On October 22, small businesses in New York City may or may not get a lifeline they’ve been waiting on for 30 years. It will come, if it comes, in the form of the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA). The bill, which has been languishing in the City Council for three decades, could change the face of commercial real estate in the city. It has a simple premise: next time the owners of your favorite local bakery/bodega/barber shop need to renew their lease, they might actually be able to do so.
Last night, buoyed by this prospect, about 50 New Yorkers gathered at Dream Baby in the East Village for an SBJSA-themed happy hour hosted by #SaveNYC. (The bar’s location on Avenue B is, of course, not currently among the 20% of retail spaces currently sitting vacant in NYC, up from 7% just two years ago.) Attendees were offered $4 off beer and well drinks, $2 off everything else, and got a chance to organize ahead of the City Council hearing on the SBJSA scheduled for the fourth Monday in October.
The current version of the bill states that commercial tenants in good standing would have the automatic right to a 10-year lease renewal. If their landlords attempted to, say, triple their rent in the process, then tenants would have the right to take the rent increase dispute to arbitration.
The Dream Baby event featured pro-SBJSA speakers Jeremiah Moss, Jenny Dubnau, and David Eisenbach. Moss is a #SaveNYC leader, anti-gentrification activist, and author of the book Vanishing New York. He drew guests via his beloved blog of the same name.
“I would really like to see this become a decentralized movement,” Moss said from a small platform, microphone in hand, as activists and concerned citizens drank beer and wine and snacked on mixed nuts. “Go back to your neighborhoods, find like-minded people, and do your own happy hours, do your own actions.”
Dubnau, of the Artist Studio Affordability Project, spoke next. She argued that the city’s “landlords and real estate people are completely aided and abetted by our supposedly progressive mayor and City Council, who are not progressive.” She painted the SBJSA as a first step on the road to commercial rent control.
The final speaker of the night was Eisenbach. He is the founder of Friends of the SBJSA, which he classifies as a coalition supporting the bill, though when asked earlier this week, he declined to name members of the coalition. Eisenbach campaigned for NYC Public Advocate in 2017, losing to Tish James. Now that James will likely be vacating the role for the post of NY Attorney General, he is campaigning again, as the button on his lapel helpfully noted.
“I’m doing the job [of public advocate], even though it’s not my job,” he told Bedford + Bowery a few days before the event. “My crowning achievement, if I had been elected public advocate, would’ve been passing SBJSA. And my crowning achievement, as just a concerned New Yorker, is going to be passing SBJSA.”
The most powerful force resisting the SBJSA is the real estate lobby. In a statement to B+B, Real Estate Board of New York president John H. Banks claimed that the “bill is illegal and ignores market conditions.” He went on to argue that “rents are, in general, decreasing,” and called on the City Council to focus “its limited time, energy, and resources on solutions that will support small businesses instead of wasting millions of tax dollars defending an illegal bill that experts agree will be thrown out by the courts.” The NYC Bar Association also opposes the law on legal grounds.
The bill’s supporters believe the SBJSA to be legal and think it will hold up if challenged in court. As evidence, they cite the city’s history of commercial rent control (it lasted from 1945 to 1963) and a 2010 report from an SBJSA legal review panel conducted in the Bronx. Dubnau put it succinctly in her remarks at Dream Baby: “All the legal objections are utter BS.”
Other SBJSA detractors include Stuart M. Saft, chairman of the Council of New York Cooperatives and Condominiums, who authored an op-ed earlier this year arguing that the SBJSA endangers the rights of co-op owners whose buildings feature ground floor commercial space. Critics also argue that the bill does not clearly distinguish between types of commercial tenants, thereby opening a potential avenue for major corporations to benefit from the ostensibly small-business-oriented legislation.
Asked about the concerns of co-op owners, Eisenbach said he was open to alterations stemming from legitimate concerns raised in the public hearing. “That’s part of the legislative process,” he said. Ditto the idea of making the bill’s provisions more small-business-specific: “We’re not passing a bill here to protect Goldman Sachs in their lease negotiations. We’re passing a bill to protect small businesses.”
What about concerns that Mayor de Blasio might veto the legislation?
“If he does, there’s going to be huge blowback on his legacy. So, he’d better be careful if he’s got any ambitions for moving on to higher office.”
Eisenbach continued his targeting of de Blasio at the event. “You cannot say you are pro-immigrant, Bill de Blasio, if you are not pro-SBJSA. The biggest employer of immigrants in New York City is small businesses. So we’ve got to protect them.”
Immigrant small business owners and employees were conspicuously absent in the mostly-white crowd. When asked by an attendee about getting them involved, Eisenbach responded, “In terms of the immigrants, this is a huge issue, because remember, it’s the Small Business and Jobs Survival Act.” He noted uptown Dominican businesses, Chinatown, and Garment District manufacturing as groups to which he has reached out.
Near the end of the Q&A, a brief group brainstorm began. Moss asked the crowd whom they should e-mail regarding their support of the bill. (The collective answer: their personal City Council member, Council Speaker Corey Johnson, and Small Business Committee chairman Mark Gjonaj.) Someone suggested a DIY phone bank in support of the bill, and Moss tried to rally actual volunteers for such an effort. There were few takers.
The most contentious moments of the evening came when activist Marni Halasa voiced her concerns about the bill’s chances during the Q&A. Halasa ran against Johnson in his successful bid for the District 3 City Council seat. She expressed her belief that his campaign contributions from the real estate lobby presage a watering-down of the SBJSA, if it passes at all. She and Eisenbach went back and forth about the bill’s chances, eventually being drowned out by shouts from the crowd, which appeared to be more interested in optimism, at least for now. (Johnson could not be reached for comment on the upcoming hearings.)
Halasa, who has a penchant for political theater, made it clear that she remained skeptical about Eisenbach’s faith in the bill’s chances. “If it doesn’t pass intact,” she told B+B, “I’m going to throw a pie in David’s face.”
Eisenbach, for his part, knows his apparent trust in the City Council may ultimately be a liability. “At the end of the day,” he said, “if this bill fails, I’ll look like the biggest fool in New York.”