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.
By Kirsten Theodos of Take Back NYC
After the big news that Amazon was canceling its plan to build its new headquarters “HQ2” in Long Island City, activists and local elected officials celebrated it as a victory while others viewed it as a tragic collapse. The biggest complaint has been the loss of 25,000 promised jobs over the next decade.
Meanwhile, on every Main Street in every neighborhood across the city, there are empty storefronts where once-thriving businesses existed. Are supporters of the Amazon deal aware that New York City courts evict 500 businesses every month and over 1,000 are estimated to close every month, mostly due to high rents? Eighty-nine percent of all small businesses in NYC are considered “very small,” meaning they employ less than 20 people. Conservatively using eight as the average, that means New York City loses at least 8,000 jobs every month.
There are people lamenting over potentially having lost 200 new Amazon jobs per month when our city already sheds over 8,000 per month, which the Amazon deal would have exacerbated. And while it is true that online shopping has altered the retail landscape (namely by Amazon itself), it is the unfair lease renewal process that is shuttering our long established small businesses. Just on my block a ramen restaurant, a bike repair shop and pizza place were all forced to close due to an exorbitant rent hike upon their lease renewal, and none of them competed with Amazon.
Small businesses employ more than half of NYC’s private sector workforce. They provide jobs that offer a path to social mobility and in New York City are predominantly immigrant owned. Unlike Amazon’s imported tech bros, small businesses employ actual New Yorkers who live in our communities.
Ahead of a hearing on several small business bills, City Council members including Mark Levine and Helen Rosenthal (pictured with supporters), hold a rally at City Hall. (Photos by Sabina Mollot)
By Sabina Mollot
The City Council is mulling a package of legislation aimed at protecting mom-and-pops that ranges from creating a registry to track storefront vacancies to providing affordable retail spaces at developments where owners collect $1 million or more in subsidies.
On Monday, the bills were debated at a hearing chaired by the City Council Small Businesses Committee Chair Mark Gjonaj, after a rally on the front steps of City Hall.
The piece of legislation that would require the city to maintain a vacancy registry is being sponsored by Council Members Helen Rosenthal, Carlina Rivera, Ben Kallos and Mark Levine as well as Speaker Corey Johnson. The registry would include the location of the property, the reasons for the vacancy, the owner’s name, contact information for the property and the day it became vacant. Property owners would be expected to register once a property is vacant for more than 90 days. Failure to register would result in a penalty of $1,000 for every week after that.
Another bill, sponsored by Rosenthal and Johnson, would require the city to maintain a database of commercial properties.
These days it’s impossible to have a conversation about small businesses without lapsing into how a heady, toxic mix of landlord greed, government fees and online shopping are slowly but surely destroying them all.
The biggest game changer we can think of, the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, is still very much in limbo. However, there are fortunately some lawmakers coming up with some other ideas in the meantime aimed at giving mom-and-pops a break. While not as far-reaching as the SBJSA, we do believe a few will help and they certainly seem to have more of a chance of getting passed in a timely fashion.
A new bill by Council Member Mark Levine of Upper Manhattan would help business owners fight evictions by guaranteeing them the right to counsel, as those facing criminal charges get when they’re poor, and poor tenants facing evictions from their homes get, too.
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.
By Sung Soo Kim, founder, Small Business Congress
Normally, the small business advocates would call upon all New Yorkers to put aside the canned election political rhetoric and instead scrutinize the records, qualifications, public statements and past actions of the candidates. There is no time for this proper analysis, but one candidate’s shameful record on dealing with the small business crisis and being influenced by a lobby must be exposed to the voters, especially in the immigrant community.
We carefully reviewed public advocate candidate Melissa Mark-Viverito’s (MMV) record and actions as speaker on addressing the specific crisis of the closings of long established small businesses. Also examined were her actions to address the anti-democratic rigging by a lobby taking place in the speaker’s office for over four years.
Nobody is more qualified to make this assessment than the small business advocates who have been fighting for justice for decades. The small businesses themselves wrote the original legislation (Small Business Jobs Survival Act, Jobs Survival Act ) giving rights to businesses to survive when their leases expired and then advocated for over 30 years to get it passed.
We know from firsthand experience who is a true progressive and friend of small business and who has been bought off to stop our bill and deny rights to small business owners. We know when we receive justice and fair treatment at City Hall and when justice is denied by a rigged system. Our warning to voters to not vote for MMV is based solely upon the true record of MMV as speaker on our crisis.
Katie Loeb, budget director for Council Member Carlina Rivera, discusses the Small Business Jobs Survival Act at a meeting of Community Board 6. (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)
By Maria Rocha-Buschel
The Business Affairs and Street Activities Committee for Community Board 6 voted last Thursday to support the Small Business Jobs Survival Act with a handful of suggestions to narrow the scope of the legislation, encouraging local elected officials to focus the bill even more on mom-and-pop type businesses throughout the city.
The resolution the committee passed on the SBJSA encouraged legislators to define “small business,” which the bill doesn’t explicitly do, and provide stipulations to prohibit formulaic businesses or chains from repeating in small neighborhoods.
The resolution additionally encouraged lawmakers to focus on small businesses instead of all commercial businesses, which can also include larger corporate businesses as well as chains. The committee also urged legislators to create provisions in the bill that would encourage landlords to lease to new businesses, as well as to minority-owned, women-owned and veteran-owned businesses.
Since the bill has been introduced in the City Council and not at the state level, the resolution urged state legislators to create and pass a similar bill with all the same stipulations to solidify the same protections at the state level.
