By Kirsten Theodos, co-founder, Take Back NYC
All across the city, we are seeing the character and spirit of our neighborhoods being destroyed by hyper real estate speculation pushing out longtime established small businesses. Amazon cannot be blamed for all of the closings. A year ago, 41-year-old Cornelia Street Café was forced to close because of an exorbitant rent hike.
The Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA) would have saved them by giving commercial tenants rights to renew their leases and negotiate reasonable terms. In a recent interview, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer made clear in her view the SBJSA shouldn’t apply to all commercial leases. Her argument is weak, that the “unintended consequences” of the bill would be including “white shoe law firms” and “financial institutions.”
Even if a business is a hedge fund, it should not be excluded from protection from unscrupulous landlords. Carving out specific types of businesses from the bill is discrimination and would certainly be legally challenged. After years of broken promises to save Mom & Pop, it is unclear why she is back on the small business beat and weighing in on this now.
Beginning in 2014, President Brewer sounded the alarm as sky-high rents were forcing long-established businesses to close in record numbers. She stated “the mom-and-pop crisis has intensified with a fury” and announced she was going to conduct a comprehensive study that included holding round tables to find a solution for small business survival. In March 2015, she announced her “lifeline to save mom and pop shops” in her study “Small Business, Big Impact.”
Working with then-Business Chairman Councilman Robert Cornegy, legislation was being written to mandate non-binding mediation between landlord and storefront businesses. President Brewer did a major media campaign promoting her proposed legislation and promised to make 2016 “the year of the mom-and-pop shop,” hinting her legislation would be introduced “imminently.”
Unfortunately, four years later, we are still waiting for her legislation even as the crisis has “intensified with a fury,” as she predicted. It is puzzling how an elected official can publicly declare a crisis is wreaking havoc on Main Street, do a major study, promise legislation to address it and then chose to do absolutely nothing. Since 2014, an estimated 60,000+ small businesses have closed and now, after neglecting to deliver on her previous promises, President Brewer is now calling for… you guessed it… another study, which is just a stalling tactic in sync with Speaker Corey Johnson’s inaction to prohibit any movement towards passing the SBJSA.
In October, there was a hearing on the SBJSA. At eight separate times during the hearing, Speaker Johnson lamented over the closing of 30-year neighborhood favorite Tortilla Flats, which shuttered in the face of a 300 percent rent hike. It has now been seven months since the hearing and there has been zero movement on the bill that would have saved them. In April, Speaker Johnson “fast-tracked” legislation creating a paper bag tax, but sadly he has not prioritized saving Mom & Pop with the same tenacity. The reality is, had the speaker “fast-tracked” the SBJSA when he was elected speaker in 2017, both Cornelia Street Cafe and Tortilla Flats would have been saved.
The worst possible way to handle any crisis is inaction. Speaker Johnson and President Brewer, stop stalling and just let democracy play out once and for all and fast-track a vote on the SBJSA before all our small businesses become extinct.