process ‘harassment’ and a violation of privacy.” Obviously, none of these three is quoted as in favor of the counting effort, but the city-certified filmmaker only says that it will be difficult, not that there is anything wrong with counting, or with SNAC’s goals. The CB2 Chair is worried that landlords will be harassing tenants through the survey, but he had nothing to say (at least to DNAInfo) about changing rules. Sweeney offered a very specific complaint, but  admits that his group is divided about the underlying rules:

"The only ones who would benefit from this survey are landlords," Sweeney said, noting that the SoHo Alliance is divided in its position.

"I fear this would be a wholesale eviction of the pioneering artists," he said.

Let’s put aside for the moment the question of technique (counting, or a survey) and whether it is a good idea, or even whether it is harassment. Instead, consider the issue on which the Soho Alliance is divided, which SNAC is working to address.

city certified artists, city zoning, and state land-use law
Of course we are talking about that peculiar regulatory intersection where one’s status as an “artist” as determined by the DCA makes it permissible to live in buildings zoned by city law as manufacturing (M-1A or M-1B categories) under a New York State law about Joint Live Work Quarters For Artists. I will link to places to get the details on this below, but here is another bizarre thing about the two DNAInfo articles: you’d never know from the first article that there is a raging controversy among Soho residents (or, at least, between “grass roots” organizations purporting to speak on behalf of Soho residents) about the regulations; and you would never know from the second article that there are principled arguments to be made in favor of changing the rules.

The main community players and their views were described in my June 8, 2011, political response to Soho artist +/or zoning ‘problem’?, about a community meeting sponsored by SNAC 10 months ago. Sweeney was there, but did not speak; 35 interested locals spoke, including the two SNAC leaders quoted in the two DNAInfo articles.

That post has Manhattan Loft Guy links to my 5 earlier posts about Soho and “artists” and zoning and the Department of Buildings and the real world, which I will not re-set here. If you are new to the controversy, there is a lot to chew on within those 6 posts.

bless the internet
You probably already know that the Soho Alliance is very interested in protecting Soho and artists in Soho (and “artists” in Soho) and that its leader Sean Sweeney has been quite public in asserting that SNAC is tilting at a “problem” that is more myth than reality, though he would probably concede that it exists (if it exists at all) to help sell newspapers. Even though DNAInfo’s Andrea Swalec did not find him for her first article, Sweeney found her, and penned Comment No. 1 on the article. I suspect that comment stirred enough at DNAInfo to lead to the second article.

Sadly, Comment No. 1 is far from Sweeney’s best work, barely touching on the main issue (the Seidman family saga is his frequent touchstone, while noting that the “question of artist certification in SoHo/NoHo is complex, too complex for this Comments section”) yet blasting a “Brooklyn lawyer” as an inappropriate spokesperson for a movement to rezone SoHo/NoHo as neither credible nor ethical. The “Brooklyn lawyer” is, in fact, a real estate lawyer with a long-time Soho office and is generally recognized as one of the leading authorities on the peculiar regulations and laws involved here.

Always quotable, Sweeney’s gift of being both a colorful and effective spokesperson deserted him on this occasion. (He made the same comment, verbatim, on the Curbed feature about the DNAInfo article.)

counting? why?
Sweeney fans will be pleased to see he is back on his game in yesterday’s DNAInfo reaction piece (see the block quotes, above). Short and barbed. I just don’t get his willful refusal to acknowledge that SNAC is not publicly talking about tenant-artists, or that the survey idea is in many ways a response to his oft-stated view that there are no real world victims of the current regulatory structure and his oft-stated claims that there are many, many Soho artists who need this structure (I believe he has said “thousands”, but I can’t find a cite to that right now).

Sweeney says “many” and expects to be believed; SNAC says “let’s count” and Sweeney sees dire consequences.

As with many things about this whole controversy, I don’t understand why this is so hard, and why a survey is needed. In Tuesday’s article we learned that SNAC already has “addresses of all city-certified artists [that were] turned over to the group by the city under a Freedom of Information Act request”. Apart from verifying that these artists still live at the addresses associated with their certifications, what “survey” is needed?

Public records give the city zoning classifications of every building in Soho and Noho; public records give the names of the record owners of the building, if a rental, and of individual coop or condo units. Does anyone know how many of the “approximately 3,540 artists [who] are city-certified” (per yesterday’s DNAInfo article) are in rentals, and how many own their units? With the FOIA response in hand, that should be easy to count.