After months of speculation on where Amazon would decide to hold court, the online retail giant finally announced the locations of its headquarters, which will be split in two cities: Crystal City, Virginia and Long Island City in New York.
It didn’t take long before City Hall and nearly every politician in town crowed about Amazon’s promise to make at least 25,000 hires in positions paying an average of $150,000, after being promised up to $2.2 billion in state and city giveaways. Of course good-paying jobs are a benefit to New Yorkers. However, we still can’t help but feel the city has really turned its back on small businesses this time.
As the long-stalled effort to get the Small Business Jobs Survival Act passed proves, no one is afraid to parrot the real estate industry’s argument that the demise of mom-and-pops has more to do with online shopping than exorbitant rent. At the hearing for the SBJSA, a representative of the city’s Small Business Services agency argued against the bill, warning of “unintended consequences” like landlords being more hesitant to lease to small businesses.
Supporters of the Small Business Jobs Survival Act rally prior to a long-awaited City Council hearing. (Photos by Sabina Mollot)
By Sabina Mollot
On Monday, the City Council chamber was packed with small business advocates, real estate professionals and others with an interest in the first step taken to move the now 32-year-old Small Business Jobs Survival Act in nearly a decade.
At a lengthy hearing, those in support of the bill, aimed at getting businesses an automatic 10-year lease renewal, through mediation and binding arbitration if necessary, carried signs that said things like “Pass Intact SBJSA Now” and “Evict REBNY.” Those against it wore blue caps that read, “Vote no commercial rent control.”
The hearing followed a rally in support of the SBJSA led by David Eisenbach, a Columbia professor who heads a group called the Friends of the SBJSA.
Eisenbach compared the fight for the bill’s passage to “a battle for the soul of New York. Will it be a New York of chains or a New York of Chinatown? It’s David against Goliath.”
Amazon can’t rescue your parakeet
This week, Town & Village would like to acknowledge one of the many ways that independent, owner-run businesses, as opposed to employee-run chains, can benefit the community.
Along with helping to keep any money spent by neighborhood residents in the same neighborhood and having knowledgeable people around to answer questions instead of clueless kids telling customers to call corporate, they are also generally fiercely loyal to the communities they serve.
A perfect example of this Carole Husiak. Husiak and her husband Johnny own Ibiza Kidz, the children’s store that only reopened last Friday after the electrical fire over three weeks ago in Stuyvesant Town.
Loop restaurant on Third Avenue in Gramercy closed over the summer. (Photo by Sabina Mollot)
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 following is an open letter to Public Advocate Letitia James from Sung Soo Kim, founder of The Small Business Congress. The letter has been edited for length.
Honorable Public Advocate James:
Recently, Councilman Ydanis Rodriquez as prime sponsor reintroduced the Small Business Jobs Survival Act. This bill has the same language, word for word, as the one you proudly sponsored and championed at times in 2009, 2010 and 2014 as Public Advocate. It’s the same bill that you touted over the year’s at citywide events as the best solution to stop the closing of our small businesses and end their crisis and address the “Malling of Main Street.”
The new speaker of the Council, Corey Johnson, has pledged a public hearing on the bill, as well as finding a real solution to end the crisis. While small business advocates applaud this commitment, we are cautiously guarded in hoping our city’s small businesses finally, after eight long years, receive evenhanded and just treatment at City Hall.
Council Member Carlina Rivera with with the bill’s supporters and its prime sponsor Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez at her left (Photo courtesy of Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez)
By Sabina Mollot
Small business activists are actively pushing for a hearing of the Small Business Jobs and Survival Act, which was reintroduced in the City Council in March under a new prime sponsor, Ydanis Rodriguez.
Representatives from various pro-SBJSA groups attended a hearing on the steps of City Hall last Wednesday, along with Rodriguez and fellow Council Member Carlina Rivera. Additionally, the coalition has continued to reach out to small businesses across the five boroughs as well as those who enjoy patronizing them, encouraging email to their local member of Council.
Harry Bubbins, East Village and special projects director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, said hundreds of email forms to council members were sent through the GVSHP’s website. Additionally, since the bill was reintroduced, 12 council members have signed on as sponsors.
“They are responding to their local constituents as well as the needs of the city, the obvious crisis of retail spaces in the city,” Bubbins said.
Council Member Carlina Rivera speaks about a “21st century” version of the SBJSA as well as other issues at an event at Almond in Flatiron, hosted by the Union Square and Flatiron BIDs. (Pictured) Rivera with NY1 reporter Michael Scotto (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)
By Maria Rocha-Buschel
New Councilmember Carlina Rivera spoke with NY1 reporter Michael Scotto in an event at Almond Restaurant in Flatiron at the end of March, focusing on small businesses, the upcoming L train shutdown, homelessness and the planned tech hub for Union Square.
The event was a community breakfast hosted by two neighborhood BIDs, the Union Square Partnership and the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership.
As she previously mentioned in a roundtable with Town & Village, Rivera said that she supports a “21st-century version” of the Small Business Jobs and Survival Act, clarifying further at the recent breakfast that she partially meant taking online shopping into consideration.
“We need to consider how we shop, but we also need to consider that the piece of legislation we introduce, as of last term, was 20 years old,” she said. “The way we’ve shopped has changed dramatically in 20 years so I think giving the small business owner the ability to negotiate is important. (The 21st-century version) is taking into consideration mixed-use buildings, and making sure that Small Business Services does a better job at marketing the resources they have available, along with the Department of Consumer Affairs.”