An In-Depth Discussion on How Artists Can Save Studios in NYC

by Whitney Kimball on April 1, 2014 Events

Paddy Johnson, Diana Reyna, Shawn Gallagher, Tom Angotti, and Jenny Dubnau talk in front of a packed audience

Paddy Johnson, Diana Reyna, Shawn Gallagher, Tom Angotti, and Jenny Dubnau talk in front of a packed audience. All photographs by Christian Grattan.

If there’s an afterlife for last year’s mega-benefit show Surviving Sandy, then it’s given artists a cattle call to fight for affordable studio space. At last Thursday night’s panel talk “Studio in Crisis,” which was unusually packed wall-to-wall with artists and others, Surviving Sandy was cited as one of the main catalysts for taking action.

“[I]t seemed overwhelmingly depressing,”  said artist and panelist Jenny Dubnau. “And there was no hope. There’s nowhere else to go. It seems like a relentless march in real estate, and it seems like real estate has all the power, and it certainly did under Bloomberg.”

“But,” she went on, “if it pulls people together, and we become active, and take control of our fate—then that’s a really positive thing to come out of it.” Dubnau went on to co-found A.S.A.P., the Artist Studio Affordability Project, with artists who were suffering from the real estate costs and wanted to take action, many of which came from Industry City.

Is a future in New York even realistic? Panelists who’d been through Williamsburg didn’t seem optimistic, although we kept hearing caveats like Tom Angotti’s: “If you get depressed and you say, it’s inevitable, there’s nothing I can do—then you’re finished. And your neighbors are finished, too.” Over and over, panelists emphasized that artists’ best chance at staying in the city will be to partner with their neighbors.

Paddy Johnson moderated, and we heard from Dubnau, Deputy Borough President Diana Reyna, city planner Tom Angotti, artist and ex-Economic Development Corporation employee Shawn Gallagher. Due to the panelists’ depth of raw information, we’ve decided to publish our lightly edited  transcription. Next, we’ll be posting a quick list of ten takeaways. In this chapter, panelists discuss efforts that have come before, how artists can get involved in their communities, and whether old rent laws are working anymore. You can listen to the full talk here, but just a quick note, there’s some silence to be heard at the beginning of the track.

[Soundcloud timestamp: 1:45]

Paddy Johnson: I think we are all here because we all suffer from a common problem; we need affordable space to work and live. First, I wanted to ask everybody…to lay out what the stakes are for you and how you define issue of expensive real estate.


Deputy Borough President of Brooklyn, Diana Reyna: I come with a background as a Brooklynite representing my community as a Council Member for the last twelve years, representing the communities of Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Bushwick, and Ridgewood, Queens. And those are the communities that are hottest right now as far as…the issues of competing real estate interests.

One of the struggles which I believe is dictating what we see happening in these communities– especially in immigrant communities– it’s the issue of making it seem as though no one is living in these communities. And yet, there are families that are being raised. And when there’s an opportunity for there to be an arts and culture growing movement in these communities, it’s at the expense of those families.


We have seen what has happened to Williamsburg, that’s where I grew up. I grew up during the seventies, the fiscal crisis, and the eighties, which was the epicenter of drugs and gangs. And I wasn’t able to remain in my community, and my family was displaced. And we were able to acquire later on what would be a home opportunity in Bushwick. And today we’re seeing the same thing that happened in Williamsburg in Bushwick.


“People are thinking outside the box more so than ever. What I’ve seen in Bushwick is the difference between what happened in Williamsburg- cooperative, shared spaces where now artists feel they can live with and amongst the community. But also have a space where they can share and have the opportunity to, at a walking distance, walk to their studio space. That model is certainly something we need to explore further.


Artist, Placeholder (formerly “Stay in Bushwick”) member, and ex- Assistant Vice President for Real Estate and Legal Affairs at the Economic Development Corporation Shawn Gallagher:  We believe that the solution to the precarious situation that many artists find themselves in is to become owners themselves. Currently, we think that having a nonprofit or low-profit model, a company, and entity that would lease out to artists at market or below-market rates– at least provide stable leases– would go some way toward providing stability of artists, stability of community.

Tom Angotti

Tom Angotti


Author, City Planner, and Community Organizer Tom Angotti: I’m an urban planner, I teach urban planning at CUNY at the graduate center. I was born in Brooklyn, have lived half my life in Brooklyn. I’ve seen multiple waves of gentrification, and every one of them brings me to action with the kind of planning that I’ve been doing with community-based organizations for quite some time– who don’t want to be displaced.

