Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer is seeking a second term against three unknown candidates and being the Democrat incumbent, we’re sure she’ll clobber them. However, the fact is that it doesn’t matter who wins this race since the position is useless. The purpose is to be a cheerleader for one’s borough, appointing members to community boards and, if one is ambitious, coming up with ideas that hopefully City Council members will pick up.
Last year in T&V’s “Politics & Tidbits” column, former Assembly Steven Sanders called the office that borough presidents hold, as well as the office that evolved into the public advocate “throwbacks to an earlier age in the last century when they were relevant.” Now, he pointed out, “It has become mostly a springboard to run for mayor or comptroller, where the actual power resides. The current mayor and current comptroller are prime examples of that.”
We like Brewer and that she’s so passionate about Manhattan’s mom-and-pops. But her position kind of handcuffs her from doing anything about this worsening crisis. She recently conducted a study of vacant storefronts and the results were not exactly shocking: Retail blight is getting worse. Her office didn’t respond when we asked what the next steps were on acting on this knowledge, and we’re guessing this is because there aren’t any. Brewer, previously an effective City Council member, should run for another position where she can actually make a difference.
Also on the ballot is Stuyvesant Town small business owner and community activist Frank Scala. A good man we respect but we don’t know how he’d magically affect real change with such limited power, either.
If you want to vote against wasting taxpayer money pick a candidate named Brian Waddell. This candidate, on the Reform and Libertarian lines, is running with the idea of eliminating the office completely on his first day if elected. In an amusing Q&A Waddell conducts with himself on his website, the candidate asks: “Is the rent too damn high? Yes, but there is nothing a borough president can do about it, so let’s get rid of them.”
For Frank Scala, pictured at his barber shop, priorities are tackling homelessness and helping businesses stay in place. (Photos by Sabina Mollot)
By Sabina Mollot
Frank Scala, at the age of 78, is a veteran in more than one sense of the word. Along with having served in the Italian Navy, the Sicily native has also worked as a barber for decades at his own shop, La Scala, and he also has a history of running for office in New York City.
Being a Republican hasn’t stopped him from attempting to defeat popular Democrat incumbents. He’s challenged former Assembly Member Steven Sanders, current Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh and State Senator Brad Hoylman.
And now Scala, a resident of Stuyvesant Town, has set his sights on the Manhattan borough president’s office, running against Gale Brewer.
Last year, when running against Kavanagh, Scala at first said he was just doing it out of a sense of obligation to the Republican Party since no one else had stepped up. He’d begrudgingly done the same thing two years earlier to give Republicans someone from their own party to vote for, when challenging Hoylman. But Scala later changed his mind, saying he wanted to run “legit.” This time, he’s running a mostly inactive race — he isn’t fundraising and has no website.
But he was still happy to do an interview to discuss the issues he thinks are a priority for the borough and the campaign.
Businesses, particularly small ones that help shape a neighborhood’s identity, are always on the minds of New Yorkers, who’ve grown weary of seeing them disappear in favor of banks and chain stores.
However, there are, finally, some opportunities to help small businesses. One opportunity is of course, presented by the more pleasant weather that comes with spring (well, hopefully soon, anyway) and the chance to check out all the new places to shop, eat or drink that have popped up in the post-holiday months and to re-discover tried and true favorites.
Another opportunity New Yorkers have to help protect the retail diversity of the city is to reach out to elected officials and ask them to support legislation aimed at helping small businesses.
As reported in this week’s issue, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer has drafted legislation that would give retail tenants a fighting chance at staying put when it comes time for lease renewal. It’s not exactly commercial rent control, but even giving small businesses the option of sitting down to negotiate rather than just allowing them to get abruptly kicked out would be a pretty significant shift of power.
A recently launched effort by blogger Jeremiah Moss of Vanishing New York called #Savenyc is aimed at collecting people’s stories about their favorite small businesses, which, like waiting lists for affordable apartments, seem to be a dying breed.
