Artists' Housing: Promise Or Threat?

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City Limits Magazine, October 1982, Vol. 12 No. 8
Artists' Housing: Promise or Threat?

In New York, the art capital of the world, where artists locate, high rents are not far behind. Can city programs to promote artist lofts in low income neighborhoods avoid that trend? Are they meant to?

Over the past 30 years, New York City has become the acknowledged center of the art world. Despite the recent drop in sales at fine art galleries and auction houses after years of steady growth, the city remains a focal point for all types of artistic endeavors. A portion of everything Western culture currently produces that can be called art is “made in New York.”

New York is also the home for a large number of art manufacturers—artists. For all but the lucky few, the high cost of housing and studio space presents a tremendous challenge. Now, artists’ housing threatens to become a problem for other New Yorkers as well, because artists often appear to play a role in the process that causes various city neighborhoods to rebound.

In certain instances, such as the early loft settlements in Lower Manhattan, this has been a positive undertaking—the artistic knack of making order out of chaos has resulted in the rejuvenation of struggling neighborhoods, principally commercial and manufacturing areas fallen on hard times.

Today, artists seeking housing are more often involved in competition for space in neighborhoods that aren’t primarily vacant, but rather home to the city’s low and middle income residents. In these situations the artists are often condemned as the harbingers of gentrification: suddenly there’s a gallery where there used to be a warehouse, a fern bar for the local painters, and then a neighborhood open-studio art show with tourists and perhaps even a scout for New York Magazine.

It’s understandable that both artists and neighborhood residents feel threatened. Displacement has cost many families their homes while property values soar. Professional types visit the neighborhood, find it “safe” and “nice” and buy in. It’s an ironic twist that frequently the original artist pioneers are among the eventual victims of the displacement which their arrival helped trigger.

The situation has reached crisis proportions. The artist population in several Brooklyn neighborhoods is growing rapidly; and as one Brooklyn activist explained, “The old people who live in some neighborhoods won’t put up with much of a fuss. They’ll be glad to see young people moving in right up until the moment they’re evicted; but in other areas, they might start stomping artists.”

On Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the issue has crystallized around the city Housing Department’s Artist Homeownership Program. The plan, announced over a year ago, promises the creation of 120 loft-style co-ops on two of that neighborhood’s battered blocks. The program, opposed by the local community board, is being advanced by the city with no heed to alternative suggestions made by representatives of the local community. Some area residents now vow to use every avenue of resistance to thwart the plan.

Can these forces be reconciled? Can artists move into a neighborhood in numbers without destroying it? Can city programs provide constructive help?

Further, are artists an essential part of the gentrification disease or merely a symptom of its arrival? Can locals chase the first artists to arrive out of the neighborhood, burn their moving vans and expect to be left alone? Will artists start to leave New York, forced to the Diaspora by the juggernaut of escalating rents and upscale development? New York wasn’t always the art center of the entire world; could its days be numbered?

These questions lack answers as yet, but the lessons of the past and present suggest some approaches for the future. Unless the current impasse is breached, that future is not likely to be pleasant. …

The Future Boom: Brooklyn and Beyond

The Lower East Side clash is just a portent of what’s already underway outside Manhattan. In 1980, the Koch administration announced a far-reaching rezoning plan to regulate residential conversion in Manhattan’s loft territory. Lower Manhattan Loft Tenants, a citywide advocacy group for residential loft tenants’ rights, criticized the plan in part because it failed to protect areas in Brooklyn and the outer boroughs that would come under greater pressure once regulation in Manhattan began. The danger of spreading the loft mess appeared certain.

The rezoning was given final approval by the Board of Estimate in April, 1981, and the worst fears of loft tenant advocates have been confirmed. Monte Davis, the founder of Brooklyn Loft Tenants, and a long-time tenant in the district under the Manhattan Bridge, confirms that the number of residential lofts in Brooklyn has doubled in the past two years. One Williamsburg loft owner made the Village Voice’s “Ten Worst Landlords” list last year.

Lofts in Brooklyn exist in Greenpoint, Williamsburg and in the waterfront neighborhoods further south. Some of these lofts are in manufacturing zones, many of which were recently designated study areas, where residential occupancy may be permitted in the future. In these North Brooklyn neighborhoods pressure is hardest on existing tenants in two to five unit buildings that have no rent protection.

Some of the new Brooklyn loft occupants are refugees from the Manhattan loft wars, while others are newly arrived New Yorkers. Friction has developed between the local residents and the incoming artist in some cases. Last spring, an art show called the “April Fools’” show was organized in Williamsburg. Local residents saw this as an act of self-promotion on the part of recently arrived artists who they felt did not comprehend the far-reaching impact that past events engendered in other neighborhoods. While there have been a few meetings between the newcomers and the long-time residents, communication between the two groups remains minimal.

The speculators haven’t missed the phenomenon. Deeper in Brooklyn, one developer has taken an active interest in promoting artist housing, taking a tack not unlike the city’s homeownership program, but with vicious intent. Rather than starting with abandoned buildings, he runs out the low income tenants, demolishes a few walls, totals the meager bathrooms and kitchens, and rents the rubble to artists as raw commercial space. Of course, he offers a short commercial lease. If the artists fix up the place, he’ll kindly buy the raw materials, and the work can be done without any of the necessary permits. Needless to say, his new “commercial” building is also removed from the roster of rent regulated multiple dwellings as well.

Some of the new artists have offended residents by proclaiming that the arrival of artists will save the neighborhood, or that they are reclaiming “worthless” territory. Since the areas in question are home for hundreds of families, in some areas predominately black, in others Hispanic or East European, such talk is not well received. Far from empty, these neighborhoods can only remain home to old-time residents if they are not “fixed up” by the eager artists. The atmosphere for a hostile reception grows.

The Research Center for Arts and Culture at Teachers College of Columbia University released a report today on the status of NYC's artistic community – and its dependence on the decreasing stock of affordable housing – called “Above Ground: Information on Artists III, Special Focus on New York City Aging Artists.”

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