Street Cred Needed: SoHo Condo Residents Chafe Under Artist Rules

The neighborhood of SoHo, or South of Houston Street, is known as one of the most popular -- and one of the priciest -- neighborhoods in Manhattan, alongside the trendy high-rise condos of Chelsea, the stalwart and pre-war Upper East Side, and raucous Greenwich Village. Back in the day SoHo was a haven of artists looking for low rents in the manufacturing district’s industrial work spaces. But now this NYC neighborhood is known less for its poor artists and more as a growing district of affluent families, lush boutiques and converted condo listings. With the demand for SoHo residences at a peak and many artists fleeing to cheaper pastures, some SoHo dwellers are crying foul about an old law that requires residential lofts to be set aside strictly for certified artists. SoHo residents say the law is -- wait for it -- certifiably nuts.

Why the recent upheaval over a decades-old law? Initially created to protect the artistic integrity of an NYC neighborhood in the face of gentrification, the artists’ loft law was a rule largely ignored as SoHo grew -- until recently, when it became a thorn in real estate sellers’ sides. According to the WSJ, within the last year city officials have begun cracking down on lofts that don’t have a certified artist-in-residence signing on the dotted line, prompting what SoHo residents claim to be a drop in condo sales, as potential buyers get spooked by these formerly forgotten requirements and seek dwellings in less-complicated areas. Other sellers struggle to find buyers who fit the bill. “We twist like pretzels to comply with this law,” complains Margaret Baisley, a real-estate attorney, to the WSJ.

Frustrated SoHo residents believe the artists’ loft law is not only an annoying obstacle, but a relic of the neighborhood’s past that simply no longer exists. But those who want the artists’ loft law eliminated have a bit of work on their hands. First, they have to convince the City Council to change the zoning laws for SoHo -- a process as slow as watching amber harden into rock. In order to convince the City Council, residents must prove that the character of the neighborhood has changed significantly and that artists no longer live in SoHo, a difficult task when there are few numbers to back that claim up. In the city as a whole, 3,410 artists have been certified since 1971, according to the city's Department of Cultural Affairs, but there are no solid numbers on how many of those artists call SoHo home. Resistance from other SoHo dwellers has also risen, with some worried that changing the zoning laws will mean higher rents and mass evictions.

But for now, SoHo condominium listings are still as popular and active as ever, artists’ loft laws or no, and we here at the NCM blog are doubtful that the law’s enforcement will lessen demand for new digs in such a popular Manhattan neighborhood. But condo hunters looking for lofts in SoHo might want to add “certified artist-in-residence” to their lists of required amenities.

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