Imagine government officials sweeping through your building one night, rounding up you and your neighbors, and tossing you out on the street. It might sound like something out of the Stasi handbook, but it played out a few years ago on the forlorn boundary of two of New York’s outer boroughs. On an October evening in 2007, the Department of Buildings, along with the New York City Fire Department, forcibly removed more than 200 tenants living in a low-slung warehouse building at 17-17 Troutman, on the border of Ridgewood, Queens, and Bushwick, Brooklyn. The FDNY had reasons to shut down the facility: it had issued numerous fire and safety violations against the Troutman landlord, who had failed to address them. But the root of the crisis was the city’s antiquated, growth-hindering zoning laws, which continue to put hundreds of young, creative citizens at the mercy of poor living conditions and eviction.
Gotham’s zoning codes, which distinguish between residential and industrial areas, weren’t originally intended to function as they do today. When the first zoning resolution went into effect in 1916, city elders understood the need to protect residential neighborhoods from the encroachment of heavy industry. The city’s disastrous 1961 rezoning turned this protection on its head. In a failed effort to protect a dwindling industrial base, the 1961 resolution artificially enlarged the manufacturing zone to depress the cost of industrial rents. Swaths of the city became off-limits to residential redevelopment. Industry fled anyway, driven out by the high cost of labor and the city’s suffocating tax burden.
Though modified since, the 1961 policy remains in force, and it has created shadow economies and shadow lives. Landlords covertly lease the warehouse and factory space to residents, absorbing whatever modest financial penalties the city imposes. Superintendents maintain off-the-books waiting lists of prospective tenants. What results is a state of impermanence for residents. People who might otherwise wish to improve their buildings and invest in their neighborhoods are left with uncertain futures, forever fearful of a midnight knock on the door from the Department of Buildings.
The residents of 17-17 Troutman are a good example. They accepted slumlike surroundings in exchange for inexpensive housing (several were working artists in need of large space). They brought vitality to a neighborhood that had seen generations of flight and decay and was struggling to rise from the ashes of rioting in 1977. These urban pioneers were part of a wave of gentrification that helped transform a forgotten neighborhood, devastated by crime, arson, and misguided urban policy, into a fashionable, bohemian district (see “The Death and Life of Bushwick,” Spring 2008). But by paying rent on what was technically a commercial lease and living in their apartments, the Troutman tenants were violating an irregularly enforced law. And their landlord had never converted the building safely into apartments because the whole enterprise was under the table. Hence the unsafe conditions that led to the eviction in 2007.
The city knows that such warehouse buildings have occupants. One need only look up in neighborhoods like Morgantown, an industrial-zoned district in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to see the curtains. But rather than thoroughly enforcing current building codes or changing them altogether, the city has practiced a policy of don’t ask, don’t tell. “It is basically a Wild West,” says Laura Braslow, a student of urban planning who runs the volunteer organization Arts in Bushwick. “You have a lot of people in buildings and they have no real tenant rights, so you may have unsafe conditions. You have people putting resources, time, and energy into a neighborhood that they will never reap the benefits from. Everyone on the ground is expecting to get kicked out at some time.” Braslow’s colleague, performance artist Chloe Bass, describes her building’s substandard conditions: “I have been living in Bushwick for the last three and a half years in an apartment zoned for commercial space. Our apartment has no fire exit. Our building is probably not up to code. We have one door in and out, and no other way to get out unless you jump out of the window.”
“They are pioneers,” says Deborah Brown, a mid-career artist who has opened a gallery in Bushwick called Storefront, of residents like Braslow and Bass. “They are living in places no one would want to live—industrial areas with few services and fewer amenities. They create neighborhoods and make it safe for the rest of us to follow.” A painter who has exhibited a critically praised series of local landscapes developed in her Bushwick studio, Brown is representative of the artistic community’s attempts to put down local roots. She now serves on a community board and, with her husband, has opened an orthodontic clinic in the neighborhood.
The solution to the zoning problem, of course, is to rezone industrial areas to permit new residential use. City Councilwoman Diana Reyna, like many of her constituents in Bushwick’s Hispanic population, opposes rezoning, mistakenly believing that manufacturing (and the jobs it brings) could return to the community’s blighted industrial zones. But this summer, a battle for political control between Reyna and powerful state assemblyman Vito Lopez has led to an encouraging development in the zoning crisis—at least in Bushwick.
Lopez rules Bushwick with an armada of subsidized social programs through which he extracts political fealty; in general, he has little interest in zoning reform that doesn’t expand his control of existing and new subsidized housing. But he also recognizes a new constituency when he sees one, and Bushwick’s struggling artists are just such a constituency. So in Albany, the assemblyman proposed an expansion of New York State’s 1982 Loft Law, which was a temporary solution to the same problem the city confronts today—though back then, it involved artists living illegally in converted loft space in downtown Manhattan. The Loft Law didn’t rezone these districts, but it did grant legal status to industrial buildings with a recent history of tenant occupancy, thus ensuring that the buildings got brought up to code. Lopez proposed to apply the law to three more parts of the city, including the artist areas in Bushwick and East Williamsburg, which are in Reyna’s district. In a midnight deal on June 22, Governor David Paterson signed Lopez’s new Loft Law over the objections of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who argued that it “would prevent the City from taking measures to preserve even small islands of industrial businesses.” The law is a step in the right direction—a state intervention into a crisis that the city refused to address—though it fails to rezone a single industrial district for residential use.
The artists of Bushwick were surely breaking the law by living in buildings zoned for industry, as were the landlords by renting space to them. But the real injustice has been the city’s unwillingness to embrace market demand for housing by rezoning underused warehouse districts. Zoning lines should move according to the fluidity of demand, following the market instead of determining it. Meeting this demand could continue to revitalize some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods—and in the process, welcome New York’s next generation of creative talent.