And here at Town & Village, we’d like to think we’re no slouches about supporting local merchants and restaurants either, with monthly new local business roundups and also the Shopping Local series of articles profiling businesses both old and new. While we’ve let that series, begun in the months after Hurricane Sandy, lapse, we are proud to announce its return in upcoming issues. If you’re the owner of a small business we haven’t yet gotten to, or if you know of a business you think deserves some publicity, please send your suggestions to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer discusses her legislation at the Upper West Side location of Halal Guys. (Photo by Sabina Mollot)
Legislation would make it mandatory for landlords to negotiate with retail tenants
By Sabina Mollot
New legislation could curb a trend of mom-and-pop businesses being replaced by banks and chain stores.
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said she’s drafting legislation that would make it mandatory for a building’s owner to at least allow a retail tenant a chance to negotiate to keep his or her space.
“The future of street level retail stores and restaurants — I call them storefronters — has begun to look murky,” Brewer said on Monday. “Every day, the press has another story about a kids’ clothing store or a shoe repair shop closing to make room for a chain or a bank.”
The bill, which is being sponsored by the City Council’s Small Business Committee Chair Robert Cornegy at Brewer’s request, along with giving tenants a chance to negotiate, would also give the tenant the option of a one-year lease extension with a maximum rent increase of 15 percent. Additionally, a building owner, if planning on evicting the tenant, would have to give the tenant notice of that intention 180 days before the end of a lease. “So businesses will have enough time to find new space and make a transition, hopefully in the same neighborhood,” said Brewer.
Brewer also said she wanted to help business owners threatened by rent increases the option of purchasing the storefront through “condo-ization.”
“Many of the long-standing small businesses that are here today are only here because they had an opportunity to buy the building,” she said. “There was a time where you could buy a building, but that opportunity today is dim.”
While this is technically already possible under current law, Brewer said there are ways the city could be helping the process along. It may be possible, she added, to create a condo if the business portion of the building is split from the residential portion. Additionally, if 51 percent of the property or more is occupied by the business, it could qualify for a federal Small Business Association loan of up to $5 million.
Mayor’s office pledges support but is short on details at Council hearing
Council Member Dan Garodnick and other city politicians called on Albany to repeal vacancy decontrol and further strengthen the laws governing rent stabilization. (Photo by William Alatriste)
By Sabina Mollot
With the Rent Stabilization Laws up for renewal in June, several city politicians and dozens of tenants gathered at City Hall on Monday to call on state lawmakers to strengthen the laws, most importantly by repealing vacancy decontrol.
Most of the comments were directed at Governor Cuomo, with speakers like Comptroller Scott Stringer putting the blame on Albany for “rewarding greedy speculators.”
He added that the city’s plan to build more affordable housing meant nothing if it kept hemorrhaging units at the same pace. “We’re losing affordable housing bastions like Stuyvesant Town,” he said.
The comptroller, who recently released a report saying that 400,000 apartments renting for $1,000 have disappeared from the radar, said at the podium that vacancy decontrol alone has cost the city 153,000 units of affordable housing. Currently, around 2.3 million New Yorkers live in 1.1 million rent stabilized units.
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer voiced a suggestion that rent laws include a provision that every new development must include affordable housing, and, she added, “We need to get rid of MCIs (major capital improvements) that go on for 100 years.”
Borough President Gale Brewer, along with other elected officials including Assembly Member Richard Gottfried, Council Member Dan Garodnick, State Senator Brad Hoylman and State Senator Liz Krueger in front of City Hall (Photo by Sabina Mollot)
By Sabina Mollot
Last Friday, over a dozen elected officials and housing advocates gathered at City Hall to blast Airbnb, the home-sharing listing website that’s being investigated by the attorney general, as having become the city’s largest illegal hotel operator. The popular service, which allows users to list their apartments for short term stays, has become the bane of the hotel industry as well as a problem for some tenants, mainly due to safety issues when neighbors rent their apartments to strangers.
Then there’s the inevitable quality of life issues like late night noise and even bedbugs. Two years ago, when there was an uptick of bedbug sightings in Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village, Tenants Association John Marsh said he thought illegal hotel activity may have had something to do with it.
Meanwhile, in some properties, like ST/PCV, renting out one’s home for a bit of extra cash is not only against the law, but against the terms of the lease.
