Loft tenants call on Vito Lopez to close eviction loophole

Apartments for rent at 338 Berry Street. Photo: Max Seddon

At a public meeting tonight in Williamsburg, Assemblymember Vito Lopez and panelists from the city’s Department of Buildings and Loft Board will hear demands from tenants in Brooklyn and Queens who say a law he advanced two years ago to protect Brooklyn and Queens loft residents is now failing to protect them from eviction.

The meeting comes hours after Brooklyn appellate court judge Ariel E. Belen declined to rehear a recent Supreme Court decision ruling that the new law does not apply to anyone who had struck an earlier deal with a landlord to live in a commercial space.

The judge’s ruling leaves ten households in one building alone on the brink of eviction. Among them are David Opdyke and his wife, Kimberlae Saul, who had hoped the law would allow them to hold on to the apartment they had carved out of a former noodle factory. Starting more than a decade ago, they set up walls, gutted the plumbing and remodeled the kitchen. In 2003, they signed a stipulation in which their landlord agreed to let them continue to live in the space, as long as they vacated by the end of March 2011.

Tenants in two other nearby buildings have also reportedly been told by judges that their agreements with landlords override any rights the loft law may have given them.

“There are no impediments now for them to start their paperwork,” laments Opdyke. “It’s a matter of weeks and then the sheriffs show up and put padlocks on your door.”

Hundreds of industrial buildings in north Brooklyn and Western Queens are covered by a 2010 expansion of the state loft law, sponsored by Lopez, that allows tenants to legally reside in industrial spaces under certain circumstances. Previously, such protections only applied to lofts in lower Manhattan.

Some tenants say they intend to ask Lopez tonight to push explicit language that states the law overrides any previous leases or stipulations.

Jonathan Harkavy, chief of staff for Lopez, said tonight’s meeting will be about identifying unintended consequences of the law, prioritizing the concerns of the residents and later developing a lobbying strategy.

He said the legislature had every intention of protecting tenants like Opdyke and Saul in the 2010 law. “How do you forecast every different scenario?” he asked. “It was the intent of the law when we put in that language to cover it, and one judge interpreted it one way.”

At first everything for the Berry Street tenants went as the new law appeared to promise. In December 2010, the building’s new landlord began eviction proceedings. Five days later, a dozen households filed for protection under the loft law and countered that they now had a right to stay.

Brooklyn Supreme Court State judge Bert Bunyan initially ruled that no eviction would occur until the Loft Board made a decision on the application for residential conversion. But before the Loft Board could act, the landlord refiled the eviction case, and earlier this month Judge Bunyan decided that it could proceed.

David Frazer, Opdyke’s attorney, said residents without a past deal with their landlords are now in a better spot than his clients.

“The irony here is there are a number of other tenants who never signed the stipulation will be protected under the loft law,” he said.

Tenants who aren’t burdened by past agreements with their landlords say the law has worked well so far. Gordon Woodhull, one of the organizers of the group New York City Loft Tenants, says he was not only able to stay in his Williamsburg home thanks to the loft law expansion but is now living in much better circumstances. He said before then, he felt like he never could approach his landlord for minor fixes, like a clogged drain, or major ones, like when his apartment flooded two years ago.

“I wanted to get some tenant rights and fix some things,” he said. “Just being able to tell him I would consider taking him to court makes a difference.”

Some tenants protected by the new law are also feeling emboldened to press Lopez for reductions in rent increases allowed as landlords renovate the spaces during residential conversions.

“Our landlord has just raised and raised the rent,” said Mark Gering, who has lived on Cook Street for the last 18 years. “We can’t pay for it. This would put a stop to that.”

Once conversions are complete, the loft tenants are covered by rent regulations that allow for limited rent increases and allow for continued lease renewals.

Loft tenants are counting on Lopez, without a lot of outside support. The Bloomberg administration and Brooklyn Councilmember Diana Reyna both objected to the Assembly’s loft law expansion, which they warned would encourage building owners to convert manufacturing spaces still active and employing people in the area into higher-priced luxury housing.

Councilmember Erik Dilan will also be on tonight’s panel, which is co-hosted by Councilmember Stephen Levin.

Additional reporting by Max Seddon.

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