If gentrification is a bad word, it’s because it forces people out of communities they want to stay in, because house prices and rents are too high. And so some of you may have seen my book “New York for Sale: Community Planning Confronts Global Real Estate”. The title kind of tells it.

So I’ve been working with community-based organizations for years who are developing their own plans. Because New York City does not. The city does not have a planning process. …Full disclosure, I used to work for the city planning department, so I know how this works. The city goes in and they a neighborhood, but they don’t think about public services, subway services, schools, libraries- and they absolutely do not think about who might be forced out.



Jenny Dubnau:  I’m a native New Yorker and an artist. I don’t claim any particular expertise to this aside from willingness to fight back…I think, like most of you, I’ve gone from studio to studio, and I think many of us are feeling like we’re running out of places to go.


Paddy Johnson:  Are there any lessons to be learned from Industry City?


Jenny Dubnau:  For me, the negative thing was that it seemed overwhelmingly depressing. And there was no hope. There’s nowhere else to go, we’re screwed. It seems like a relentless march in real estate, and it seems like real estate has all the power, and it certainly did under Bloomberg. So the takeaway could be just making us lie down and do nothing. But for me, the silver lining is that if it pulls people together, and we become active, and take control of our fate– then that’s a really positive thing to come out of it.


But I don’t see any real solutions coming out of it, other than identifying the problem.


Paddy Johnson: Another part of mobilization is thinking about how artists fit into the fabric of the community. [It made me wonder] whether it made sense for artists to consider ourselves, as we often do, a special group. …

But the other way to talk about ourselves is as regular middle-class business owners. ….Maybe we’re employing framers, other manufacturers who help us make our work, but our special needs are specific to our business, which falls under a larger constituency.

Diana Reyna

Diana Reyna


Diana Reyna: When we talk about gentrification, it became so overly-said, to the point where gentrification lost value in mentioning. Because gentrification is really the message of classes. You’re talking about the ability to move, to pick up and go to the next location. And when I think about my community, and have seen the changes, there is no way to pick up and go to the next affordable community. You have families who are grounded, their ecosystem is not the nextdoor artist who’s supporting your work- it’s the family who takes care of the child after school, the grandmother who’s up the block. So it’s very difficult to not integrate your struggle with what is that particular situation.


In Bushwick, the greatest battles are caused by landlord harassment. One landlord owned three buildings…When literally the landlord claimed he was going to do improvements to the home of this one family. And when they came back home, there was a hole because the ceiling had been removed, and the stairwell had been destroyed. So there was no ability to enter or exit….People are hurting when we talk about displacement.


Manufacturing buildings are not low rent anymore, so people can’t go to work there anymore.


All we can do is develop up, because there’s nowhere left to expand horizontally. If we’re not going to develop up, where do we go from here?


Once speculators see an artist, they think there goes the neighborhood. You’re seen as the enemy in our neighborhoods, and that has to change.


Shawn Gallagher: For the purpose of maintaining spaces, [I like] to consider of artists as small manufacturers…You could certainly have a building with uses for artist studios, and say, like, a metal worker and a furniture manufacturer. That is allowable under the same type of zoning, no variances….in terms of maintaining the industrial nature of neighborhoods, I think artists who are interested in maintaining studio space are completely on the same page in that regard.

And also I should say this for full disclosure…but I was the Assistant Vice President for Real Estate and Legal Affairs at the Economic Development Corporation for a number of years. I had kind of an inside view on the way commercial real estate was working especially in the Bloomberg years.

Straddling both of those worlds..I can say that we can’t rely on goodwill of landlords to maintain space for industrial users or for artist studios, because it often doesn’t make financial sense. …Naturally, it makes sense to them to make their property as valuable as possible.”

Tom Angotti: I wanted to address this problem, that it does look awfully daunting. And when you stop to think about it, the obstacles faced, this is the real estate capital of the world. Real estate in New York is what oil is to Houston. The real estate industry is extremely powerful, they control a lot, they finance so many elected officials. But you know what? We also have a hundred years of vibrant community organizations. We have rent regulations because people organized to protest. We’ve got a lot of very good, stable community-based organizations who say no and don’t allow things to happen because they’re together.

