By Sabina Mollot
The Small Business Jobs Survival Act, which has existed in some for over 30 years, will finally be getting the hearing its advocates have been pushing for.
According to the Small Business Congress, possibly the bill’s most vocal supporter, the City Council’s Small Business Committee will be holding a hearing on October 22 at 1 p.m.
Meanwhile, the SBC and others who’ve been pushing for the bill’s passage, as well as its opponents in the real estate industry, have expressed some pessimism over how the bill will be debated. In the case of the former, it’s over a belief that the bill is just going to get watered down, and in the case of the latter, over the argument that the bill is illegal.
The SBJSA is aimed at getting businesses in good standing an automatic ten-year lease renewal through mediation and — if necessary — binding arbitration. There are some exceptions, like if a landlord wants to use the building for his or her own business or redevelop the property.
Full disclosure: Town & Village newspaper has written editorials in support of the SBJSA, believing it to be the strongest legislation that’s aimed at helping small businesses being pushed out by chains and banks, not to mention avoiding high rent blight.
The Council’s Small Business Committee Chair Mark Gjonaj has previously told Town & Village he doesn’t support the bill in its current form. But he, as well as City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, have said they at least want to see it get a hearing.
This week, Small Business Congress called on Johnson this week to address any potential legal roadblocks prior to a hearing.
“If not, the SBJSA will be watered down after the hearing and an end to our city’s art community and the character and spirit of the Village as well as every small business owner will face a dire future in NYC,” the Small Business Congress said in a recent email to supporters.
A spokesperson for Johnson said the speaker was looking forward to seeing the policies in the bill discussed and seeing it get the consideration it hasn’t gotten for the past three decades.
A representative for Gjonaj (pronounced Joe-nye) Reginald Johnson, confirmed that while the council member does have concerns about the bill’s legality, he does want to see it have a hearing, so stakeholders, in particular small businesses, have the opportunity to give testimony.
“He’s coming at it from the point of view of the chair of a committee, not real estate interests,” said Johnson. This was in reference to the fact that Gjonaj has a family real estate business. “This bill has been languishing for 30 years. It’s important that it gets a fair hearing, Johnson added. “It deserves to have an open discussion with people who are proponents and people who are opponents, so we can move forward, because the status quo is not going to work, anymore.”
A recent Crain’s story, citing a report by the New York Bar, referred to the legislation as commercial rent control, which, the report said, the city doesn’t have the authority to enact. It also said the bill creates inconsistencies with the state laws, which supersede the city’s own.
The bill’s supporters in response have argued that the bill is not commercial rent control, since it doesn’t determine the rents.
“The SBJSA,” said Kirsten Theodos of the Take Back NYC movement, “is not commercial rent control at all, rather it is a bill that gives both parties rights in the lease renewal process. It levels the playing field for business owners to negotiate in good faith with their landlords. There are no caps or government formulas setting the rent. In fact, government plays no role in the negotiation process; therefore, it is not commercial rent control, something NYC actually had successfully from 1945-1963.”
Another advocate, East Village resident David Eisenbach, who started the group Friends of SBJSA, said he’s confident the bill will be passed after having met with Speaker Johnson.
“We are absolutely confident they’re going to pass the bill and keep the essential components of it, which is a guaranteed lease renewal for small businesses,” said Eisenbach, who’s also a Columbia professor and last year was a candidate in the race for public advocate.
“The reason why the debate over the legality keeps coming up,” he added, is that prior adminsitrations under Speakers Christine Quinn and Melissa Mark-Viverito used it as a dodge because they didn’t want to take ownership over the fact that they weren’t going to give it a fair hearing.”
The Real Estate Board of New York, meanwhile, said the bill, if passed, is guaranteed to be tossed on legal grounds.
“This bill is illegal and ignores market conditions,” said REBNY’s president, John Banks. “The retail market is experiencing a national transformation and successful retailers are adapting to change with creative new ways to attract customers. In New York City, retail employment is increasing, even though online shopping continues to change consumer behavior. Vacancy rates fluctuate among individual retail corridors and rents are, in general, decreasing. The Council should focus its limited time, energy, and resources on solutions that will support small businesses instead of wasting millions of tax dollars defending an illegal bill that experts agree will be thrown out by the courts.”
The last time the legislation was set to have a vote was in 2009 when a majority of council members supported it. At that time the it was blocked by Speaker Christine Quinn, who cited legal issues, the SBC said.
It was reintroduced this year by Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, and among its co-sponsors is Carlina Rivera. Though not a sponsor, Council Member Keith Powers has said he is open to the bill getting a hearing.
“I am pleased to see that the SBJSA is getting a hearing early in my term,” he said after the date was announced on Tuesday. “I am planning to attend the hearing on the 22nd and am hopeful it will present a clear picture of the bill and address any legal issues or obstacles that exist. Following the hearing, I will consider signing on.”
Rodriguez didn’t get back to us when asked for comment on the bill.