“We believe there are about a million freelancers in New York City,” said Sara Horowitz, founder and executive director of the Freelancers Union, the fourth-largest union by membership in New York State. “They’re driving the economic development of the city; so, if we want to keep them here, we better figure out ways to be supportive. … This is the future of the way people are working.”
Freelancing costs in New York—whether in a creative field or a more traditional trade—have risen in recent years, especially because of real estate, and not just residential but commercial as well. And no other borough has felt both the gain and the strain more acutely than in rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn, where more freelancers have emerged recently than in any other borough.
From 2002 through 2005, the number of self-employed creative freelancers in Brooklyn increased 33.2 percent, according to the Brooklyn Economic Development Corporation. And 28 percent of the city’s creative freelancers lived in Brooklyn in 2005, more than any other borough except Manhattan, which has 32 percent.
The Center for an Urban Future and the Brooklyn Economic Development Corporation hosted a panel last week on the future of freelancers, defined loosely as independent workers who don’t work in the same place or for the same boss for long periods.
It’s a tough path that’s getting tougher.
“The biggest hurdles now are lack of affordable health insurance and lack of affordable places to work,” Ms. Horowitz, a Cornell alumnus with a master’s from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, said a couple of days after the panel.
In Brooklyn, like in much of the city, especially Manhattan, commercial real estate costs have increased steadily since the end of 2001, when the dot-com bust and the terrorist attacks drove rents downward and vacancy rates up. The average Brooklyn office rent increased 2.5 percent from 2006 through 2007 to $26.29 a square foot, according to investment-sales brokerage Marcus & Millichap. And the raw rents can come on top of costs like insurance and brokers’ fees.
In 2002, playwright Scott Adkins and his wife tried to rent office space at the Manhattan nonprofit Writers Room. “They told us they had a two-and-a-half-year waiting list,” he said. “So we asked them, ‘Hey, what’d you think about us setting up a space in Brooklyn?’ They were very excited about it.”
Members of Brooklyn Writers Space pay $100 a month (memberships are quarterly) for room in one of two Park Slope locations. “I think an office space goes for $600 a month down in Dumbo, if you wanted to have a private cubicle that’s just yours.”
Brooklyn Writers Space has 170 members, and has grown in recent years, Mr. Adkins said. “I think it’s pretty tough to get office space,” he said of freelancers. “Like, our space is zoned as a store; we’re paying a premium on the rent for that.”
Add such commercial costs (and costs like health care and retirement) to rising Brooklyn residential rents and housing prices, and the freelancer life seems a harder slog than ever just as more New Yorkers embrace it, at least part time. It’s an enviable challenge for a growing metropolis.
“They are the je ne sais quoi workers,” Ms. Horowitz said of freelancers. “They’re the people who make New York special. This not a sad-sack sort of workforce—they know how to get stuff done.”