Want a laugh? There’s a 1970s-era law still on the books that stipulates that lofts in Manhattan’s SoHo district be rented to artists. The law’s been ignored for years, but an article in today’s NY Times reports that since the recession the city is paying closer attention to the requirement that SoHo loft tenants be artists. The artist-residency law was intended to preserve the former industrial facilities for artists in various disciplines who need large spaces for studios and otherwise might be priced out of the market. But today, with loft prices in the multiple millions of dollars, only the richest artists could afford one, and they typically would have a studio elsewhere.
According to the Times, in the last couple of years a larger percentage of applications have been rejected. The article does not explain precisely why, noting that the review process and the identity of the two judges who decide are not made public. The paper guesses that it may have to do with the shaky lending environment and banks’ and landlords’ fear of legal problems hampering resales. A simpler explanation may be that there’s a new sheriff in town, a judge who adheres to the letter of the law. The front-page news is not only that the City is obeying its own laws, but that doing so may be putting a damper on the real estate market because the artist proviso limits the pool of potential buyers.
The tacit implication of the article is that the law is damaging the city’s economy: In a free market anyone should be able to live anywhere, provided they have the money. Who needs social and urban engineering? But of course, there is value in having a thriving artist community. Artists tend to contribute to society in ways that other categories of citizens do not. They should not be an import. And there is value also for the artists in living in proximity to one another. It leads to the establishment and exchange of services necessary to creation, and promotes collaboration, cooperation and the vital flow of ideas. (For comparable reasons the city establishes zones restricted to residential, commercial and other uses.) But inexorably such values fall victim to profit-seeking by landowners abetted by complacent politicians.
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SoHo is no longer an arts district. The galleries long ago moved to Chelsea and the high-end fashion and design stores moved in. The lofts still have a high percentage of art-related tenants – visual and performing artists, photographers, professors, curators, dealers, writers – but there are just as many bankers, stockbrokers and other professionals in the area. Today, the sorts of artists that the law was intended to support seek affordable studio space in Brooklyn, Queens, the Lower East Side or New Jersey. Sadly, the law now is utterly obsolete and should be repealed.
Jason Edward Kaufman