Lin Laurin grew up in a large happy family in Sweden and when she moved to New York a decade ago she didn’t want to live alone in one of Manhattan’s famously cramped apartments. Instead, Laurin opted for Bed-Stuy, where she found a 2,700-sq.-ft. loft on Bedford Avenue. It was just one big, long-neglected open space on the second floor. For $3,000 (not including utilities) it was a steal.
Quickly she gathered a community of artists and for the next nine years they would transform the old warehouse into Loft 910—a home, a studio, and a venue for performances. “I always wanted to live in a big collective house my whole life,” Lin says. “I have always found that inspiring.”
That dream is coming to an end this month because the landlord wants to renovate and go upscale, and the artists can no longer sustain the steep rent increases. This past year they were paying $6,500 a month including utilities—about double the rate from when they started.
It’s a familiar tale in the gentrifying city – artists move in to a low-rent neighborhood and are forced out later when the rents go north. It’s a cycle that some artists, like Laurin, resent, and which others are now trying to slow down.
The collective of artists that Laurin assembled built the kitchen, the bathrooms, and most of the eight bedrooms in the Bedford Avenue loft. The building had barely any windows, so, in some places, the artists knocked out the bricks to make them.
As many as 100 professional artists have lived in Loft 910 since it started in 2006. Most of their names are written on the loft’s chalkboard wall. Over the years the artists have used the living room to put on fashion shows, film festivals, theater festivals, and art exhibitions. The space fits 90 comfortably seated patrons.
Many of the artists who left Loft 910 continued to live nearby and be part of the collective. “It’s always been a space that keeps the community going,” says Laurin, adding that community has been a launching off point for many careers in video editing, design, and other creative professions.
Laurin and a couple of her colleagues produced Iphigenia, a music documentary about Laurin’s mother, at Loft 910. The film has been broadcast nationally on Swedish television seven times, she says.
The rent hike that is pricing out Loft 910 residents mirrors the rise in in the building’s market value. The building housing Loft 910 was worth $211,000 in 2004, according to city records. By 2014, the property’s market value reached $678,000, an increase of more than 220%.
City records also show that until 2005, property values were stagnant, increasing by no more than a few thousand dollars each year.
Loft 910’s lifespan correlates neatly with the overall rise of rent in the neighborhood, but Laurin rejects the notion sometimes put forth that it is the artists themselves who cause real estate to become more valuable. She says that proximity to Pratt Institute and subway lines as well as larger economic trends are to blame.
Tom Angotti, Professor of Urban Affairs & Planning at Hunter College, also doubts it is the artists who precipitate gentrification. “Real estate speculation is the driving force of gentrification and artists are caught up in it,” he says.
Laurin sees the end of Loft 910 as emblematic of the larger problem with how New York City treats its artists. “Artists do so much for the city—we bring it to life. People come from all over the world to explore the art scene. Yet, I feel like the city is ungrateful,” Laurin says. “It’s like they want us to make art from air.”
As the real estate boom in Brooklyn intensifies, some artists are joining tenants and homeowners in organizing to curb the negative effects gentrification. The Artist Studio Affordability Project was formed last year to the advocate for policies that would protect artists and small businesses.
Susan Surface, a member of ASAP and a researcher at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, says the main policy goal her group working toward is the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, which will be voted on by city council in February.
The act is designed to allow small commercial tenants, such as artists, to invest in their business for the long term without the annual fear of rent increases. For example, it would give lessees the right to a 10-year contract and limit their security deposits to two months rent.
Though ASAP advocates for real estate policy reform, the group also calls on artists that move into a new neighborhood to do a better job connecting with those who are already there. “ASAP educates artists on how to be respectful and encourages them to be involved in local organizing,” Surface says.