A pair of City Council members proposed a bill today that would establish a city advocate for small businesses, but others fighting to keep mom-and-pop shops open question whether such a watchdog would do enough.
The new Office of the Small Business Advocate, proposed by council members Margaret Chin and Robert Cornegy, would field complaints from small businesses regarding inspections, regulations, and other such matters; refer the complaints to the appropriate agencies; and make policy recommendations, in part through an annual report detailing the complaints and steps taken to remedy them.
In a statement, Chin, who represents the Lower East Side and Chinatown, said the proposal lays the groundwork for “historic advances to help make sure small businesses can survive and thrive amid a constantly changing business environment.” A spokesperson for Chin said it would amount to a “fundamental shift in the way the city interacts with small businesses.”
Things are changing, and swiftly, for small business owners across the five boroughs. Last fall, asking rents south of 14th Street were up 10 percent from the previous year, according to the Real Estate Board of New York’s most recent retail report. With downtown asking rents rising from $72 per square foot in 2004 to $135 in 2014, even corporate giants like Starbucks are feeling the pinch.
Chin’s spokesperson said her office was hopeful and confident that the proposed bill would move forward quickly in the Council and plans to correspond with the Mayor’s office as it solidifies.
The city already has a Department of Small Business Services, and the new proposal comes about a month after Mayor de Blasio announced his $27 million Small Businesses First plan. The series of initiatives aims to halve the time required to open a business or work with the City, in part by offering pre-inspection guidance and consolidating various applications online.
But some believe that neither De Blasio’s measures nor the proposed Small Business Advocate go far enough. “There are a lot of ideas for legislation that seem to be popping up that dodge the issue,” said Jenny Dubnau of the Artist Studio Affordability Project (ASAP). “There’s only one bill on the table right now that’s meaningful legislation.”
The bill she’s referring to is the Small Business Job Survival Act, which has been under discussion in one form or another since 2008. The bill, also co-sponsored by Chin, would allow commercial tenants to renew leases for a minimum term of 10 years, and would give tenants the right to a mediator should they be unhappy with a proposed rent hike. It would also allow tenants whose landlords refuse to renew their lease the right to an arbitrator who would set rent based on a variety of factors such as fair market rates for comparable area properties, the condition of the space, and the longevity of the business.
Dubnau said she isn’t against creating a Small Business Advocate, but she believes it fails to address that pesky matter of rent. Though the language of the new advocacy office bill specifies a desire for policies that will “grow the small business sector,” it makes no claim on leases. “It’s the biggest elephant in the room,” Dubnau says of the rent issue. “Any commercial renter will tell you that it’s the single biggest obstacle [in running a business].”
Another piece of legislation just proposed by Gale Brewer would allow either a tenant or their landlord to call for a mediator during end-of-lease renewal negotiations. In the event that no agreement is reached, the lease is extended for one more year with up to a 15 percent increase in rent. “It would not save any small business,” Dubnau said, “because there’s no incentive for the landlord to lower the rent.” It’s just a delay of what Dubnau calls a “hollowing out” of New York City. “We’re losing our communities, our Mom and Pop stores, our arts, our cultural institutions,” she bemoaned, “and the proposal won’t help any artists; only storefronts. It also won’t help any dentists, little lawyers, little start-up tech firms.”
— Jeremiah Moss (@jeremoss) March 30, 2015
In an effort to push the SBJSA even harder this time around, Dubnau, the ASAP and their collaborators over at #SaveNYC have drafted an open letter which they hope to have signed by high profile supporters and sent to those Council members who have yet to sponsor the bill.
Correction and update: The original version of this post was revised to correct an error. Jeremiah Moss’s tweet came a day before Chin’s announcement of the Small Business Advocate plan, so was likely not a response to that, as originally stated. Still, Moss told us over email today, “The only bill we support is the Small Business Jobs Survival Act. No other plan proposed has the backbone and the teeth that New York City deserves.” Today, Chin reaffirmed via Twitter that she also supports that bill: “I support SBJSA, which deals w interactions btw small biz & landlords. My new bill deals w interactions btw small biz & city govt.”