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Tenants Begin Battle
For Brooklyn Loft Law

By Joshua Breitbart

Mery Lynn McCorkle has been living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn for four and a half years. She has spent close to $10,000 to convert a dormant commercial lot into a livable space for her and her business partner. But now her landlord wants her out. "We’ve had no electricity or hot water for over five months. And we have no legal recourse."

Her landlord cut electrical service, claiming the commercial lease gives him the right to do so. Because she is living at the location, the courts have not afforded her the same protection as businesses in her building. And Con Edison will not deal with her directly without the landlord’s cooperation.

McCorkle is one of an estimated 10,000 Brooklyn residents who have converted commercial property into mixed live-work spaces--illegally, but usually with their landlord’s tacit consent. And like many others, she now finds herself caught in the cracks in New York City’s housing code. Landlords who once eagerly rented disused warehouses and factory spaces to residential tenants now want to clear the buildings to cash in on soaring rents in newly chic neighborhoods and their tenants’ capital improvements. Simultaneously, the city’s Buildings Department is waking up to the widespread reality of illegal and sometimes unsafe loft dwellings. McCorkle was one of over 400 people in Williamsburg at a Feb. 15 public hearing addressing the need for legislation to protect Brooklyn tenants who live in commercial buildings. Lawyers, small-business owners, local politicians--including City Councilmembers Stephen DiBrienza and Kenneth K. Fisher--and, most of all, tenants showed up at the Swinging Sixties Senior Center to lobby members of the state Assembly.

The Brooklyn Live/Work Coalition (BLWC), a network of over 2,000 people representing 69 buildings, was formed in December when the Fire Department suddenly cleared tenants from 247 Water St., in the waterfront area known as "Dumbo" (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass). The Daily News then published a list of 98 buildings supposedly slated for evictions, which was dubbed the "List of Doom."

Susan Woods had lived at 247 Water Street for nearly six years. After her eviction, she joined BLWC to help protect others. "If an upper-middle-class white woman can be thrown out of my house in the middle of the night, then this system won’t protect anyone," she said after the forum.

The first test of the group’s strength came on Jan. 2, when the Buildings Department attempted to evict residents of a third building at 255 Water St. The city claimed the premises were unsafe after the landlord disconnected the building’s sprinkler system. Supporters and tenants quickly gathered at the location to block the ouster and called in Councilmember Fisher, who negotiated a reprieve. Both Water Street buildings are owned by Joshua Guttman.

Ellen Harvey, an artist and activist with the BLWC, and a member of its legislative committee, is pleased with the group’s accomplishments to date. "It’s exciting to see it go from the Building Department kicking people out to someone willing to sponsor legislation in two months," she said. Assemblymember Vito Lopez (D-Brooklyn), who chaired the hearing, is prepared to sponsor two bills. One would extend the 1982 Loft Law, which generally covers only certain zones in Manhattan and is set to expire June 15. It specified that any building that had been designated for commercial use but now had three residential units and no certificate of occupancy was a "multiple dwelling" and had to be brought up to code by the building owner. (Unlike standard multiple dwellings, however, the landlord can continue to collect rent while he or she makes improvements). The second bill would affect current residents of commercial lofts in Brooklyn, but would be similarly phrased.

Once the legislation is introduced, "Then people here need to come to Albany," Lopez stated, referring to the importance of lobbying the Republican-controlled State Senate for bipartisan support.

Assemblymember Joan L. Millman (D-Brooklyn) was optimistic about the bills’ chances in Albany. "The major landlords are a very powerful lobby, but there is an economic incentive [to support the tenants] and the personal testimony is very moving," she said.

During the hearing, Lopez noted some resistance to the legislation might come from the mostly Hispanic portion of his constituency in Bushwick who fear gentrification will displace them from their neighborhoods. Harvey was quick to respond on that issue. "It’s unfair to characterize us as gentrifiers because we are interested in maintaining existing communities. We have not been displacing manufacturing. We have used mostly abandoned space to create something… We don’t want to be the next Soho."

Historically, though, an influx of artists and bohemians was the initial step in the gentrification of Soho, the Lower East Side and Williamsburg. In Soho, the landlords’ manipulation of the Loft Law was the last step. Some coalition members say they have a positive influence on economically depressed neighborhoods. Eve Sussman, a founder of BLWC, testified: "We are modern-day homesteaders. [But] instead of being given something for free, we have signed leases and pay rent, and we pay millions of dollars in rent. The building I currently live and work in… was only attractive to artists--who could envision a future, were forming communities in blighted neighborhoods and, unlike many factory owners, still maintain ties to the art and cultural life in Manhattan. What has transpired is a Brooklyn Renaissance, an urban renewal enacted without city or state aid, incentive programs or tax cuts. There is one incentive that drives us to keep moving into these forgotten buildings--a place to do our work and make a home."

Others who support BLWC’s goals take a different perspective. "If we are homesteaders, does that make the NYPD the cavalry?" asked Makis Antzoulatos of the North Brooklyn Gentrifiers Against Gentrification (GAG). "It’s not that living in commercial spaces is bad," added GAG member Liv Dillon, "but it’s not affordable homes for low-income families."

Many people involved with BLWC recognize the complexity of their situation. Some express hope that the coalition’s work may help to bridge gaps between communities and allow them to contribute to other neighborhood struggles. Peter Krebs, a BLWC tenant organizer, thinks the real value of the group goes beyond specific legislation. "That’s the hope," he said, "that being better organized will make us better neighbors."

The BLWC is now working on a census of all live-work tenants through its Website: www.brooklynlivework.org. The Website says, "Now it’s your turn to stand up, be counted, and let the city and state know that you’re a benefit to the community."

"We need to be able to refute the stereotype that we’re all rich art students," BLWC member Ellen Harvey said of the census. The BLWC is growing quickly. According to lawyer Arthur Rhine, the organizing process is crucial. Though Rhine has been able to use the civil courts to protect many of his live-work clients, he told the hearing, "What lawyers can do is negligible compared to what a unified group of tenants can do."

This article originally appeared in the New York City Independent Media Center’s monthly newspaper, The Indypendent. For more information on the NYC IMC, visit www.nyc.indymedia.org.