It is no secret that Williamsburg, located on the banks of the East River with postcard views of Manhattan is a prime piece of real estate. Since the 1990s, Williamsburg has attracted wealthy investors who often replace the factory turned residential lofts with luxury high rises and retail development.
The trend has left many of the neighborhood’s low income minority residents and small business out in the cold. “Over the past twenty years rent prices have increased from two and four-hundred dollars a month to almost two-thousand, and in some cases over a million,” said Dan Matthew, CEO of Brooklyn Ecumenical Cooperatives, a non-profit organization that addresses affordable housing needs of individuals and economic development throughout neighborhoods.
But an old law is being rediscovered by tenants that could help locals from being squeezed out by rising rents.
To offset the effects of gentrification on the housing industry, State Assemblyman Vito Lopez, whose district includes part of Williamsburg, Bushwick, Greenpoint, and Long Island City, helped sponsor the Loft Law Amendment back in 2009. The amendment expanded the 1982 Law, which regulated the legal conversion of manufacturing and commercial lofts to residential use.
The amendment was enacted in June of 2010 and broadened the Loft Law to include those buildings lacking a residential certificate of occupancy. The law offers tenants, who may not have known they were living in illegally converted factories, a type of immunity to eviction that stabilizes their rents and offers lifetime leases, granted certain safety codes are met by the landlord through a legalized application process.
Ryan Kuonen has been living in her Williamsburg apartment for the last ten years and is undergoing the application process in hopes of not being evicted by her landlord who is reportedly suing her for $1 million. The landlord argues that Kuonen does not qualify for Loft Law, but that can only be determined by the New York City Loft Board.
Unfortunately, this type of action is not uncommon among landlords who, tenant advocates accuse of often shifting the pressure felt from outside developers onto tenants. “They throw frivolous lawsuits at you to cost you money because they know you don’t have it and don’t want to deal with the stresses of having a lawyer,” said Kuonen who is hoping to still be living in her apartment in ten years thanks to protection under Loft Law.
Kuonen encourages others to do the same. Four years ago she joined the Neighborhoods Allied for Good Growth, an organization centered on the principle that persons of Williamsburg and its neighbor Greenpoint are entitled to participate in the decision-making and negotiation processes that affect the area. Taking on the position of the ‘tenant organizer’ she holds meetings that inform individuals of their rights as tenants and how to utilize the revised Loft Law to their advantage. “United communities can stop, to a degree, certain parts of the wave of gentrification,” said Kuonen. “But you can’t fight gentrification unless you organize.”