A group of a dozen small business owners and community advocates from Bushwick gathered at Esmeralda Valencia’s restaurant on Myrtle Avenue this morning with an alarming message on posterboard: “Los pequeños negocios nos declaramos en crisis”—We small businesses declare ourselves in crisis.
That crisis is one New Yorkers know well: the forces of gentrification are rapidly displacing local businesses like Esmeralda’s Restaurant in favor of those that might attract wealthier residents. Under current city and state law, commercial tenants have even fewer protections than their residential counterparts, making it difficult for them to hold onto their spaces once they suddenly become desirable. As a result, landlords are able to harass commercial tenants out of their storefronts with relative impunity. Nearly every business owner present at today’s meeting—including those from Universal Cuts Barber Shop, La Laguna Deli and Alexa Design Jewelry—has had their rent increased, been denied a new lease or had their utilities cut so that they might be pressured into making room for a vegan treat shop or dog motel.
In order to give tenants a fighting chance, United for Small Business NYC—the group that organized the meeting and the subsequent march to other local businesses—is calling on lawmakers to enact legislation that will better protect small business owners from harassment by landlords—or, more precisely, to do more than they have already done.
Today’s meeting was planned in response to yesterday’s passage of City Council bill Intro 851, which established a number of protections for small business owners, including protections from threats, interruptions of services like heat and water and frivolous lawsuits. While United for Small Business NYC recognized Intro 851 as a “crucial first step” in a statement issued yesterday, their members are also calling on lawmakers to do more.
For business owners like Valencia, they argue, the new law is simply not enough. Like many small-business owners in the booming real estate market in Bushwick, Valencia is in a precarious position. Her 10-year lease expired three years ago and her landlord has declined to renew, and has increased her monthly rate from $1,500 to $4,000. Valencia also claimed that her landlord has used other tactics to pressure her to leave, too.
“They cut my water, they didn’t repair anything—the roof leaks, it drips water and they don’t do anything about it,” Valencia said. “They shut down the water the last time on a Saturday and Sunday, when we had the most customers and so I couldn’t serve them.”
The building’s owner, Elizabeth Shin, says none of Valencia’s claims are true. Shin said she knew nothing of the water shut off, was never contacted by her tenants about any complaints and that they had repaired the roof two years ago.
“It’s a commercial unit so it’s not our responsibility, every unit is responsible for their own unit,” Shin said.
According to Valencia, however, Shin and her brother appeared without notice in the restaurant’s basement and shut off the water earlier this year. Valencia also said she has brought various complaints to her attention both in person and through text messages and that the roof still leaks.
While Intro 851 in theory protects Valencia from having her water cut off, it only effectively does so if she can prove that her landlord is shutting it off intentionally to harm her business. The new law also doesn’t account for repairs or, as Nick Petrie of Make the Road NY pointed out, provide money for tenants’ legal aid or allow tenants to sue for damages up to $10,000.
“The next time they discuss this, they need to strengthen the law,” Valencia said. “Because right now it does not protect us.”