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.
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.
Julie Gaines chronicles her store’s ups and downs in Minding the Store, which was illustrated by her son, Ben Lenovitz. (Photos by Sabina Mollot)
By Sabina Mollot
Anyone considering opening a small business in New York City, or who simply enjoys frequenting them, may want to check out a new graphic novel on the subject, written by the owner of quirky Flatiron home goods store Fishs Eddy.
Julie Gaines, who opened the shop with her then boyfriend, later husband, Dave Lenovitz, 32 years ago, has written the book, published by Workman (a division of Algonquin) and titled Minding the Store with illustration by her son Ben Lenovitz.
Released on November 29, it’s now available at her store on Broadway (along with other book retailers) for $22, and tells the history of the business through its ups and down from the shuttering of American manufactures that made its dishware to, in recent years, growing competition from online retailers. It was the latter problem that prompted Gaines to hire a CEO to help counter dwindling sales, only to end up feeling even more stressed and eventually undermined by his corporate drill sergeant approach to running a store.
“He actually bullied us,” said Gaines. “That’s what this book is about. He terrorized us.”
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.”
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.
Gino DiGirolamo at his 14th Street shop in 2014 (Photo by Sabina Mollot)
By Sabina Mollot
On Friday, March 30, the man known to many as “Gino the tailor,” Gino DiGirolamo, died at the age of 82. The owner of Royal Tailor, which was located in the East Village for 52 years, had suffered a heart attack a month ago that he never recovered from. His son Vito, 51, said his father, after having the heart attack on an L train platform, was taken to Beth Israel, where he stayed for ongoing treatment. He was visited regularly by friends and Vito, but the elder DiGirolamo never regained consciousness.
In an interview with Town & Village three years ago, DiGirolamo, then working out of an East 14th Street shop across from Stuyvesant Town, spoke of his intention to retire after getting socked with a hefty rent increase. He’d been in that space for a few years, after moving from the original shop on Avenue A. However, his livelihood was later saved when he found a nearby affordable space on East 11th Street.
As he had before, DiGirolamo worked long and hard, around 80 hours a week, commuting to the shop from his home in Ozone Park, Queens.
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.