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Thousands of loft dwellers across New York City are in danger of displacement under a New York Court of Appeals ruling that neither the 1974 Emergency Tenant Protection Act (ETPA) nor the 1982 Loft Law provides rent protection for tenants occupying loft apartments illegally converted after 1981.

Sarah Wolinsky, one of several plaintiff-tenants involved in the case, leased her unit in 1997 and then—with her landlord’s blessing—converted the space for residential use. Her building on Grand Street is situated in a M1-5B zoning district, which permits use of the property for manufacturing and joint living-work space for artists. Ms. Wolinsky is not an artist, but says she was assured by her landlord this wouldn’t be a problem. Three years and $30,000-worth of investments later, Wolinsky was informed her rent would soon double. Her landlord, Pao Chung Lee, did not return calls by press time.

The final decision issued in Wolinsky, et al. v. Kee Yip Realty Corporation was fairly cut and dry. The ETPA, New York’s rent-stabilization law, applies strictly to legal tenancies, Judge Victoria Fraffeo ruled. Similarly, the 1982 Loft Law offers little hope for protection: Designed to stem the proliferation of illegal residential conversions of manufacturing premises in 1980s SoHo, it allows only a fixed number of tenants who occupied their lofts between April 1, 1980 and December 1, 1981 to register for rent protection. The law thus fails to safeguard a whole new generation of artists, professionals and working families that currently inhabit converted spaces. An anonymous survey conducted by the Live-Work Association puts the number of illicit loft tenants throughout New York City at upwards of 20,000.

While some argue that loft dwellers rented at their own risk and shouldn’t be rewarded for illegal occupancy, Wolinsky says many loft tenants are low-income renters misled by their landlords. Some, like Wolinsky, are already facing imminent eviction. “Our only hope is to get the legislature to pass another loft law,” she said.

The New York State Assembly recently passed new legislation, introduced by Assemblymember Vito Lopez, that would extend protections to tenants illegally inhabiting buildings zoned for manufacturing and amend the ETPA to give New York City the authority to impose rent regulations on landlords as a penalty for renting commercial units for residential use.

Lopez is lobbying hard to get the State Senate to consider the bill when it reconvenes. “The law is not yet reflective of the increase in loft tenants in other areas such as Brooklyn,” Lopez said. “If we do not broaden the legislation and offer these individuals coverage, they will be systematically removed from high-market neighborhoods.”

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