NEW YORK, N.Y.—About 20 small-business activists marched on City Council Speaker Corey Johnson’s Chelsea district office Oct. 24, lambasting his failure to enact legislation to protect local businesses from rent increases.
The Council held a hearing on the bill, the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA), just over a year ago, in October 2018, but has not taken any action since then. Johnson “hasn’t done a damn thing” to pass it, Marni Halasa, who lost the tiny Ninth Avenue coffee shop she and her husband ran to a rent increase late last year, said at a small rally outside Madison Square Garden. “This is collusion with the real-estate lobby.”
The bill, sponsored by Ydanis Rodriguez (D-Manhattan) and 27 other Councilmembers, would require landlords to tell commercial tenants 180 days before their lease expires whether they intend to renew it, and if not, to give a legally valid reason why. Tenants would have the right to get a 10-year lease, and could demand arbitration if they believe a rent increase is too much.
Similar measures have been introduced since 1986. Johnson told the 2018 hearing that it was unreasonable not to expect that the bill would be amended.
The concerns raised at that hearing by Johnson, city Small Business Services Commissioner Gregg Bishop, and Small Business Committee chair Mark Gjonaj (D-Bronx) included whether the bill could distinguish between a Starbucks and a locally owned coffeehouse; that it would not protect businesses that don’t have leases; and whether landlords would challenge it in the courts for being effectively commercial rent control. Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) chair John Banks said they would, although the bill, unlike rent controls, would not set direct limits on rent increases.
“Speaker Johnson owes an apology to New York City small-business owners for not quickly changing the Jobs Act and moving it to a vote as he promised,” Steven Barrison of the Small Business Congress NYC told the rally. “Instead, Corey has continued the collusion and rigging with REBNY to stop any vote.”
“Small businesses are the backbone of our economy,” a spokesperson for Johnson responded in a statement. “They are what make New York, New York. In August, we approved several proposals to help businesses by providing much-needed support and information. Currently, the city lacks the data necessary to make informed policy decisions, and the storefront database bill will tackle this issue head on. The Council is continuing to work on a number of complex policy proposals, including the Small Business Jobs Survival Act.”
The loss of small businesses to massive rent increases is “a crisis, not only for the owners, but for the entire community,” Luis Tejada, head of the Mirabal Sisters Cultural and Community Center, an upper-Manhattan housing-activist group, told LaborPress. With the state’s rent controls for apartments strengthened last year, he added, protecting small businesses is “the second part of the fight.”
About two-thirds of the city’s small businesses are owned by immigrants, he told the rally, with similar proportions among the average of 500 a month that get eviction orders and the 1,200 to 1,300 a month that close overall.
There are “hundreds” of vacant storefronts in West Harlem, Washington Heights, and Inwood, Tejada told LaborPress. In those the heavily immigrant neighborhoods, small businesses such as bodegas provide the ethnic foods people depend on, such as plantains for Dominicans, and they also give “vale”—credit.
“When the bodega closes, that beautiful relationship is gone,” he said.
Councilmember Rodriguez, who represents Washington Heights and Inwood, did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
The measures passed by the Council in August include requiring the Department of Small Business Services to publish an online guide to regulations affecting small businesses, give owners instruction in marketing, and conduct surveys of storefront businesses in various neighborhoods every three years, including vacancies. Another orders the city Department of Finance to establish a database of commercial properties in the city, including the median and average rents and duration of leases, with figures available by Council district and census tract.
None of those “will save a single small business owner or a single job,” Ray Rogers, head of the Campaign to Stop REBNY Bullies, said at the rally.
“Why is REBNY and the big landlords it represents so terrified of this bill, and why has REBNY prevented a vote on it ever since 1986 when Ruth Messinger first introduced it?” Rogers asked. “I’ll tell you why. Making this legislation the law in New York City will mean the transfer of billions of dollars, and the power that goes with it, from super-wealthy property speculators, developers, and landlords to small businesses, their employees, and the local economy. REBNY’s billionaire bullies and racketeers are afraid of that possibility. The rest of us should welcome it.”