It’s time for final push to pass small business bill

BY SHARON WOOLUMS  |  The Back Fence on Bleecker St. — a Village landmark for 68 years — faced with a 75 percent rent increase, closed its doors last month for good. The owners, wishing to retire, should have been able to negotiate a fair lease so that they could have sold their business, allowing it to be kept open, and none of the employees would have lost their jobs.

Woulda, coulda, shoulda. We could have saved our small businesses if only one politician would have fought for a bill that long ago should have been enacted. Instead, nothing’s changed in City Hall, but our neighborhoods are changing faster than you can blink. All these years small businesses’ doors were slammed shut, they could have been saved if politicians had fought for a fair approach to curbing rampant unbridled greed.

The Back Fence on Bleecker St. recently closed after its owners were unable to pay a significant rent increase. The owners took a payout to leave a few months before their lease expired.  PHOTO BY TEQUILA MINKSY

The Back Fence on Bleecker St. recently closed after its owners were unable to pay a significant rent increase. The owners took a payout to leave a few months before their lease expired. PHOTO BY TEQUILA MINKSY

Some say it’s too late, that there are already too-big-to-fail banks and franchise drug stores on every corner. But the ongoing threat to small businesses is a threat to the distinctive quality of every neighborhood, all in danger of losing their spirit and charm — of becoming carbon copies, destroying a way of life cherished and expected of a great city.

There’s only one real solution that will stop the threat. Only one bill will give rights to protect mom-and-pop shops from greedy, unscrupulous landlords’ take-it-or-leave-it lease renewals.

That solution is the Small Business Jobs Survival Act. First introduced in 1986 by former Councilmember Ruth Messinger, the act’s intent was to empower business owners to fairly negotiate with landlords for new lease terms during the commercial lease renewal process. No longer could landlords rent gouge or throw out businesses when the lease expired, nor could lease terms be solely dictated by the landlord. But with help from other elected officials, the powerful real estate industry succeeded in stopping the City Council vote for more than 25 years.

This bill’s a litmus test for candidates on jobs, small business and the economy. But Mom and Pop, hold off popping the champagne corks in celebration: This is New York where there are candidates who proclaim progressive values on Main St. but leave campaign pledges on the steps of City Hall. Once elected, they march into the halls of power, abdicating civic responsibilities to lobbyists and special interest groups.

In August 2009, Margaret Chin, then a candidate for City Council, proclaimed on the City Hall steps, “This is the time we got to get this bill passed. We are asking for an emergency vote. I agree with all the councilmembers here: No excuses. Our small businesses are the heart and soul of our community. Every community needs the jobs created by our small businesses.”

Elected to the City Council and placed on its Small Business Committee, Chin later was asked by advocates to become the prime sponsor of the bill.

In October 2009, with every member of the Small Business Committee and 32 councilmembers as sponsors of the bill, the S.B.J.S.A. would have passed. Council Speaker Christine Quinn, however, didn’t allow the vote, claiming the bill had “legal concerns and would not stand up to a court challenge.”

Steven Barrison, spokesperson for the New York City Small Business Congress, outraged by this roadblock, called it “a travesty of democracy, because at the bill’s public hearing no one from the real estate industry had testified of any legal concerns whatsoever.”

In April 2010, the S.B.J.S.A. was reintroduced. The Council speaker’s legal department never recommended changes to address legal concerns, leaving in place the only excuse blocking the vote for more than three years.

In November 2010, an impartial legal review panel, at a forum at Bronx Borough Hall on the bill’s legality, confirmed what advocates already knew: The S.B.J.S.A., as currently written, is fully constitutional and legally sound to withstand likely court challenges. No section of the S.B.J.S.A. was deemed “vulnerable” to being found unconstitutional in a court challenge.

In June 2013, at a Queens conference on the future of the S.B.J.S.B., Councilmember Chin, the bill’s prime sponsor, stated, “Our city’s small businesses face a crisis and needed the bill to pass to save them from high rent increases.” Advocates fearing small shop extinction in the near future, called for an immediate hearing on the bill — but Chin didn’t do it.

In August 2013, at a public event in the Village, I asked Chin about the bill’s progress. She said she was working to gain enough sponsors to override a mayoral veto. Later, when asked by The Villager’s editorial staff about the legislation’s status, Chin claimed it was stalled due to the “legality of the bill.”