If you have 3 certified artists in a 10-unit building that is zoned M-1A or M-1B, you know that at least 7 units do not have a certified artist in them.

slicing and dicing, without harassing
You could even compare the list of “approximately 3,540 artists [who] are city-certified” to the death certificate rolls, and (probably) much reduce the number. That “approximately 3,450” sounds suspiciously like the number reported in the New York Times way back in November 2010 that started me worrying about (fixating on) Soho and A.I.R.  Christine Haughney then reported:

The Department of Cultural Affairs has certified roughly 3,400 artists since 1971, but the number of applicants shrank as the lofts filled out and the requirements began to be ignored. From 2003 to 2008, the department certified 164 artists and rejected 11.

But in 2009, the department accepted 14 artists and rejected 14. This year there have been 6 rejections and 14 acceptances.

That sounds to me as though the “approximately 3,540 artists [who] are city-certified” are the same “roughly 3,400 artists [the Department of Cultural Affairs has certified] since 1971”. If that is right, you can probably find through public records that a number have died or (in the case of coop or condo owners) sold.

The universe of more recently certified artists is much smaller, of course. Haughney reported on 192 successful applications from 2003 into November 2010; DNAInfo said yesterday there were 17 successful applicants in 2011. That is a universe of only 209 going back nearly nine years. How many of the 209 are dead, or have moved? (The certification is tied to a specific loft at a specific address; if the artist moves to another loft after a year, the “individual must apply for recertification, but need only submit information relevant to the period of time, which has elapsed since the date of the original certification”, per the DCA Notice to Applicants.)

Of course, there are easy ways to ballpark these numbers. Take that since-2003 slice of 209 certified artists. Check the death records, first. Check the addresses for coops and condos. If coops or condos, check the deed records to see how many have transfers.

In the larger universe of “approximately 3,540” and for all of the buildings, whether rentals, coops or condos, check the total number of units against the total number of certifications at each address.

You can also compare the number of transactions in M-1A or M-1B coop or condo buildings to the number of new certifications: in 2009, 14; in 2010, 14; in 2011, 17. In my November 12, 2010 post I noted 235 Soho sales had been recorded via StreetEasy since January 1, 2010; not all were in M-1A or M-1B coop or condo buildings, but a great many were. It should not be hard to do the math: check the 14 new artist certifications in 2010 against however many of the 235 sales were in M-1A or M-1B coop or condo buildings; obviously, a great many of the 235 were not sold to certified artists. The same process can be applied to the 17 new artist certifications in 2011 against however many of the 2011 sales were in M-1A or M-1B coop or condo buildings; the same result is likely.

You don’t have to harass anyone to do this.

tenants and owners have different problems, perspectives
Sweeney keeps talking about ”a wholesale eviction of the pioneering artists" and ignoring sales (he said the same thing last June in a Wall Street Journal article),  while the SNAC folks (whom I have dubbed Team Baisley in other places) keep talk about sales and saying they do not want artists evicted. A (relatively) simple and non-invasive “survey” would permit a reasonable estimate of how many of the “approximately 3,540” artists are still alive, still at their certification addresses, and are either renters or owners.

That knowledge should, in turn, lead to lower volume conversations about how to protect artists who rent, how to permit artists who own and want to sell, and how to protect those owners who are not certified artists. It may not be simple to separate out these issues, given the tangle of city zoning regulations and state law, but as I said in my March 5, 2011, is renter protection the thorniest (and separable) piece of the Soho artist in residence puzzle?, it might well be do-able. If people stop talking past one another.

not all surveys are harassment, apparently
I get it that people say things in the press that meet their interests, and regular readers should know that I do like and respect Sean Sweeney of the Soho Alliance. But his hysterical response to an idea that Team Bailey partner with an academic team to do a “survey” in Soho is a little hard to square with this, taken from a 1998 newsletter of the Soho Alliance (on their website under Archives; the weird formatting and spelling is from the newsletter):

The SoHo Alliance commissioned a study of
SoHo with Columbia University Graduate
School of Architecture and City Planning.
The scope of work included ground-floor uses
and a survey of the residential com¬munity.
The survey found that over 56% of SoHo
households have at least one
artist. 107o or nousenoias nave at ieast one
person in an arts-related field. The average
resident has lived here over six¬teen years.
We have more people who work at home
than any other neighbor¬hood in the city.
The majority of respon¬dents moved to
SoHo because of its rep¬utation as an arts
center. The Arts con¬tribute over $10 bil-
lion to New York City’s economy.

The methodology is, of course, not further described, but I will bet you $0.25 that this survey did not ask how many of the 56% of SoHo households with at least one artist in 1998 included DCA certified artists.

Note that, even then, 44% of Soho households were apparently non-compliant with A.I.R. regulations, according to the Soho Alliance’s own survey. Even then.

© Sandy Mattingly 2012

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