In my list, ‘Five Things You Can Do About Gentrification,’ the first thing is talk to people. It really only works if you don’t talk to anybody. If you get depressed and you say, oh,  it’s inevitable, there’s nothing I can do, then you’re finished. And your neighbors are finished, too.

Paddy Johnson

Paddy Johnson


Paddy Johnson:  Where are the places to start?


Diana Reyna:  Get appointed to community boards.

NURTUREArt is a fabulous organization. They matched up artists and studio residencies with with kids in local schools. Sometimes, if you set aside some money, and get the talent, you can accomplish so much more…


It’s important for you to understand that getting what is supposedly the Loft Law to protect you– that’s not for an artist. It’s to protect what would be a residency. And protecting residential value is not in the interest of community, nor an artist. I say this with a lot of honesty and depth of experience and knowledge, because I’ve seen a lot of landlords trying to lure artists into believing that the Loft Law is the best thing that can happen.

Paddy Johnson: Explain the Loft Law?

Diana Reyna: It was created in the 80s. That was a movement to protect lofts that artists were living and working out of. Most of them were in Manhattan, Soho. In Williamsburg, we had Morgan Avenue, one big structure. I believed at that time that [the Loft Law] was the greatest thing that could happen, because we want artists to stay in our neighborhoods. But what I noticed was that in the late 90s, turn of the century- as far as 2001-3, when we started talking about rezoning, that’s when the Loft Law goes to the side and all bets are off. We rezone in order to make sure that the property now changes the guards of what or who the tenants will be. So the majority of those lofts become, eventually, condominiums.”

Today I was in a room with real estate agents who didn’t know who I was. They said I got property in East Williamsburg and I was praying, this administration told me that the time was coming for the rezoning of East Williamsburg. …That’s when I said, well you’re dead wrong, over my dead body you’re going to turn that into a rezone.

And no one monitors these lofts. If we really wanted to protect live-work spaces, we would keep a directory, a database of all these lofts. It does not exist.


Make no mistake that the Loft Law does now benefit anyone other than the property owner.

Editor’s note: The 1982 Loft Law was designed to protect tenants (often artists) who were previously living illegally in in live/work spaces, in buildings once used for commercial and manufacturing purposes. Qualifying for loft status means residents get rent controls, tenants’ rights, and protection from eviction, and it was expanded in 2010 to include new loft tenants. One problem is that not enough people knew to apply for protection under the law, and some who did were paid back with landlord harassment. For more information, read this.  


Paddy Johnson:  [To Tom Angotti] In the film “My Brooklyn”, Pratt offers the city a bunch of proposals that wouldn’t look like Gap-i-fying the Fulton Mall. And I was just wondering, why weren’t those organizations successful? Why were they just ignored? Is this a problem that we as artists as a community in New York are constantly going to face?


Tom Angotti: Well, there have been over a hundred plans developed by communities, similar to the Pratt plan, which was not by a community, but it was done by a nonprofit group in the same vein. And there has been quite a movement since the 1980s, where people have developed their alternative visions of their neighborhoods. And in 1989, the New York City charter was revised to authorize communities to present their own plans for official approval. At that time, many of us were very excited about this, because now, you could do a plan to preserve and develop your neighborhood, take it to the community planning board, the city council, and get it approved. And your plan would be an approved city plan. Well, since 1989, since the charter revision, only some twelve plans have been approved. And most of them may be found in a large wastebasket at the City Planning Department. The city makes no commitment to implement them.

The Bloomberg years were especially disastrous. We had a citywide task force and campaign for community-based planning which included legislation, and we had support from a number of City Council people. City Hall basically listened to us– it was the usual PR response, which was oh this is all very nice. And they did nothing, and undermined many community-based plans, including the Williamsburg and Greenpoint plans which took almost fifteen years to complete by summarily rezoning the waterfront that nobody wanted to see luxury condominiums on. The community of Williamsburg said “we want the waterfront to look like the rest of the community”…low to mid-rise, mixed use, a mixture of industry, commercial new was for development, but not for luxury condos. That’s what the plan said! and the City Planning commissioner approved it! Two years later, they present the rezoning to put luxury condos on the waterfront. So I think it’s an opportunity with the new administration to relaunch the idea that people not only have the opportunity but have the right to develop collectively what their neighborhoods are going to look like.”

