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Loft law reform ignites debate over North Brooklyn industrial zones

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Council member Reynoso fears a loft law expansion will displace North Brooklyn manufacturing businesses

Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Max Touhey

A rift has emerged between tenant advocates and those who aim to preserve manufacturing jobs in North Brooklyn over a bill that would expand protections for people living in loft apartments.

State lawmakers are considering an update to the loft law, first passed in 1982, which regulates the conversion of illegal units in industrial spaces into habitable dwellings. A bill that would allow loft tenants to apply for such protections was stymied by a Republican-controlled state Senate in recent years. Now that both the Senate and Assembly are under Democratic control, the bill’s passage seems imminent.

But critics in North Brooklyn say an expansion of the law will endanger manufacturing businesses and their workers in areas designated for industrial use (known as Industrial Business Zones, or IBZs) in Williamsburg and Greenpoint. The loft law legislation that is currently before Albany prohibits such buildings from existing in IBZs, but exemptions put into place years ago by former Assembly member Vito Lopez would allow for the buildings in North Brooklyn’s IBZs.

New York City Council member Antonio Reynoso, who represents Williamsburg, says the exemption “undermines” the area’s industrial character and says the legislation as currently drafted is “essentially a large-scale residential rezoning of our city’s industrial zones.”

“By placing an exemption in the loft law for these areas in North Brooklyn, the bill will completely undermine existing and planned industrial protections and catalyze economic gentrification, furthering the already rampant residential displacement in our community,” Reynoso wrote in a statement. “We cannot let the political ghosts of the past continue to drive bad policy.”

The new bills proposed by Brooklyn state Senator Julia Salazar and Manhattan Assembly member Deborah Glick would expand the years of eligibility for tenants and landlords to apply for protected status in buildings where illegal lofts were rented from 2015 to 2016. Current law applies to tenants who were housed in lofts in 2009 and earlier.

Reynoso, who points to a lack of concrete data on exactly how many lofts will be converted in the area and their potential impacts on the community, wants protections to remain for loft renters whose units have already been converted into legal units, but says loft apartments shouldn’t be permitted in the IBZs.

“When residential and industrial uses are placed in such close proximity clashes inevitably erupt and we have seen that industry almost always looses—businesses are displaced and the workers are left without stable employment to support the ever increasing cost of living in New York City,” Reynoso wrote, referring to the 19,500 jobs, as of 2016, packed into more than 1,000 industrial acres across Greenpoint, Williamsburg, and Bushwick.

Reynoso says he only recently learned that Albany is revisiting the loft law, and called for a slow down on the process; he’d like there to be additional hearings where locals can weigh in. Area community groups, including Churches United for Fair Housing, echoed Reynoso’s concerns and fear the legislation as written may spur landlords to push out current businesses and replace them with residential units in hopes of legalizing them.

The Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, which is a coalition of community groups focused on developing affordable housing, and seven other community development organizations penned a Wednesday letter to Salazar urging she reconsider the legislation in its current form.

“There is a pressing need for affordable housing in New York City,” the letter reads. “The solution to that problem is to build and preserve truly affordable housing, not to incentivize the illegal conversion of space that has been designated as a manufacturing zone.”

But some loft residents say those concerns are an oversimplification that pits manufacturing jobs against loft tenants, many of whom use their units as live-work spaces—and when they’re booted they not only lose their homes but their livelihoods.

“I got pushed out of my building and it almost killed my business. I had to cancel contracts,” says Rob Swainston, who runs the fine art print shop Prints of Darkness and was displaced from 475 Kent—a former matzo factory that has become one of Williamsburg’s most famous artists’ loft—in 2008 due to a fire hazard violation. He now operates his business in Long Island City.

“That live-work space made it affordable to incubate my business, but when the building was vacated it was regrettable because I was both homeless and unemployed,” Swainston says.

Alison Dell, who currently lives in 475 Kent (which is not in an IBZ) under loft law protections, says she’s witnessed parts of the building turn into a ghost town as the landlord evicts, guts, and renovates units.

“Our building has been gutted, our community has been gutted, and anyone who is not protected is gone,” says Dell, who is an artist and an assistant professor of biology at St. Francis College. “The protection of the loft law is the only thing that’s keeping me here in my home and work place—and I’ve lived here for 22 years.”

Both Dell and Swainston say they were taken aback by Reynoso’s statement and say comprehensive protections for both loft tenants and manufactures should be an immediate priority. “I don’t see that one is at the expense of the other,” says Dell.

But Reynoso pushed back on those concerns Tuesday and said that he wants to “find a win for everyone.”

“I feel like I’ve been very clear with the loft law. I always told the loft tenants that I absolutely believe if they apply through the process that has existed for over 10 years they should be protected, but I also told them that the IBZ situation has to be dealt with,” Reynoso tells Curbed. “For some reason it has become loft tenants versus business and that’s not what I’m saying. I think there’s a way we can protect both.”

The Council member also worries that city planning officials could point to legalized lofts in the IBZs as a rationale to eventually rezone the industrial swaths of North Brooklyn for residential use. At the moment, the city is currently studying a stretch of North Brooklyn, spanning parts of Greenpoint, Williamsburg, and Bushwick, to preserve their manufacturing roots.

Zefrey Throwell, an organizer with advocacy group NYC Loft Tenants, says concerns about a sudden influx of lofts are a farce because the law’s expansion would only apply to certain existing lofts. “Unless they have a time travel machine to go back three year there’s no friction between our law and anyone’s industry,” he notes.

Salazar’s office is considering the manufacturing concerns and is “discussing what that looks like legislatively,” according to Michael Carter, Salazar’s director of communications. Changes to the bill are anticipated in the coming weeks.

“We need to protect loft tenants while also protecting the ~20,000 currently existing manufacturing jobs within the IBZ and protecting the local community,” Salazar wrote in a Tuesday tweet. “It’s challenging, but doing the right thing often is!”