Advocates made a simple, routine request that she ask the City Council’s legal department to put in writing specific changes to satisfy legal concerns. To advocates’ chagrin, Chin, as prime sponsor, has never called for a hearing on the bill nor challenged Speaker Quinn’s claim of legal issues.

During interviews with The Villager’s editorial staff prior to the mayoral primary, both Quinn and Bill de Blasio said they were advised the bill was not legally enforceable.

Councilmember Gale Brewer told The Villager she didn’t feel her colleague Robert Jackson marshaled sufficient support in the Council for the bill when he was leading the push for it.

Candidates, like Quinn and de Blasio, expected voters to believe the only problems facing small business are fines and loans.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Sung Soo Kim, New York City’s leading small business advocate for more than 30 years. “Without the rights and protection of the S.B.J.S.A., mom-and-pop businesses will soon become extinct in New York City — the American Dream will be dead.”

To Chin’s excuse that the bill needed enough sponsors to override a mayoral veto, Kim responded, “The mayor is leaving office and all his threats to veto legislation are being ignored. The legislators are voting for bills he’s against and overwhelmingly overriding his vetoes. The small business community just wants a vote on our bill to give us rights, and councilmembers can now vote their conscience, without the influence of either the speaker or the mayor.”

Quinn, Chin and other councilmembers who were accused during the election of being in the pocket of real estate lobbyists, now have a chance to prove this perception wrong. The S.B.J.S.A. now has 24 sponsors, including the majority of the Council’s Small Business Committee. Call your councilmember now for a much-needed emergency vote. Write them. E-mail, tweet, Facebook your friends so this becomes known citywide, because your councilmember’s vote is needed to pass this bill before it expires in December.

Councilmembers leaving office this year have the chance to make the saving of mom-and-pop stores their legacy.

Chin declined comment for this talking point.


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18 Responses to It’s time for final push to pass small business bill

  1. I voted for Councilwoman Chin, am surprised and disappointed . But why didn't her opponent bring this fact out
    before? How can candidates run against the record of an incumbent without doing their homework. If I would have know she was helping hold up this bill to save our small businesses , I would never have voted for her.

    • Jenifer Rajkumar, Chin's opponent in this year's primary, brought this fact out several times. Rajkumar ran point by point against Chin's dismal record on small businesses, NYU, the Seaport (which we are now kissing goodbye), the Elizabeth Garden take over, etc. Perhaps you missed all the mail, phone calls, and debates between Chin and Rajkumar or maybe, like many others, you were swayed by the deluge of big real estate PAC mailings for Chin that gave misinformation to voters. Either way, your best bet is to work with Chin now and help put other true progressives in office.

      • chin had also been endorsed by the "small businesses PAC" this election. it made people think Chin supported small businesses but the truth is it was just another big real estate PAC fooling people with its name

    • Ann, you received lots of campaign literature that clearly demonstrated that Margaret Chin was the chosen candidate of the Real Estate Board of NY – REBNY. How can you claim ignorance.

      It was widely published in Campaign Finance Board records, and in this newspaper, that Chin received about $300,000 in REBNY money for campaign mailings – and untold hundreds of thousands that do not have to be reported, for field operations, phone banking and Get of the Vote drives.

      Much of the mailings consisted on false, scurrilous personal attacks on her opponent, Jenifer Rajkumar.
      It is clear then and it is clear now that Chin is bought off by the real estate industry.

      * Look at her vote on NYU to help the developers
      * Look at her lobbying for the Chinatown BID – a real-estate driven proposal by her Chinatown real-estate and BID buddies, and her cronies at AAFE – despite overwhelming community opposition.
      * Look at her push for the SoHo BID – a real-estate driven proposal – despite overwhelming community opposition there.
      * Look at her efforts to destroy a landmarked building at 135 Bowery, a building owned by an overseas Chinese bank that gave heavily to her campaign.
      * Look at the money she got from the renegade bus operators in Chinatown.
      * Look at her actions in giving away 50% of the SPURA development to deluxe housing for the wealthy, and a boon to developers, while she campaigned that it would be 100% affordable housing.
      * Look at here clandestine, behind-the-scheme maneuvering to sell out the South Street Seaport to the Howard Hughes Corp. Indeed, this Tuesday, at the CB1 hearing on the Seaport's future – she failed to appear, fearful of the wrath of the 150 citizens in attendance.

