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.
Natasha Amott, owner of Whisk
Earlier this month, Town & Village interviewed three local business owners to ask their thoughts on a package of legislation aimed at helping mom-and-pops.
One of those business owners was Natasha Amott, whose business, kitchen supply shop Whisk has three locations, one on Broadway in Flatiron, and two in Brooklyn, one in Williamsburg and the other in Brooklyn Heights. While the three shops have no shortage of loyal customers, Amott told Town & Village on Friday that the Williamsburg location on Bedford will be closing at the end of the month after 10 years due to an astronomical rise in rent. Currently $18,452, the landlord asked for a 44 percent increase that would have brought it up to $26,500. Such asking rents have become the norm in a neighborhood that, like so many others in the city, have been zeroed in on by chains.
Amott explained her decision to close in a “love letter” to customers, while also telling T&V via email, “This is NOT a story of a small business that could not survive the growth of online retailers. This is a story of a tremendously successful little business in a neighborhood that has become overrun with national and multinational chains, often supported by private equity, who choose to pay high rents as an advertising investment to grow their brand. The commercial banking system to underwrite mortgages on this land has often demanded these high rent rolls. And the small landlords – like Whisk’s – are now able to benefit too from these inflated market rents.”
In addition to the Brooklyn closure, there has also been a “For Rent” sign in the window of the Manhattan store.
The following is an open letter from Small Business Congress founder Sung Soo Kim to City Council Speaker Corey Johnson on the Small Business Jobs Survival Act. It has been edited for length.
Honorable Speaker Johnson:
I am disheartened that you refused to respond to my first request to meet and at least try to create compromise legislation to stop the closings of our city’s small businesses and save jobs. I took you at your word made at the October hearing on the Small Business Jobs Survival Act that you recognized a serious crisis existed and that you were committed to a solution and moving the bill (Small Business Jobs Survival Act) to a vote.
It is obvious to every small business owner that the grossly unfair lease renewal process places their futures and the futures of their employees in grave jeopardy when their leases expire. The empty storefronts on every main street make it obvious to every New Yorker that their beloved mom and pop businesses, having no rights nor protections from exorbitant rent increases, are desperate for government intervention to save them.
Putting aside the REBNY, Chambers, SBS and BID spins, false narratives, and insulting studies and fake worthless proposals, the majority of the city’s lawmakers also know their small businesses cannot survive without this legislation that gives rights to business owners in the critical lease renewal process.
Council Member Keith Powers questioned the club’s judgment, while Council Member Donovan Richards questioned why there weren’t more arrests. (Photos by Sabina Mollot)
By Sabina Mollot
After an Upper East Side Republican Club was vandalized on Friday, followed by a street brawl that is believed to be between members of a far-right group and left wing counter-protesters, local Democrat elected officials said the club had itself to blame.
City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and a handful of other politicians, including Council Member Keith Powers, who represents the neighborhood, questioned why the Metropolitan Club invited Gavin McInnes, a speaker who founded the Proud Boys group. Proud Boys has been deemed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Johnson said that McInnes, the co-founder of Vice Media, has used anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, sexist, racist and homophobic language.
A Vox report this week said McInnes has made statements about why he hates Jews as well as wanting to defile women. He has also made statements about Muslims being inbred.
Fight for rent regs important this year
The City Council renewed our NYC Rent Control and NYC Rent Stabilization laws on March 22. “Ho Hum,” you may say, “the City does that every three years.” True as the Council’s triennial renewal of these rent laws is, I put to you that this year is markedly different. How so?
This year the NYC laws’ renewal was led by our new Council Speaker, Corey Johnson. I attended Johnson’s inauguration on Jan. 28 and on the topic of tenant rent justice I found him electrifying. He saw clearly that the fight is in Albany and he has committed to lead the vanguard from NYC to strengthen protections.
At his inauguration he pointedly said “Furthermore, working with my partners in state government, I pledge to help lead the fight to press Albany to not only renew our rent laws, but to finally – once and for all – close the loopholes that are allowing landlords to deregulate thousands of affordable apartments every year.”
Council Member Keith Powers with Sydney Ireland at a ceremony at Immaculate Conception Church on Tuesday night (Photo by John McCarten)
Sydney Ireland, the female Boy Scout from Stuyvesant Town, who so far has been unable to get her accomplishments from over the past decade and rank formally recognized by her organization, was instead recognized on Tuesday evening with a proclamation from the City Council. The proclamation was presented by Council Member Keith Powers and was also signed by Speaker Corey Johnson.
Troop 414 hosted a Court of Honor for Boy Scouts receiving rank advancement and earning merit badges on Tuesday, including Sydney and other young women — though it was technically unofficial — at Immaculate Conception Church. Powers also presented the Troop with a certificate of appreciation.
Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez
By Sabina Mollot
The Small Business Jobs and Survival Act is getting a new lease on life, or at least, a new sponsor.
Earlier this month, Steve Barrison, an advocate of the legislation and executive vice president of the Small Business Congress, explained that as of the new year, the bill was “dead” as it was without a prime sponsor. This is because its last sponsor, Annabel Palma, was term-limited out. However, last Thursday, the bill was reintroduced by Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez of Upper Manhattan, although there was no hearing held. Rodriguez was previously the legislation’s secondary sponsor so becoming prime sponsor was, while not automatic, an expected move, a spokesperson for Rodriguez told us this week.
The rep, Stephanie Miliano, added that the Council member supports it due to the citywide problem of mom-and-pops being ousted by landlords hoping for higher-rent paying chains and banks. Abusive landlords were another reason. “We have to make sure tenants have some protections,” said Miliano.
