In Response to the NYTimes: 239 Banker Street

On December 3rd the New York Times published an article about 239 Banker Street, an illegally converted industrial building being rented as residential lofts. 239 Banker Street is famous in its neighborhood, and on neighborhood blogs, as an extreme example of landlord’s flouting city laws and the city agencies being unable to successfully correct the situation through traditional agencies.

As the Times explains, “In September 2009, an inspection found conditions so hazardous that the city immediately evacuated the tenants.” In another city or a different decade the landlords may have returned to strictly commercial use. But NYC has been facing a housing shortage for over a decade and traditional manufacturers left long ago when global outsourcing made the cost of doing business in NYC an impossibility for sweater factories.  After a brief pause the owners of 239 Banker Street were soon renting their lofts to residential tenants again. No one can deny that a landlord must somehow collect rent lest a building goes derelict and cause greater problems for a community.

This story of the tenants being thrown out of their homes would have repeated indefinitely if NY State had not already seen fit to recognize the changing needs of its urban landscape. Some people like to cite gentrification as causing this change; others are wise enough to recognize that NYC is always growing, there are few neighborhoods that have not seen change brought by our ever-evolving populace, and people must live somewhere. The idea that buildings like 239 Banker can be returned to their former commercial use is shortsighted.

In 2010 the NYC Loft Board was open for business to begin accepting a new batch of applications from North Brooklyn lofts, spring boarding off a process started in the 1980s which successful transformed hundreds of former industrial spaces in lower Manhattan into live/work lofts. The Loft Law allows loft tenants to stay in residence, keep essential services running and have a safe living environment. The Loft Law is also a way landlords like 239 Banker Street can continue to pursue their new business model and obtain a Certificate of Occupancy. Sometimes landlords recognize this and begin the process on their own, more often the tenants need to get the ball rolling by applying themselves.

Through the support of NAG a few tenants at 239 Banker applied for coverage in early 2012, this first step protects the current tenants from evacuation by the DOB and should have started the process for the legalization of the building. But the landlords have not yet applied for an IMD with the Loft Board, in other words: the owners of 239 Banker Street are still making no effort to abide by the city and state laws.

Recently NYCLT visited 239 Banker Street and found most tenants were under the impression that the buildings history of violations had somehow been corrected with a recent change of owners. The new landlord is actively telling tenants that the building has been brought up to code and rezoned for residential use. This is the true scandal of 239 Banker Street. The current tenants face leaking roofs and windows, and bewildering notes from utility companies that their bills are not being paid and service might be shut off while being lied to by the building owner.

Some people like to suggest it’s somehow the tenants fault for not being better informed about the status of their building before moving in or more proactive about correcting the situation –  but that perspective blames the victims: code compliance and DOB records are confusing at best, housing (even railroad apartments) is scarce and most tenants just want someplace to live and get on with their demanding NYC lives. The fault lies with landlords who think they are above the law.

The current owners of 239 Banker have not yet been convinced that the period of doing whatever they want is over. NYCLT and NAG believe if more tenants apply for coverage the landlords will finally be brought to reason. The community should support the tenants of 239 Banker and the Loft Law as a means of finally correcting this outstanding problem to everyone’s satisfaction.

Contact NYCLT or visit a housing clinic to get help.