Jenny Dubnau

Jenny Dubnau


Jenny Dubnau:  I actually…when I was wondering why there couldn’t be rent stabilization for commercial real estate…I did some research, and it turns out that a lot of people have had this idea. I learned that in the 80s, with Ruth Messinger, the Borough President– she fought hard for commercial rent stabilization which would have included industrial spaces and storefront spaces. And it would be limited only by square footage and how many employees you have. So if you’re a 50,000 square space, or you have more than fifteen employees, you might not get the rent stabilization. And then I found out that in 2009, a couple council members tried a more watered-down version of it and Christine Quinn didn’t let it out of committee. And apparently, they would have had the votes on city council.”

“The idea of old-fashioned lobbying day– artists can have a lobbying day. Communities can have a lobbying day….we’ve met with several council members and are starting to meet with heads of other neighborhood activist groups.


Shawn Gallagher:  I just wanted to stress that I think commercially, rent stabilization is a very important issue. And it could go a long way towards alleviating the current problem. And the problem is recognized. There are incentives and benefits available in government for small manufacturers, industrial users. The metrics that are used, though, to [distribute] those benefits are job creation, taxes…it doesn’t really apply to artist studios.


Diana Reyna:  When we start looking at commercial rent stabilization, it’s important to look at what’s happening in the housing world. The majority of rent-stabilized units are in Manhattan, and they’re third generation, passed on like a privilege. They’re not being turned over to a new wave of residents in need. And they are the wealthiest of New Yorkers. And so be careful what you wish for.

Tom Angotti interrupts: No, that’s rent controlled–

Diana Reyna: No, it’s also rent stabilization.

Tom Angotti: Well, Manhattan is losing more rent (stabilized) units than any borough.


Tom Angotti:  In two years, the rent law expires. There’s already a citywide campaign, “Real Rent Reform,” talking about not only renewing the rent regulation but strengthening it. It needs a lot of work. So I would urge everybody to join that campaign, I think it’s very important.

I was also very excited when you (Jenny) mentioned commercial rent control, because I remember in the eighties fighting for commercial rent control with Ruth Messinger, and that was a hard feat. She was actually just raked over the coals for even daring to regulate commercial rents. Since then, it’s been very difficult to have a discussion in the public discourse about commercial rent control. But every neighborhood I go to, what do people talk about? How do we keep small, locally-owned businesses? We’re going to have another bank branch, another Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts…and all the locally-owned businesses are gone, they can’t afford the rent anymore. So this is what people are asking for. It’s kind of like when the press woke up one morning and found out that Bill de Blasio was elected mayor, because they care about inequality. They’re going to have to wake up and find out that people also care about the quality of life in their neighborhoods and the commercial and retail, as well as the residential. Because if you can’t afford to shop, you can’t afford the rent, either, you’re out.

An audience member asks questions about the Urdstate law

An audience member asks questions about the Urdstadt Law



Audience member: Rent control is controlled by the state, so wouldn’t commercial rent control also be controlled by the state?

Diana Reyna: Yes.

Audience member: So that would be very hard to get passed.

Diana Reyna: To the point of lobbying- when you hear “Affordable Housing Day,” it’s to go lobby the state to get the Urstadt Law repealed.

Audience member: I’m interested in some pointers on how we can organize to come together to buy buildings. Can you comment on that?

Shawn Gallagher

Shawn Gallagher

Shawn Gallagher: Sure. I should mention that the group that originally came together for the purposes of exploring ownership was originally called Stay in Bushwick. It’s now called Placeholder. We’ve talked about a couple of different strategies. One very simple strategy is getting enough people together and enough capital for a co-op-style, where you would collectively effectively pool your resources, acquire a building, build it out if it needed it and each unit, would be own separately, legally. So everyone would own a unit. It’s very simple, it just takes organization and people with a certain amount of wherewithal.  I think most artists don’t have the wherewithal to even get into a co-op situation.

The model we think would benefit the greatest number of artists would be a not for profit, or low profit entity would be run very transparently. A low profit model would be a type of public benefit LLC that’s not currently available in the state of New York but there are ways around that. That entity would itself own the building. What we’re talking about now is having a low or non-profit entity be the landlord and renting out stable leases with below or at market rents, directly tied to the reasonable costs of owning and operating a building.

