When the Tenants Are Artists

Photographer Susan Schiffman documents the lives of creative New Yorkers, and fights for their rights

14 Nov 2019 | 04:03

Jazz. Modern Dance. Abstract Expressionism. Hip Hop. Punk Rock. The Harlem Renaissance of Literature and Art. Carnegie Hall and a little place called Broadway. Our city lures the newest, the brightest and the best of the arts to be displayed, heard, read, and appreciated. The competition is brutal. And the salary? Well, not enough to put you in a penthouse. Which is why affordable housing is the foundation of the arts in New York City.

Photographer Susan Schiffman has lived in the city since 1979 and in the East Village for decades. After marrying herbalist Kim Turim in the 1980s, Schiffman moved into his rent-stabilized railroad apartment in the East Village. Once there, she learned about the strategies and legal loopholes some landlords use to raise rents, and began attending neighborhood events where she learned about the politics and laws that effect vulnerable tenants. She's been a housing activist ever since.

"If the government has rules and regulations about where you live and how you can receive affordable housing, it's political," says Schiffman. "The personal is political, whether we want to be political or not."

Getting the Word Out, and the Images

Three years ago, Schiffman started photographing apartments in the East Village for her Instagram project, “I Am a Rent Stabilized Tenant.” Recently, she expanded her photography work by speaking with the tenants whose interiors she photographs and publishing the interviews in the local East Village Blog, "EV Grieve.”

Schiffman not only uses her photography to advocate for rent stabilization, she heads up to Albany to represent her neighbors. She networks through EV Grieve, where her artwork, and her interviews, are posted. She shares the stories of tenants fighting for their rights, like 'Linda,' who had to write up a 'thousand pages' proving her mother, who was bedridden, still lived in her apartment. She brings these stories with her to rallies, like the one in Albany in mid-May of this year. These concerns led to the rent reform legislation in June 2019.

According to the advocacy group, Housing Justice for All, only three percent of the state’s $170 billion budget is spent on housing. Schiffman, and others are keeping a close eye on those numbers.

State Assembly Member, Harvey Epstein, who, along with other members, introduced the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019, said legislators “can only claim victory because tenant activists got involved in the process. The only way we will continue this momentum in the future is if people remain engaged."

The legislation is the "culmination of decades of work from the housing justice movement," Epstein said. "We stabilized housing for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers across the State."

Taking Care of the Neighbors

According to a new analysis by the Center for an Urban Future (CUF), the number of artists living in New York has increased by 17 percent since 2000. And while the arts job market looks healthy, salaries remain low, and the housing budget is tight.

"Artists have always been willing to live in places no one else would take," said Schiffman, who remembers when Tribeca, land of the multi-million-dollar loft, was très unswanky. In the '80s this writer's actor brother lived in an unfinished space near Washington and West 13th” she recalled. “‘Don't worry,’ he reassured us, ’the mafia owns the Meat Packing District.’” The smell was blinding, but the rent was cheap.

Schiffman works hard at her day job, stealing slices of spare time to capture the histories of tenants through her lens and her interviews. Why does she do it? “We have to take care of neighbors as well as ourselves.”