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SoHo Residents Decry Artist Survey as 'Harassment'

By Andrea Swalec | April 18, 2012 12:43pm

MANHATTAN — Locals are blasting a plan to scour SoHo and NoHo lofts to ferret out non-artists living in spaces earmarked for creative types, calling the process "harassment" and a violation of privacy.

A day after DNAinfo reported that the SoHo/NoHo Action Committee is raising funds to pay a team of surveyors to investigate area lofts that are required to house at least one artist, local elected officials and residents said they were alarmed by the project.

Community Board 2 chair Brad Hoylman said he was "shocked" by the plan to survey the area roughly bordered by Astor Place, the Bowery, Canal Street and West Broadway — and said the board planned to look into whether it was legal.

"I am very concerned that this survey could amount to landlord harassment," Hoylman said. "There are laws against this sort of incursion on tenants' rights to quiet enjoyment, and I hope that city officials take the appropriate action to protect them."

The SoHo/NoHo Action Committee — which consists of a group of 10 people, mainly involved in real estate — assembled to oppose the 1970s-era zoning law that mandates at least one certified artist must live in every rental or owned loft converted from industrial use. The committee claims the law is outdated, and they aim to show it's barely enforced.

Margaret Baisley, the head of the committee, did not immediately respond to an inquiry about whether the survey would violate resident privacy. But she previously defended the plan, which has already raised more than half of the funds needed to hire an independent surveying team from Baruch College's Steven L. Newman Real Estate Institute, and said it was not intended to target artists.

But critics said the survey could backfire, and will likely be difficult to complete.

Sean Sweeney, head of neighborhood association the SoHo Alliance, said the survey for which the committee is aiming to raise $25,000 by mid-May would disturb residents. 

"People are busy," he said. "Who's going to take the time to respond?"

"It's so difficult just to get people to cooperate with the Census, which is mandatory," said CB2 member and city-certified filmmaker Susan Wittenberg.

Sweeney said that the committee's push for the elimination of language in the citywide zoning resolution would chip away at the few remaining city protections of artists.

"The only ones who would benefit from this survey are landlords," Sweeney said, noting that the SoHo Alliance is divided in its position. 

"I fear this would be a wholesale eviction of the pioneering artists," he said.

Artists living in industrially zoned SoHo lofts in the early 1970s won zoning changes that permitted those lofts to be used as joint living and working quarters. The committee says those zoning policies no longer correspond with reality.

Real estate broker and certified artist Susan Meisel, who is a member of the committee, said removing outdated laws will give all residents the protections that artists currently enjoy. 

"We are not hunting anybody here," Meisel said. "We want everyone to be able to live in quiet enjoyment, just like protected artists can. We are not here to throw someone else out."