In New York City today, tens of thousands of people,' primarily tenants, are illegally occupying lofts. These tenants have signed commercial leases, often long-term leases at rents far below the current market rate. The changing economics of loft buildings has led to serious conflicts between landlords and tenants. Landlords have sought to evict tenants before their leases expire, refused to renew their leases or demanded higher rental rates upon renewal. Tenants have withheld rent for extended periods. These conflicts have been taken to the courts, and legislation recently enacted in New York State attempts to resolve these issues for at least some tenants and landlords. At the same time, New York City has been concerned about this tenant-landlord conflict, as well as the overall impact on the city's economy of both legal and illegal conversions of loft buildings from manufacturing or commercial to residential use. The city has taken an active role in seeking statutory solutions to these problems, but it is yet unclear whether the city's efforts have been successful. The economic forces that have made for illegal conversions in New York City show no signs of abatement. It is not any more likely in the 1980's than it was in the 1970's that the New York City government will evict thousands of illegal loft tenants. Therefore, New York City is left with the option of trying to prevent illegal conversions from ever occurring by strictly enforcing the zoning law and Building Code. Such enforcement may prove futile. Although the problem of illegal conversion has been studied intensively by New York City since at least 1977, and has led to a flurry of legislative action, these reforms do not promise to solve the problems. The courts will continue to have a major role to play in mediating the often conflicting interests of landlords and residential tenants. For many of those who live in illegal lofts, the courts will continue to be a forum for conflict resolution, a forum whose rules are unclear and currently changing. Residential conversion of industrial loft buildings is not a phenomenon unique to New York City; the troubling social and legal issues it raises have surfaced in cities as diverse as Seattle, Berkeley, and Boston. Nor is residential conversion the only widespread flaunting in New York City of the Zoning Resolution, the MDL, and the Building Code. There is currently a problem in the boroughs outside Manhattan, where one- or two-family houses are being illegally converted to three-family houses. These conversions have generated their own case law, which seems to exist in isolation from the illegal loft cases, although there are many similarities in the basic landlord and tenant conflicts that arise. New York City's experience with illegal lofts does not encourage optimism about the ability, in general, of either statutory or case law to channel such challenges to zoning and housing laws into legal uses.
Illegal Lofts in New York City: Have the Equities Been Balanced,
14 Fordham Urb. L.J. 559
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