We have written before about the plight of small businesses and the fact that their owners have virtually no power when attempting to negotiate renewals of their leases. Like many we believe this phenomenon has been largely to blame for the disappearance of neighborhoods’ unique identities as banks and chain stores take over. Specifically we’ve focused on legislative efforts to help fix the problem such as the Small Business Jobs and Survival Act as well as a so-far unnamed bill by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer with partner Council Member Robert Cornegy of Brooklyn.
The latter bill would force a property owner to enter into good faith negotiations with a storefront tenant and if need be mediation, albeit nonbinding. If no agreement can be reached after that the tenant would get to stay on an extra year with a 15 percent rent increase. The bill was first introduced last March, presented by Brewer as a lifeline to mom-and-pops disappearing at the whims of speculative landlords. Since then the borough president has insisted progress has been made on getting the bill drafted but as of this week, no one from Brewer’s office could say when this would be. Cornegy’s office didn’t return our call. A spokesperson for Council Member Annabel Palma, the prime sponsor of The SBJSA, didn’t get back to us either.
The SBJSA, which has been controversial to say the least, has been languishing in the Council for 30 years though its supporters say it was closest to getting passed in 2009 when then Speaker Christine Quinn quashed it before it could come up for a vote. Its opponents in the real estate industry have called it unconstitutional as it’s aimed at giving any commercial tenant, who wants to the opportunity, to renew with a 10-year lease.
Both bills sound helpful on paper — we’ve endorsed the SBJSA in this column — but neither one is any help to a business owner facing an uncertain future if it just sits around without getting passed — or even voted on.
Kirsten Theodos, a spokesperson for Take Back NYC, which is aimed at passing the SBJSA, feels the lack of movement on either bill is the City Council choosing to stall on the issue. She recently penned an op-ed for The Villager in which she blasted Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito for calling for a study on small businesses rather than a hearing on the bills.
Meanwhile, Theodos, who lives near Stuyvesant Town, gave the example of how the rent gouging of businesses has impacted the neighborhood, with two shops that were recently priced out of their spaces.
A bike shop on East 14th Street “just got rent hiked 400 percent. They’re gone,” said Theodos. “The dollar store (Savings Plus) got rent hiked 200 percent. They moved into (the space previously occupied by) IQ. This is two blocks in the last month and it’s not going to stop.”
On the issue of the SBJSA’s legality, Theodos argued that many bills on other issues get challenged in court.
“Any piece of legislation involving civil rights like medical marijuana, it always gets challenged. Should they not issue a bill to protect gays because it would get challenged? That would be unconscionable.”
Additionally, she noted, while Cornegy is the chair of the Council’s Small Business Committee, the mayor or the speaker could also take action. “Either could snap their fingers today and there’d be a hearing.”
That said, also dodging this newspaper’s questions on the SBJSA was the mayor. When asked for Mayor de Blasio’s thoughts on the SBJSA, a spokesperson skirted the question, only commenting on the issue in general terms. When pressed further on the SBJSA itself the mayoral mouthpiece referred back to the aforementioned comments.
“The administration recognizes the growing challenges small businesses face finding space they can afford, but has not supported commercial rent control,” said the rep. “We are working to lower small businesses’ costs in other ways, like the dramatic reduction in fines, streamlining the regulatory environment through Small Business First, and expanding free support programs including pro-bono legal services to help negotiate and review leases, business courses and access to capital.”
So, with the mayor distancing himself from this bill, it isn’t likely to go anywhere soon even if it has — as we’ve been told — 27 supporters in the Council.
In conclusion, owners of small businesses, ignore any big talk by politicians because you are on your own. If elected officials want to claim they care about this issue then it’s time for them to stop giving lip service and do something already. And if the SBJSA or Brewer bill isn’t to their liking, they’re welcome to come up with something better.