When Tamika Gabaroum decided she finally wanted to open her restaurant, Green Garden in the East Village, she understood it wouldn’t be an easy task. But Tamika, a former public health advocate with the Peace Corps who served in UN Peacekeeping Missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, was used to a challenge. What she couldn’t expect was her landlord, Raphael Toledano, disappearing months after signing her lease, and a new landlord arriving with demands of higher rent. And she could have never guessed that Toledano had harassed the previous long-time tenants out of their stores as well.
The challenges facing Tamika and other small business owners in New York City are well known. Rising commercial rents, competition from corporate franchises, and the growth of online shopping have forced an alarming number of mom and pop stores to close their doors.
In many community districts, vacant storefronts have become a common sight, turning once-thriving retail corridors into ghost towns. When a small business closes, it is not only a loss for their neighborhood’s local economy, but also for its vibrancy and character.
By Sung Soo Kim, founder of the Small Business Congress
It took 9 years for the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (Jobs Act) to get a hearing in the City Council. Why the delay when the Jobs Act was unanimously selected at its last hearing in June 2009 as the best solution to stop the closing of small businesses by the entire Small Business Committee and had 32 sponsors? How is it possible in a progressive council to deny justice on a bill for 9 years, the only real solution, that would save the “backbone of our economy and creators of the majority of resident’s jobs? Would progressive lawmakers who pledged to promote progressive legislation if elected remain silent and complicit for 9 years to the rigging by REBNY to stop any rights to small business owners to survive?
Even with the NYC courts issuing 52,314 warrants to evict commercial businesses since 2009, and long established businesses forced to close in record numbers and empty storefronts appearing on every main street where once thriving businesses were, our progressive lawmakers did “nothing” for 9 years to save a single business or job. This fact by itself is a good reason to be skeptical of any bills suddenly created after doing nothing for so long and with a real solution bottled up in committee.
After the last hearing on the Jobs Act, former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn colluded with REBNY to cook up a bogus legal roadblock to stop any vote or fair treatment of the Jobs Act. She started the rigging that allowed REBNY to hijack our democracy and the Jobs Act and was responsible for the origin of the small business crisis today. This answers the question of why self-proclaimed progressive lawmakers allowed this economic injustice and catastrophe to happen and allowed the destruction of our small businesses. Face the truth, when it comes to economic policy, democracy does not exist at City Hall, only oligarchy serving the wealthy few.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Concerns were raised about newsstands that would compete with businesses they’re across from or block historic properties. (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)
By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Newsstands are as much a part of street life in New York as bodegas and corner delis but after a recent influx of applications for new locations in the area, members of Community Board 6 have decided to revise the criteria for approving them in the district.
Protecting those existing delis and other small businesses is one of the reasons for the proposed changes to the criteria, said Andrew Gross, a member of the transportation committee who combed through the requirements that other boards in the city use to come up with changes for CB6.
“When there were applicants who wanted to put up newsstands in front of small businesses in the district, like bodegas and delis, it seemed like a competitive issue that could harm the pre-existing small businesses,” Gross said. “We’re not here to punish people for opening newsstands but this is a bit of an archaic system that hasn’t been updated in a while.”
Newsstands are ultimately approved by the Department of Consumer Affairs but potential operators are required to submit materials to the appropriate community board to give members an opportunity to comment on the application.
Just in case anyone was thinking that things are just too easy these days for proprietors of small businesses in this city, here is yet more proof that their problems are a lot bigger than Amazon and changing consumer preferences.
Many mom-and-pop shops, who already face an uphill battle thanks to the uncertainty of lease renewals, endless fees and fines from the city and rising rents, generally cannot afford to get tangled up in lengthy litigation battles. So it wasn’t surprising to learn that at least a couple of local businesses blinked when threatened by a potential lawsuit from a serial plaintiff charging discrimination against the disabled.
Asia Market on Third Avenue (Photos by Sabina Mollot)
By Sabina Mollot
Last week, a disabled resident of Queens who was suing around 50 business over lack of access to him in his wheelchair was revealed to be able to walk in an article by the New York Post. The paper then went on to report that all the lawsuits were being dropped by the man’s attorney, Jeffrey Neiman, who claimed he had no idea that his client’s claims of being unable to walk weren’t legit.
