standard Displacement of Bushwick Tenants: An Artists’ Advocate Weighs In

Susan Surface of the Artists' Studio Affordability Project

Susan Surface of the Artists’ Studio Affordability Project

In response to our article about Bushwick tenants who are fighting their eviction, we heard from Susan Surface of the Artists Studio Affordability Project, who linked the struggle of low income tenants with artists fighting for affordable space as real estate developers move in on Bushwick and other Brooklyn neighborhoods.

By SUSAN SURFACE

The residents at 590 Bushwick Avenue are certainly facing the effects of real estate developers’ attention on the area. That’s something we at the Artist Studio Affordability Project are working to address. As artists, we know that developers deliberately target the places where we tend to cluster our homes and studio spaces, so we’re in solidarity with our neighbors to try to hold on to the communities we’ve built.

“We’re in solidarity with our neighbors to try to hold on to the communities we’ve built.”

On a commercial level, ASAP is working toward the implementation of the Small Business Jobs Survival Act. This legislation would protect commercial tenants by forcing arbitration on landlords who want to increase rent by more than a certain percentage, and would also automatically offer commercial tenants 10-year leases if they want them. Both of these rules would provide a greater degree of stability for business owners. Mom-and-Pop businesses that serve their immediate neighborhoods are just as threatened as residential tenants, and residents and small businesses need each other to survive. Longevity of tenure for every part of a neighborhood’s ecosystem, both residential and commercial, will help all members of those communities hold on to their spaces. In the case of this particular building, security for the commercial tenant could mean that an investor would be prevented from turning over a building all at once and with relatively short notice.

Tenants and organizers need to be aware that, for a major speculative investor, one year, two years, or even ten years is no time at all. The real estate industry even uses an entirely different language to discuss the communities that mean so much to us – a language that is designed to remove human and environmental concerns. To a developer or investor, there are no such things as neighborhoods, homes, apartments, houses, or even buildings, restaurants, or shops. Instead, there are only “assets” that must be made to “perform,” by which they mean “to turn a profit.” And they’re probably thinking in terms of a 20, 30, 50, or 80 year plan for each investment. Of course, they want to see returns on their investments as soon as possible. But if they have to sit on property for a year or two while tenants slowly leave or fight their cause, and units remain empty or at a low rent, they have millions or even billions of dollars available to cushion these unprofitable years.  Investors are not only able to absorb the level of loss they encounter when tenants resist displacement, it’s likely that they’ve made each deal having already calculated for a couple of years when the building won’t be financially productive. This seems like forever to an individual renter who struggles to live month to month, but to an investor, it’s not even a setback.

“The real estate industry uses an entirely different language to discuss the communities that mean so much to us – a language that is designed to remove human and environmental concerns.”

Given this context, we need significant changes in policy to halt the clearance of our neighborhoods. Changes to the laws, and the development of models that remove buildings from the speculative market entirely (like community land trusts), are solutions we’re exploring.  It’s important to get homeowners on board too – even they can be pushed out due to increases in property taxes and maintenance expenses.

ASAP looks at these issues with a focus on the unique situation of the studio artist, who often rents commercial space at a financial loss, and with no clear business plan for even breaking even on their rent and material expenses, let alone turning a profit. Most artists in New York do not earn a living from their artwork. They typically have secondary employment to pay their bills, and invest this personal income to rent studio space so they can express the ideas and forms that make our city a worthwhile place to live. Our concerns are tied up very much with businesses like local laundromats, restaurants, bodega owners, and small manufacturers who consistently serve a fixed population and don’t need to grow indefinitely; these labor jobs are vital to the security of our neighborhoods. And as limited-income tenants ourselves in many cases, we’re very much in solidarity with people at 590 Bushwick Avenue and others who are feeling the pressures of increased attention from the real estate industry. This is not simply a matter of individuals choosing to move into longstanding cultural districts, it is the outcome of a concerted effort on the part of extremely powerful, moneyed speculators who have decided to follow artists wherever we find space for ourselves. We are all in this together.

  • M

    Susan clearly is an artist who knows nothing about economics or investing. Ignorance is bliss!!!

    • N

      she’s an architect and urban planner, not that it means she knows about investing but isn’t just an artist.

    • Michael Cleaves

      Generally I find when people on the internet say someone “knows nothing about economics” they don’t know much themselves. Aside from that, let me give you some advice: if you want to pretend to be enlightening people, it usually helps to say what the person you’re criticizing is wrong about.