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Vito Lopez to Brooklyn tenants: Rep. Velazquez says “you don’t matter”

Political boss Vito Lopez turns tenant meeting into a campaign event for challenger to incumbent member of Congress

Assemblymember Vito Lopez addresses Brooklyn tenants at a forum on his loft law expansion. Photo: Max Seddon

Assemblymember Vito Lopez told more than 200 tenants gathered at a meeting last night on his 2010 law protecting their right to live in former industrial spaces that he is their best ally — and suggested that Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez is the one they should throw out of office this year.

“[Councilmember Diana] Reyna and Velazquez wanted the area carved out of the law,” said Lopez, who also heads the Brooklyn Democratic Party, referring to the industrial zone bridging Williamsburg and Bushwick that lies within his district. “They really don’t like you. This was Velazquez’s way of saying you don’t matter.”

Velazquez faces a primary challenge this June from term-limited Councilmember Erik Dilan, a close ally of Lopez who sat at his side onstage at the event. Flanking Lopez on the other side was Williamsburg Councilmember Stephen Levin, who formerly served as Lopez’ chief of staff.

As participants filed into the Our Lady of Pompeii church auditorium, Lopez aides passed around copies of a 2010 letter from Velazquez who, along with Rep. Jerrold Nadler and Councilmembers Diana Reyna and Brad Lander, called on Gov. Paterson at the end of the 2010 legislative session to veto the bill Lopez had sponsored to extend the state’s loft law to hundreds of manufacturing-zoned buildings in Brooklyn and Queens.

“The legislation would give a large windfall to building owners” who had long violated city zoning laws, the letter warned, adding that the expansion of the law to allow residential conversions of manufacturing spaces in Brooklyn and Queens creates “conditions that will ultimately displace many thousands of manufacturing jobs and harm New York City’s economic growth and vitality.”

They emphasized the industrial space needed to stay that way “to retain manufacturing jobs for a local workforce.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg wrote his own “disapproval recommended” message to the  governor urging a veto, also largely on the grounds that residential conversions of industrial space pose a serious threat to industry and jobs in the city.

Lopez chose to zero in on Velazquez. “She’s got a rough election this year. Maybe some of you will go out and vote,” Lopez urged the crowd. “There are 1,500 loft tenants in my district, and only 114 of them voted in the last four years. But if you ever mobilize a bloc of 1,500 people, a lot will go your way.”

Velazquez could not be reached for comment this morning.

The meeting took place just hours after a judge ruled that the Lopez law does not apply to 10 tenants living and working in an industrial space on Berry Street, several of whom attended the meeting and displayed a stencil-painted sheet: “10 LIVE-WORK HOMES LOST / LOFT LAW FAILURE / FIX. IT. NOW. The ruling affects at least two other buildings in the area.

Tenants put their artistic talents to work on dozens of colorful signs. One emblazoned “Fix The Loft Law” on a placard shaped like a loft, complete with water tower on top.

Several tenants spoke out against the so-called “6-8-6” system established by the law, which allows landlords to increase rent in three increments totaling 20 percent as they meet milestones in bringing buildings up to code.

By far the loudest cheer of the evening came after one tenant said, “We pay residential prices for a shithole we develop, and then the landlords get paid for it.”

Others complained of a provision that exempts lofts smaller than 550 square feet from the law and, critics say, neglects artists who work in digital media that requires relatively little space compared to painting or sculpture.

One other pressing concern was long delays in obtaining approvals for conversions from the Loft Board, the city panel that ultimately decides which buildings may turn residential under state law. Only 36 conversions have obtained Loft Board certification since the law’s expansion.

Frequent court challenges by landlords to Loft Board and Department of Buildings approvals have left some tenants confused about who’s in charge of their building’s fate — the city or the courts.

Still others spoke of landlords who made end runs around the law’s “improper use” exemption, designed to prevent tenants from living above businesses like photo processing shops or dry cleaners that use hazardous chemicals, to evict tenants and convert the building for luxury residential or retail use.

Lopez assured the audience that he currently working on a cleanup bill, not yet introduced, that aims to smooth out these contentious points in the law.

He made it clear that tenants would continue to need an ally in Albany to keep the loft law working in their favor.

“For the last five years, the housing market has been terrible,” Lopez said. “As soon as it changes, they’ll go after your building. They’ll buy up your building for $2 or $3 million and sell 40 residential units at $1 million each.”