Four storefronts on 23rd Street at the corner of Fifth Avenue will soon become a Bank of America. (Photo by Sabina Mollot)
By Sabina Mollot
The Small Business Congress, which has been pushing hard for the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, is on the offensive, preparing for possible mutations of the bill in the City Council that the SBC fears would render it useless.
Steve Barrison, an attorney and the executive vice president of the SBC, is saying despite new Council Speaker Corey Johnson’s assertions that he wants to see the long-blocked legislation get a hearing, the Devil will be in the details of what Barrison expects will become “a REBNY bill.”
In an email earlier this week, the Small Business Congress founder Sung Soo Kim stated that he is seeking exactly 26 volunteers to convince the Council members who do not support the bill to change their minds.
It may not be easy, though, since technically the SBJSA is dead, Barrison said. This is because the prime sponsor had been Annabel Palma of the Bronx who was term-limited on December 31, 2017.
The recent statements made by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson about wanting to see the Small Business Jobs Survival Act get a hearing, after being blocked for many years, should be encouraging news to anyone who owns a small business or enjoys patronizing them.
In this column, we’ve shared our support for this piece of legislation, which is aimed at getting commercial tenants an automatic lease extension when it’s time to renew despite some unexplained claims that it’s unconstitutional.
What we are asking now though is that the SBJSA finally get that hearing.
If council members continue to just talk about it (or not) then we really don’t see how they aren’t willfully ignoring the systematic annihilation of mom-and-pop shops.
What we don’t need is another study on why storefronts are vacant. We know perfectly well why. Amazon, while a game changer for sure, isn’t solely responsible for murdering brick and mortar stores. Astronomical rents and warehousing of retail spaces by speculative owners are still the biggest problems.
Harvey Epstein at Monday evening’s County Committee vote with a supporter, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson (Photo courtesy of Harvey Epstein)
By Sabina Mollot
On Monday night, the Manhattan Democratic Party County Committee unanimously nominated Urban Justice Center attorney Harvey Epstein for State Senator Brian Kavanagh’s vacated Assembly seat. However, the vote, held by about 200 county committee members at the Sirovich Senior Center, was technically already decided ahead of time when the two other Democrat candidates in the race, Sandro Sherrod and Mike Corbett, withdrew.
Corbett, a City Council aide and former president of New York Young Democrats, announced on Monday morning he was withdrawing and giving his support to Epstein.
In an email blast, he said it was clear Epstein had more backing from the party.
“I was especially honored to have the support of so many of you in this race,” wrote Corbett. “However, as we approach the County Committee vote tonight, I believe that the result is no longer in doubt. My friends, to paraphrase the musical Hamilton, I don’t have the votes.”
City Council Speaker Corey Johnson with Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney and other elected officials at his inauguration (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)
By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Chelsea Councilmember Corey Johnson was inaugurated as Speaker at FIT’s Haft Theater last weekend, becoming the first openly HIV-positive elected official in the position. Johnson pledged to fight for affordable housing, small businesses and fixes for the MTA.
“These problems are incredibly complex and by confronting them, we will ensure that New Yorkers have good paying jobs, healthcare and good schools,” he said. “The city, state and federal governments have to work together to fix the subways. No person should be stopped and frisked. It’s our responsibility to stand up for immigrants, women, people who are transgender, seniors and the poor.”
Johnson especially stressed the importance of renewing the rent laws in state capital.
“We need to press Albany to renew the rent laws,” he said. “We need to close the loopholes that give landlords the ability to deregulate thousands of apartments a year.”
Police at the scene of the fire at the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sava closed off the block in case the destroyed church on West 25th Street collapsed. (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)
By Maria Rocha-Buschel
A four-alarm fire gutted a Serbian Orthodox church at 24 West 25th Street on Sunday evening, following services earlier that day that took place for Orthodox Easter. Because the services ended earlier in the afternoon, no one was inside the church at the time the fire broke out around 6:50 p.m. but the blaze left the interior of the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sava in shambles, burning the roof off of the landmarked structure that has been in the neighborhood since 1855. FDNY said that one civilian and four firefighters were taken to Bellevue Hospital for smoke inhalation and no other injuries were reported.
Police at the scene on Monday morning said that the street would be closed until investigators could determine that the remaining part of the building still standing was structurally sound and wouldn’t collapse. The officer noted that a collapse was unlikely but the street remained closed as a precaution. Only employees working at buildings on the street were allowed past the police barricades. FDNY noted on Wednesday morning that the cause is still under investigation but the fire is considered non-suspicious.
Stuyvesant Town residents sit in the audience at the hearing. On the right is Marietta Hawkes, a 38-year resident who gave testimony. (Photo by Sabina Mollot)
By Sabina Mollot
With the Rent Guidelines Board set to decide on the rent increases for over one million rent stabilized apartments in the city on June 24, tenants from around the city went before the board on Monday, June 8 to ask for a rent freeze or even a rollback. Numerous landlords, mainly those owning small buildings, also testified to ask for higher rents and even supplemental increases for tenants who remain in their buildings for many years. A few City Council members also chimed in to say their constituents are being priced out of their neighborhoods and in some cases harassed by landlords who want to oust them and deregulate their apartments.
The public hearing, held at CUNY’s Graduate Center on 34th Street was one of four taking place around the city. The next and final one before the vote will take place on June 18 from 5-8 p.m. at Brooklyn Borough Hall.
One of the first speakers was a senior from Stuyvesant Town named Marietta Hawkes, who, after 38 years of living in the complex, is paying 45 percent of her income in rent, including three major capital improvement (MCI) increases.
“Due to these increases, I have had to cut back on food and doctor visits,” said Hawkes. She added that other actions by owner CWCapital have had taken a toll on her heath.