Dear landlord, please don’t put a price on my soul
It happened to artists in New York and Chicago in the sixties, and it’s beginning to happen in London today. Artists seek out and find low-cost studio space in neglected inner city areas, move in, preserve and renovate, causing rejuvenation within a few years – at which point they are kicked out by ‘grateful’ property speculators.
Such artists leave mainly because they can’t afford the resulting higher rents and don’t have (or think they don’t have) security of tenure, i.e. legal rights to stay.
It’s a universal and perennial problem for artists, which can, and does, cause the destruction of entire arts communities. But careful thought and appropriate individual and joint action by artists acting with sound information and sympathetic professional advice can avoid another SoHo or downtown Chicago happening to our arts communities here. The situation therefore requires careful consideration, and the following example will serve to illustrate.
A large riverside complex of empty warehouses was found by a dozen or so artists who considered them ideal for use as studio space. They approached the agents and the usual negotiations ensued: the artists argued that lying unoccupied and unguarded, the property was in grave danger of dereliction and vandalism – a wasting asset on which the owners were paying rates: if granted leases, the artists would pay rates and preserve and, perhaps, renovate the property. A good idea. Each artist could be leased a floor or par of a floor and for a fixed term, say five years; since the planning use was designated as warehousing, each lease would have to be granted for use as ‘warehouse/studio’ accommodation.” Before any such lease was formally granted, the landlords took each potential tenant to court to register their agreement to waive the tenant’s rights of security of tenure (given by the Landlord and Tenant Act 1954 to most business tenants). These rights would have enabled each artist/tenant to stay on at the end of the term of the lease and negotiate a new lease on similar terms. However, each artist agreed to waive these rights, and the leases were granted accordingly.
During the next five years the artists developed the complex into a thriving hive of artists’ studios, exhibition and work-spaces, which contributed enormously to the rejuvenation of the area; so much so, that it became designated by the local council as a conservation area with proposed planning use as artists’ studios/workshops. All well and good, but this just happened to coincide with the termination of most of the original artist’s leases; some had already ended and others were about to. The strange thing was that the landlords were not asking the artists to leave, nor were they renewing the leases. Even more strangely, they were not accepting rent from those artists who remained in occupation.
This is the present situation, and many artists are worried about their insecurity and feel they should, perhaps, draw attention to their plight to gain public support for their being allowed to stay. Others feel they should maintain a low profile, stay as long as they can, and negotiate for new leases at the appropriate time. It is a difficult and unnerving situation: no one really knows what is going on and what, if anything, they could or should do. It’s a classic example of artists sharing a common interest and need, but who are not organised into a unit which represents their collective individual and mutual interests.
The formation of an occupiers association could help. Since many artists working there are not leaseholders but subtenants or simply licensees or squatters, this could give all the occupants common ground for membership and ensure maximum support. It could speak with one authoritative, strong voice for all of them, should anyone wish to communicate with them as a group, e.g. the landlords, council, media, or their own advisers. In this way, all information and knowledge could be pooled, thereby avoiding duplication of energies and enabling a common approach to the problem to be adopted. It could also dissuade certain artists from taking inappropriate individual action which might be detrimental to the majority, e.g. by publicising the problem too early, in the hope of gaining public support, which might result in the landlords, the council, property speculators and other interested parties taking notice- and taking action – too soon.
Meanwhile, the association could quietly monitor and investigate the situation by checking on the conservation order, changes in planning use, whether the property has been or is likely to be sold, or is encumbered in any way by legal covenants or other legal charges; all of which might lead to the discovery of some legal or administrative matter which could give the occupants a toe-hold. Individual leaseholders could continue quietly to enjoy their term, abiding by their leases and paying rent on time. Occupiers whose leases had expired (but who had not been given notice to leave) could continue to offer rent (perhaps by banker’s order), which might be accepted and which, if it were, could create a whole new lease, for the artist without the loss of rights to security of tenure. And, of course, both an association and individual artists could and should seek legal and any other professional advice available.
What could now be happening, unnecessarily, is that the landlords are waiting for all the leases to expire so that they can sell or otherwise dispose of the property, without the encumbrance of artist-occupiers – the very reason why the property has become so desirable and the area designated as an arts community. Those artists whose leases have expired are, perhaps, not being evicted for two reasons: first, because they continue to provide the landlords with valuable services i.e. payment of rates and prevention of dereliction and vandalism; second, be cause to evict them might cause them and other remaining tenants to take some action – legal or otherwise – to support their wish to stay.
In New York and Chicago the artists were forced to leave; they did not effectively unify, and there were no laws providing security of tenure of which they could avail neither themselves nor sympathetic lawyers willing to inform and help. Perhaps artists and lawyers in Britain can work together and do better.
© Henry Lydiate 1978