If the management is run as a not for profit, we could at least keep the rent stable. And we’re also interested in making the situation permanent. And there are a number of ways we could do that. One would be to record a restrictive covenant against the building, stating that they could only be used as artist studios in perpetuity. No private landlord in his right mind would ever do that because it would reduce the value of the buildingp ermanentlyy. So what we want to do is buy a building, reduce its value permanently and use it for artist studios.

Diana Reyna: And that model has existed forever. As far as the non-profit world is concerned when you’re developing The South Side Housing Corporation — that’s how how we were able to rebuild Williamsburg—lot by lot—all the burned out buildings. And so the same aspect ties here.

Audience member: [Addressing Diana] I’m confused about why its inevitable that a live work space will be turned into a condo. Does this have to do with zoning? I assume there’s some sort of zoning change between “live work” and “condo”.

Diana Reyna: Let me express to you how that evolves:

I’m an artist, I’m looking for cheap space, but I need to live in same space that I work. Williamsburg, East Williamsburg. Great, nobody’s going to use this space. I’m going to take my space to sublease it—10,000 a month is not an affordable lease. I’m going divide the space until I have $10,000 amongst all of us for that floor.

Moving fast forward, the loft law allowed you, created the legal opportunity for you to be recognized. You live in an underground world as a live work space.

That space is not technically yours. It’s still owned by the property owner. It allows the landlord to take the space, rent it, and increase according to certain guidelines. Eventually, that landlord is going to use the same practices he does in the market world—harassment—enough to push you out of that particular unit.

Audience member mentions that some artists are actually living in protected lofts in Soho, so the Loft Law Works

Audience member (Caroline Woolard): 

I think this is an amazing opportunity…to make a coalition, because this is so rare to have such a range of people at the panel, and also in the room. We printed out this document “Dear Artist,” because we have a lot of ideas as a group called “To Be Determined”. We are working with a New York City community land initiative because we recognize that that coalition that Tom is part of is incredibly powerful, and this is a time when we can actually make demands of De Blasio if we learn how to work across sectors and if we learn how to communicate with elected officials who can make change on our behalf. So I think it’s important to recognize that the Loft Law conversation brings up a lot of guilt and defense, when what we really need is to heal together. And to recognize that everyone in this room is probably working too many jobs, and is very tired, and they’re here because they’re trying to figure out how to stay.

The reason we wrote this document is because we need to change the way we talk to each other in order to make change together. The first one is to think of artists as, not just people who come to neighborhoods and can pick up an leave, but as long-term residents who are part of communities. So the work of the Naturally Occurring Cultural District is incredibly powerful, and they have a recommendation, a whole policy brief that we printed out. And also…we can think about joining coalitions like NYCCLI, the New York City Community Land Initiative—because all of the rights we have right now, for example, as a woman, I can actually get an education—these are rights that were struggled for. And so we don’t just get these rights randomly, we get them by organizing together.

So I looked at the census…there are 93,000 artists in New York City. Imagine if we were a coalition that we could, say, join the New York City Community Land Initiative, and make change so that artists could actually afford to stay. Whenever I have a problem I think “there must be a lot of other people who have had this problem, too.”…So we can look at all the low-income groups like tenants’ rights organizations, naturally occurring cultural districts, and we can join them rather than starting initiatives that will eventually just burn out. We want to get together with small groups of friends, and that’s great, that’s what we’re doing with T.B.D.

But let’s also recognize that there’s a bigger picture, and that Loft Law has not historically helped us. We are not living in Soho. We’re here right now. And so it helps some people, but it’s very clear that initiatives like looking at community land trusts where a nonprofit actually owns the land and takes it off the market in perpetuity and then leases that land to different groups has helped artists stay in communities. When you look at Fourth Arts Block in the East Village, the reason there are still low-income artists and tenants is that they’ve been working together for forty years. So because you’re here [Diana], and I felt this antagonism that was so unnecessary and so deflating, I just wanted to thank you for being here and recognize that we can change the discourse. This is the time with De Blasio, when 93,000 of us can actually stay in New York. But the only way we can do this is if we recognize that we can redistribute our privilege. We can get flashy news stories and we can also make capital campaigns. But if we don’t redistribute wealth and visibility to low-income groups that have been struggling for generations, it’s never gonna happen. They are bigger than we are. We should just join forces with them and recognize that unless we welcome groups across sectors, this guy who passed out, we’ll never know him. We should know this guy! This should be a community, and we should support each other. …Rather than another panel discussion, I hope the next one is at an anti-eviction event where we support each other.

Audience Applauds


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