At City Hall, the speakers, following the formation of a coalition called Share Better, criticized Airbnb for not warning users that they may face eviction for renting out their homes. It was only after ST-PCV Tenants Association leaders as well as CWCapital employees met with representatives from Airbnb that the company agreed to send a pop-up message to would be Airbnb users with ST/PCV addresses that it would be illegal to rent their unit.
Susan Steinberg, chair of the ST-PCV Tenants Association, said this week that as a result of the warning message, she believes illegal apartment rentals are less of a problem today than they had been in recent years.
But they are still a problem.
“It’s just anecdotal things from people that it’s still going on,” said Steinberg. “People they’ve never seen lugging suitcases in and out.”
Additionally, on Monday, a Stuy Town apartment appeared in a listing by an Airbnb “host” named Damian, who was asking $304 a night for a two-bedroom apartment for a minimum of 14 days. The same user described himself in his bio as a manager of multiple apartments. The Stuy Town apartment was listed as a “Gramercy designer luxury suite.” The others available through the same host were in Soho, Nolita and Greenwich Village.
As for whether Airbnb is to blame for the other instances mentioned by Steinberg is hard to say, since there are other similar home-sharing service websites. One, called Flipkey, targeted ST/PCV residents in May of 2013 with a postcard mailed to each apartment that promised an average booking fee of $1,000.
This was swiftly responded to by management, however, who alerted residents via email that renting out their apartments was a no-no. “Please remember that apartment rentals for fewer than 30 days are prohibited under NYC law and use of this service is a violation of your lease and your tenancy,” CW told tenants. “Furthermore, short term rentals such as these are harmful to the PCVST community and negatively impact your neighbors.”
After that, a rep for Flipkey told T&V the company would not attempt to contact residents again.
Under the Illegal Hotels Law, passed in 2010, it’s illegal to rent out apartments in residential buildings for under 30 days. Airbnb has since fired back by lobbying to amend the law.
Tenants hold signs at a City Hall press conference.
But while CWCapital has been attempting to stop the practice of short-term renting, tenants in other buildings said at the rally that in some cases it is owners themselves turning properties into illegal hotels. At City Hall, tenants, armed with signs that read “Homes not hotels” and “Save our homes” shared tales of landlords attempting to slowly turn their whole buildings into hotels because they earn more that way than through monthly rent.
A Hell’s Kitchen resident named Tom Kaylor said his landlord turned a one-bedroom apartment into a five-bedroom by packing in short-term guests. One of them turned out to be registered sex offender who threatened Kaylor’s nine-year-old son.
“We went to the NYPD,” he said. “We got him charged with making terroristic threats, but that didn’t stop the hostel.” In another incident at the building, Kaylor recalled how a Danish woman staying there had someone follow her inside and attack her. When neighbors heard her scream, they came out and her attacker, who’d left her with two black eyes, fled. “She didn’t want to make a police report because she was leaving the next day,” said Kaylor.
State Senator Liz Krueger, who authored the illegal hotels legislation along with Assembly Member Richard Gottfried, said she had tried to get it passed for seven years before it finally became law. “
Fundamentally what we have seen happen is a decrease in affordable housing in the city,” said Krueger, “as these apartments are taken off the market to be used in illegal hotel activities.”
She and other politicians then took jabs at Airbnb’s recent marketing blitz, with different ads depicting New Yorkers along with their guests in their apartments and sharing stories of how renting out their homes helps them afford their own expensive rent. But, pols said, the ads are misleading because most hosts aren’t home while their guests are, which is what makes the transaction illegal.
“It’s very misleading — renting to tourists to make ends meet,” added Council Member Dan Garodnick. “That would be very sympathetic, if it was a complete picture.”
Gottfried noted that regular hotels have to abide by very specific fire and safety codes. “Illegal hotels almost always violate these safety codes,” he said.
Borough President Gale Brewer said she thought Airbnb “is a problem,” though she added that the city does need more low-cost hotels. “This administration needs to look at quality hotels that are legal. That’s what we should focus on,” she said.