Meanwhile, one of the businesses targeted by the plaintiff, Arik Matatov, was Asia Market, an Asian grocery store in Gramercy that closed on Tuesday. The store has been open for about a year on Third Avenue between East 18th and 19th Streets.
Reached by phone on Monday, a woman who introduced herself as one of the owners, said the lawsuit, despite having been reportedly dropped, was a factor in the decision to close.
Naomi Kwong said, “It is one of the reasons,” saying that she was first contacted by an attorney earlier this year with a Fed Exed complaint of inaccessibility. Thinking it seemed fishy, she then looked up Neiman and his client online and found information on what appeared to be a quickly drafted website that was created in January.
The new Target on East 14th Street (Photo by Sabina Mollot)
By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Popular chain store Target caused controversy at the opening of the new East Village store at the end of last month because of their homage to former dive bar and music club CBGB and ultimately apologized for the marketing stunt, the New York Times reported at the end of last week.
The new store opened on East 14th Street between Avenues A and B with grand opening festivities on the weekend of July 21 with a vinyl facade depicting tenements and old storefronts, including CBGB, with “TRGT” in the bar’s classic font on the temporary overhang.
Jeremiah Moss, whose blog Vanishing New York and book of the same name document gentrification in the city, called the display a “deplorable commodification of local neighborhood culture” and expressed disgust over the fake storefronts.
“The façade is draped in vinyl sheets printed with images of tenements, the same sort of buildings that get demolished to make room for such developments,” Moss wrote. “Here they sit, hollow movie-set shells, below the shiny windows of the high-end rentals. They are the dead risen from the grave, zombies enlisted to work for the corporation.”
Eliot Rabin at his Upper East Side shop for women (Photo by Sabina Mollot)
By Sabina Mollot
In June, Congress Member Carolyn Maloney will face off against fellow Democrat Suraj Patel, but already another opponent has joined the race, this one a Republican who’s gotten the backing of Manhattan GOP.
That candidate, who’s just getting started petitioning and organizing his campaign, is Eliot Rabin, also known to some as Peter Elliot, which is his retail business on the Upper East Side.
Rabin, who’s run upscale clothing boutiques in the neighborhood since the 1970s and worked in the fashion industry in other capacities even longer, was motivated to run for office after the latest high school shooting massacre.
“After Florida, I exploded,” he said, while sitting for an interview at his women’s boutique on Madison Avenue and 81st Street. “There’s a lack of moral courage in our government.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio signed legislation sponsored by Council Member Keith Powers that’s aimed at cracking down on sexual harassment on Wednesday, May 9. (Photo courtesy of Keith Powers)
By City Council Member Keith Powers
Most businesses in New York City are small businesses. Not just small, but really small: a whopping 62.8 percent of businesses in the city have just 1-4 employees, according to census data.
For this reason, I was surprised to discover that workers for New York City businesses with fewer than four employees had no legal protection from incidents of sexual harassment under New York City’s Human Rights Law.
That’s why I introduced my first piece of legislation in January to extend sexual harassment protection to all private employees in New York City regardless of their size. The protection already existed at the state level, but this law wasn’t already in place here. That means every single private employee wasn’t protected. It was important to address this oversight, especially given how many employees fall into this group.
Our country is experiencing a watershed moment as women and men speak up about their experiences of harassment, creating the era of #MeToo. As stories unfold and wrongdoings are revealed, cities and states are taking action to modernize laws and prevent any incidents in the future.
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.
A troubling situation taking place in Los Angeles should be setting off alarm bells across Manhattan, especially for small businesses. LA recently implemented a new system for handling trash pickup at businesses that, despite several years of planning, has resulted in skyrocketing bills and inefficient service.
This matters to Manhattan because the de Blasio administration is planning to implement a similar system right here in New York. You may not know that large businesses and commercial establishments in our city currently pay private carters to remove their garbage and recyclables and they rely on competitive bidding to get the best contracts. However, the mayor’s proposal would limit choice by allowing only one company to pick up commercial garbage and recyclables in each large geographic zone – with no input from the businesses themselves.
This plan would do away with the current competition that drives down prices and improves service from efficient and well-regulated private companies. What has happened in Los Angeles demonstrates just why this is so problematic.
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.