“Right now there are banners up all over the city that say ‘New York City: real estate capital of the world,’ and that pretty much sums up what the basic civic religion is in New York City,” said Tom Angotti, author or New York For Sale. The Hunter College professor of Urban Affairs and Planning was a panelist at a Take Back NYC public forum Thursday evening, where he and a diverse group of experts spoke on the subject of small businesses in New York and answered questions relating to a proposed bill that aims to help the city’s small businesses survive.
Take Back NYC is a subset of the grassroots DIY movement Save NYC and focuses solely on gaining support for the Small Business Jobs Survival Act. The bill, which was first introduced in 2008, would give tenants the right to a 10-year minimum lease, and the tenant and landlord would have equal power to negotiate any new terms. Landlords seeking to raise the rent in a commercial space would be required to participate in mediation with the tenant, and if they couldn’t agree on a fair rent they would have to sit down with an arbitrator, who would make the final decision on what the rent should be.
Advocates for the bill say the legislation will put an end to rent gouging and the ever-changing yearly burden of landlords passing on their property tax expenses to their tenants.
The discussion kicked off with one basic question: Do we really need government intervention, or is there another way around it?
“I do believe we need government intervention because government intervention caused the problem,” said filmmaker Kelly Anderson, whose documentary My Brooklyn depicts the early 2000s explosion of luxury housing and chain store development. She pointed to the recent rezoning of Brooklyn as an example, saying that in the Fulton Mall area huge buildings popped up, seemingly overnight, because where once there were height restrictions the new rezoning has now allowed for skyscrapers.
“The greatest key to everything is that the small businesses must be able to negotiate,” said panel member Steve Null, one of the original founders of the Coalition for Fair Business Rents. He pointed out that a rival bill introduced by Borough President Gale Brewer does not require any arbitration; instead, her bill proposes states that landlords have to try mediation, and if no agreement is reached then the small business owner must accept a rent increase of no more than 15 percent along with a lease extension of one year to allow for the business to find a new location to set up shop.
Null disagreed with the logic behind Brewer’s bill. “If there’s one store on the corner of the block that’s empty, guess why? It’s because the rent is too high,” he said. The likelihood that another small business could afford a rent that the former tenant deemed too high would be pretty slim, he argued. A month-to-month lease, he added, is basically the equivalent of “indentured servitude.”
Sherri Donovan, legal counsel for the Small Business Congress, brought up the issue of immigrant business owners illegally paying landlords extra money to stay in business. She said the SBJSA would help crack down on extortion. “I just first want to point out, there was an old saying in civil rights that when the white community got a cold the black community got pneumonia,” she said. “We love diversity, and that’s why we’re here, but how many Latino businesses have given money under the table to be here, so they can have a small business? They put all their lives savings to set up a shop and then when the lease ends they not only lose their future, they lose every dime they ever saved.”
The panelists pointed out several other key differences between the SBJSA and Brewer’s bill; the SBJSA includes artists, nonprofits and self-employed professionals and applies to any commercial space, whereas Brewer’s proposed legislation only protects small businesses housed in ground-floor retail spaces.
Artists are finding it particularly difficult to find and remain in studio space in New York City, said Dexter Ciprian, representative of the Artist Studio Affordability Project. “What’s at stake is the basic fundamental fabric of a community,” he said. “If it’s not turning out a profit, if it’s instead proving cultural diversity in a neighborhood, then it’s vulnerable.”
In order to pass, the SBJSA needs the support of 26 City Council members, so Take Back NYC is encouraging the public to hang petitions in their businesses and bombard their local politicians with a show of support for the bill. In 2009 the bill had 32 supporters, according to Kirsten Theodos of Take Back NYC, but it was shot down without further discussion because the Speaker’s office claimed there were legal concerns with the legislation.