By Sung Soo Kim
For the first time in over a century, NYC as the Gateway to America for immigrants to achieve the American Dream has been closed. All of the centuries of risk, hard work and scarifies made leading to success for immigrant business owners is being destroyed. The greatest transfer of wealth from hard working successful entrepreneurs to speculators and profiteers has taken place in NYC over the past two decades.
The Democratic Party is fully responsible for this historic destruction of our city’s diverse capitalistic economy. In the face of a growing economic crisis, they have willingly joined in “rigging the system” with the big real estate lobby (REBNY) to deny any real solution to save our mom and pop businesses, the majority of which are owned by immigrants who employ immigrant families.
Thirty four years ago myself, along with several Korean business leaders began a campaign to recruit Korean families to invest their life savings in opening small businesses in NYC. To calm their fears of crime, drugs and clashes of cultures in some communities, I founded, along with a few Korean business leaders, The Korean American Small Business Services Center, to help them start their businesses and be present at all times to deal with their problems. Korean families came by the thousands to risk everything in NYC. I was not prepared for the biggest challenge they would face nor had I any idea it would be caused by our own democratic government.
Former Mayor Koch had his administration put a cancer into our diverse economy. Our own government was promoting an environment for speculators at the expense of our entrepreneurs. The city’s business community turned to real progressive Democrats to save them. There were many, led by then-Councilwoman Ruth Messinger.
A bill was written to give rights to tenants which would stop the speculators but Speaker Peter Vallone stopped it in committee, and pledged never to allow a vote by the full council on any bill that regulates commercial leases. The mayor created the cancer and the speaker denies treatment. Except for the Dinkins administration, for the next 28 years, this cancer has been allowed to spread and grow, destroying our best entrepreneurs and jobs. The Giuliani, Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations would create the perfect environment for the cancer to grow and the speaker’s office would deny treatment.
I had hope for a future again for our small businesses when I witnessed former Small Business Committee Chairman David Yassky at a public hearing on finding a real solution to stop the business closings. He was addressing a room full of mostly desperate immigrant owners; Hispanic, Chinese and Korean. At the end he would join 32 Council members along with his entire committee members to become a sponsor of the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, a bill to give rights to commercial tenants when their leases expire.
If democracy existed at City Hall, the bill would easily pass into law and save our businesses. But at the same time Chairman Yassky was committing to finding legislation to save our businesses, in another part of City Hall in the Speaker’s office, the real estate lobby, REBNY, was telling lawmakers there was no option to regulate landlords. They colluded to cook up a bogus legal roadblock that would stop a vote by Yassky’s committee and kill the bill which would have easily passed.
Even though the bogus legal roadblock had no legal basis to substantiate the claim and in 2010 a Legal Review Panel reported the Jobs Survival Act was fully constitutional, the bill never received a public hearing in seven years based upon this made-up claim.
My last hope to restore democracy at City Hall and pass our bill to end this crisis came after the last election. Every past strong supporter of our bill was elected to positions of leadership. Mayor de Blasio was the champion of our bill when he ran for public advocate and pledged repeatedly to the immigrant owners he would fight to pass legislation to give them rights to renew their leases and survive. Speaker Mark-Viverito gave testimony supporting the bill. Public Advocate Letitia James was also a strong sponsor and voice for the bill. All were proud progressives ready to fight for progressive legislation like our Jobs Survival Act to end economic inequality.
After all were sworn into a higher office and in a position to use their offices to restore democracy by stopping the rigging and holding public hearings on the Jobs Survival Act they all flipped and abandoned their pledges and progressive principles.
After thirty years of advocating for small businesses… I have no choice but to tell the truth to the Korean families: Do not open your business in NYC, you will not achieve the American Dream here. It is the most anti-small business city in America and in the end your American Dream will become an American nightmare. The government will turn its back on you and allow you to be extorted for your life’s savings by unscrupulous landlords. They will not help you when speculators rob your investment and kick you out of the business you built. They will ignore you when landlords force you into indentured servitude by giving you month-to-month or short-term leases.
My message to all New Yorkers who love their neighborhoods and mom-and-pop businesses and want to stop their closings and take back their neighborhoods. First, vote out all incumbents now in office.
The second thing to do after the election is bring together all the true community activists who are not funded by government to hold a conference and organize ballot initiatives to change government. Ballot initiatives are meant to empower the citizens when the will of the people is being denied by special interests or a corrupt political system. Have at least two or three ballot initiatives on the next ballot that if passed would result in real reform leading to a return of democracy in NYC.
Sung Soo Kim is the founder of the oldest small business service center in NYC, the Korean American Small Business Service Center, and was chairman of the Mayor’s First Small Business Advisory Board, appointed by Mayors Dinkins and Giuliani. He personally consulted in the drafting of the original version of Small Business Jobs Survival Act and every version introduced by seven prime sponsors.