City offering free legal help to mom-and-pops signing leases

Huascar Aquino, a winner of “Cupcake Wars,” in front of his Hell’s Kitchen bakery with Small Business Services Commissioner Gregg Bishop (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

By Sabina Mollot

The city is throwing a legal lifeline to mom-and-pops by offering free legal help to some small businesses to help them negotiate leases.

On Tuesday, Department of Small Business Services Commissioner Gregg Bishop, along with Council Member Robert Cornegy, announced the program, which will receive $2.4 million in funding over the next two years.

The program is expected to help 400 small business owners a year who couldn’t otherwise afford attorneys, but Bishop said it can grow if the demand for free legal help is higher than expected. Attorneys, who belong to organizations like the Urban Justice Center and Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation, will be assigned to individual businesses to help them resolve disputes before they end up in court. However, the attorneys, who are expected to provide an average of 40 hours of services per client, will not represent businesses in disputes that do end up in court.

The Commercial Lease Assistance Program is particularly aimed at immigrant, minority, women and veteran-owned business owners as well as those in areas that are rezoned or have a high poverty rate. There are some income eligibility requirements and while a dollar amount wasn’t mentioned, business owners’ ability to afford an attorney on their own would be reviewed during the application process. Additionally, the offer does not apply to franchise owners.

Bishop and Cornegy said the service will help fight landlords who harass or push out businesses that legally have a right to renew their leases.

“Businesses will now stand to save thousands of dollars by avoiding attorneys’ fees,” said Bishop. “Call 311 if you experience an issue with negotiating a lease, responding to an eviction notice or breach of contract.”

Cornegy mentioned how it’s become common for businesses to be “gouged in order to maintain occupancy and sometimes landlords will extort small businesses.” Common tactics mirror those seen in residential buildings that get scooped up by predatory investors, like shutting off the water and doing unnecessary construction.

However, in cases where landlords are legally entitled to evict businesses, Bishop said the program can still help commercial tenants negotiate the most favorable terms possible.

“Small business owners often don’t have a law degree or a budget for a lawyer,” said Bishop as he stood outside a Hell’s Kitchen bakery. “So we’re providing this new program because small businesses deserve a better chance.”

The site of the press conference, Huascar & Co., is owned by Dominican Republic immigrant Huascar Aquino, who was celebrating his one-year anniversary at the business. Huascar, who, in 2013, won an episode of the Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars,” told the story of how prior to signing his current lease, he had been renting a space through an oral sub-lease agreement. Although he paid his rent on time, one day the landlord evicted him, giving him only 10 days to vacate. Once he found his new space on West 54th Street, Aquino sought help at an SBS-sponsored workshop, and said the half hour of help he got from a pro bono lawyer wound up helping him understand what his new lease meant before he signed it.

“When you have a lease in your hand, everything is there in black and white, but the language is tricky,” Aquino said. “I think it’s a different game when you come in with a lawyer.”

Today, the entrepreneur holds a 10-year lease with the option to renew and he said he has also utilized SBS-sponsored classes in Quickbooks and other subjects.

Meanwhile, Cornegy, the Council’s Small Business Committee chair until last month, said his colleagues are also trying to legislatively combat the warehousing of commercial spaces.

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