Other politicians to criticize Airbnb as making the affordable housing crisis worse were Council Members Corey Johnson, Rory Lancman, Mark Levine and Helen Rosenthal, State Senators Brad Hoylman and Adriano Espaillat, Assembly Members Walter Mosley and Linda Rosenthal and Public Advocate Tish James.
The event was also in promotion of the Share Better coalition, which seems to have been created with the sole purpose of opposing Airbnb. The coalition, as well as Attorney General Eric Scheiderman believe two thirds of the company’s income comes from illegal hotels. After subpoenaing anonymous information about the company’s users, the A.G. asked for identifiable information about 124 users who allegedly are each renting out a minimum of 10 apartments. Seventeen of those users have since sued to block their personal information being turned over so the A.G. currently has the identities of the remaining 107.
A spokesperson for Airbnb, Nick Papas, when asked about the rally and criticism of its business practices, issued this statement.
“We strongly oppose illegal hotels and have advocated for legislation that would modify the law to make it easier for regular people to share their primary residence.” He also referred to information on a recent post on the company blog.
In it, Airbnb insisted that its 25,000 listings were too small of a number to have a negative impact on the pricing of New York City’s three million households. The company also said that it recently removed a number of users who were “abusing” its system by offering multiple listings and not providing a “quality, local” experience for guests. It also blamed the current backlash against its services on the hotel industry.
“Some in the hotel industry will do everything they can to stop the sharing economy,” the post read, “but we look forward to working with leaders in New York on sensible legislation that cracks down on illegal hotels and ensures regular New Yorkers can share the home in which they live.”
On Friday afternoon, when talking to reporters, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised there would be “more enforcement” on the issue. “We have been increasing enforcement and you’ll see more enforcement as we go along,” he said. “There’s difference types of realities, obviously, under the rubric of Airbnb the sharing economy, and some of them are things to embrace and some are examples where some individuals get outside the law and we’re obviously going to follow up on that very aggressively.
“We also need a bigger set of policies to address these changes in our society – you know, the role of technology and commerce – and we intend to do that. But you’re certainly going to see – if you look at the numbers so far, there’s been a lot of enforcement already this year. You’re certainly going to see more.”
Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh and staffer Anna Pycior campaign for Gale Brewer outside Stuy Town on Tuesday. (Photo by Sabina Mollot)
After a long and contentious primary season and a race with more Democrats than can be counted on one hand, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio climbed to the top of the pack in the election on Tuesday. On Wednesday morning, it was still unclear whether or not de Blasio, who at times during the campaign lagged in fourth place behind City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, former City Comptroller Bill Thompson and former Congressman Anthony Weiner, would avoid a runoff with Thompson.
According to election results from the New York Times, de Blasio won all of the districts in Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, as well as most of the surrounding districts except for some in the Flatiron area and Gramercy, which went to Quinn. The Republican primary was only slightly more split, with former MTA Chairman Joe Lhota winning all of the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village districts except two.
The race was too close to call between de Blasio and Thompson on Tuesday night. While various news sources put de Blasio slightly over the requisite 40 percent at around midnight, Thompson said that he would continue his campaign until all of the ballots were counted, which could take days. As of Wednesday morning, the Board of Elections said that de Blasio had 40.13 percent of the vote with Thompson at 26.16 percent.
Quinn, the longtime frontrunner, conceded on Tuesday night with only 15 percent of the vote and disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner ducked out early in the vote-tallying with less than five percent.
Gale Brewer is a unique politician. As a volunteer, I have seen firsthand how she connects with people by her caring and sincere disposition. Gale is the real deal and will make seniors, disabled, working families proud to call her president.
She has initiated and helped pass the paid sick leave law in the Council. I see Gale on TV and how hard she works for all New Yorkers.
Gale has campaigned often in Stuy Town, standing on street corners at the food market and grocery store. She has pledged to fight hard for Stuy Town and rent regulation to keep this community affordable.
Her most recent endorsements are NY Times, Mike McKee of TenantsPAC, Assemblymen Brian Kavanagh and Dick Gottfried, Gloria Steinem, Liz Holtz, many unions, Sierra Club and many, many others.
Stuy Town is lucky to have such a seasoned candidate — 40 years in government, 12 years in the City Council and a president to be for all Manhattanites.