      Everyone knew she sold out and continues to be the voice of the real estate industry in the city council.

      Chin only won because she and her group, AAFE, were able to get the district racially gerrymandered to elect a Chinese candidate, and, racially motivated, Chinatown picked one of their own – at the same time she was selling small Chinatown businesses down the river with the BID and be refusing to act on S.B.J.S.A.

      • Peter, After speaking with several of my close friends, all of whom live for some time in the Village area, and five of my favorite local small business owners, it is evident that I am not alone in not knowing a bill existed in the City Council which would give them rights to renegotiate their leases to stay in business. All five owners are scared to death of higher rents forcing them to close when their leases were up , yet not one had ever hear of any legislation pending to help them. You seem to have all the facts and figures, but did you know such a bill was pending ? Likely not

      • Peter, our Village political clubs should share the blame for their role in endorsing candidates and then working to convince local residents to vote for them. They have a higher responsibility to get the facts and candidates' records and loyalties before they give their endorsements to a candidate. From the article , the Village is unique in elected two councilmembers who have worked with real estate to slowly destroy the character of our community, destroy our businesses, destroy Villagers jobs, and run out our middle class from the Village. Speaker Quinn stopped a vote on this small business bill and Councilmember Chin has stalled the bill in committee , not a proud record for Village voters , one of the most progressive communities in NYC and we elect people who serve special interests, which causes injustice in every part of the city. We are smart enough to do better, the Village’s political clubs must also do better in the next election.

        • I agree, the Village clubs should have been better at letting us know about Chin's mishandling of the small business bill. Chin's opponent seemed smart and would likely have been better for the Village. But I know how unwilling clubs can be to go against an incumbent.

  2. I really excellent article on an issue that I needed information about. Wollums did her homework, and summarized a complex and controversial issue for the readers. Thank you.

  3. Stark's steakhouse famous for over 100 years at city hall park closed too. zubeey

  4. Residential rent regulation hasn't made enough of a mess of that market (causing the housing shortage and being the reason that market rents have become ridiculous), that they now want to make the same mistake with commercial/retail real estate? The government should stay the hell out of the real estate market.

    • "causing the housing shortage" — that's not even close to being true. We live on an island! There's only so much housing that can be built without making the City unlivable. But then, folks will leave, and you'll get the vacancy you want. The City's economy will collapse, again, but maybe you'll be happy then. What a shill!

  5. Responding to BBMW
    The City steps in helps big companies that are threatening to leave NYC
    taking away jobs and tax revenues. Why don't they do the same for small
    business? What's good for the big goose & gander is good for the
    gosling. Gobble Gobble!

    • Exactly. The City has been throwing money, tax breaks, incentives, matching money, infrustruture improvements for large big developer projects driven by big real estate for a long time, with zero to retain mom & pops. We do need a basic fair lease renewal process for small business in NYC which would address this single largest issue or the loss of our small business on local main streets in every community in all five boroughs. This would stop the bleeding of up to 1,200 small business closings in NYC a month! THIS IS S CRISIS and commands attention and action.

  6. This morning two tourists stopped me on the street asking me to point them in the direction of the "old Village." I responded that most of the old places were gone — in their place, banks and luxury fashion stores. Their best bet was to pick a sidestreet where because of landmarking, the housing looks the same, although a new breed have moved in. If New York city is to maintain a rich cultural life and the kind of neighborhoods people actually want to live in, there needs to be affordable housing for people and for businesses.

  7. There should be no special favors for small businesses as long as they continue to be exempt from worker-protection and environmental regulations.

  8. Really great article….Bravo Sharon!!!

  9. Sharon Woolums does an amazing job in making this complex issue much clearer. As founder of an organization called the Ethical Business Society, dedicated to the humanization of corporate culture, I support this bill and the valiant effort of small businesses to resist the assault of big money interests. It's about main st. vs. wall st. and, sadly, thanks to the political lackey's controlled by wall st., main st. is currently losing badly. We need to turn the tide of this miserable situation rapidly, and it can best be done (I believe) with a massive education campaign on multiple fronts. My organization, for example, seeks to hold a series of press conferences and symposia in 2014 to highlight the need to pass SBJSA, and to connect the dots between this issue and a more systemic transformation of corporate culture needed to reverse its current selfish and greedy orientation. So thank you again Sharon for your fine research and writing on this topic.

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