The following is an op-ed piece by Kirsten Theodos, spokesperson for TakeBackNYC:
All across the city, we are seeing neighborhoods being destroyed by real estate speculation pushing out longtime residents and established small businesses. Predatory landlords target working class communities inhabited predominantly by ethnic minorities, repackaging it as a “luxury community” which intentionally drives out longtime residents and small businesses. The question is no longer if gentrification is coming to the Bronx, the question is how fast will it happen and what are the consequences to Bronxites?
The first victims of gentrification are almost always a neighborhood’s Mom & Pop businesses and their employees. Speculators use gentrification as an opportunity to easily gain financing by buying undervalued property with commercial tenants. Since NYC commercial tenants have no protections like residential tenants do, these speculators can increase business owners rents by 200%, 300%, 400%+ which dramatically increase revenue and the value of the property while pushing out the current tenants in the process. This also leads to increased property taxes to the landlords which landlords shift to tenants in ever changing yearly payments. Many of these predatory landlords force long standing tenants into short term oppressive leases (in some cases month to month), which put the landlord in a better position to wait for a big bank or franchise willing to pay huge rents or wait until another speculator wants to buy the property. This speculation, under the guise of “progress” has made today’s commercial leases little more than indentured servitude for the small business owners.
This destruction of our local small businesses results in loss of jobs, lower wages, higher consumer prices, loss of a major pathway for social mobility for low income families, the loss of our arts and cultural groups, and the loss of neighborhood character. NYC small businesses face a crisis to survive caused by exorbitant rent hikes, unfair lease terms, and landlords refusing to renew leases for tenants in good standing.
In fact, last year, the Bronx led all of the boroughs with the highest increase (30%) in small business court evictions with over 1,200 businesses ordered closed. As Bronx Mom & Pop businesses are struggling to survive, one sector of business is booming in NYC, the growth in chain stores. In 2015, the city had its seventh consecutive year of growth in chains. According to a report by the Center for an Urban Future, the Bronx led the city’s five boroughs in the largest percentage of new chain stores from 2014 to 2015.
Recently, a thriving 56 year old business, Zaro’s, was denied a lease in Parkchester to make way for a Boston Market. In Pelham Bay, 3 small businesses including another longstanding business with 30 years in the community, Quality Café & Restaurant, are being forced out for a TD Bank. George Katsmanis, the owner of Quality Cafe and Restaurant, said “I’m losing everything, now I have to start all over, fresh again. I tried to stay all the way to the end of my lease. But he (landlord) offered me nothing and just told us to leave”. Welcome2TheBronx recently compiled a comprehensive list of examples where gentrification is happening in the Bronx, and sadly, the list is long and growing.
If real estate speculation continues to go unchecked, the commercial evictions will only get worse and Bronxites will continue losing jobs. There is a solution which our most powerful elected officials aren’t making the public aware of: The Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA). The SBJSA is bill that has been introduced in the NYC Council by Bronx Council Member Annabel Palma, which would give commercial tenants three specific rights:
-A minimum 10-year lease with the right to renewal, so they can better plan for the future of their business.
-Equal negotiation terms when it comes time to renew their lease with recourse to binding arbitration by a 3rd party if fair terms cannot be found.
-Restrictions to prevent landlords from passing their property taxes onto small business owners.
There are 51 Council members in the NYC Council. To become a law a majority is needed to vote yes, and the SBJSA has 27 sponsors which is the needed majority. Unfortunately, even a bill that has garnered the support of the majority of City Council has not inspired Council Member Robert Cornegy (Chairman of the Committee on Small Business) or Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito to call for a Public Hearing and vote on this important piece of legislation that would give Mom & Pops the rights to survive when negotiating with their landlords. More alarming is the fact that Speaker Mark-Viverito sponsored this bill as a Council Member in past years, but withdrew her support at a time when the crisis has become significantly worse for Bronx small businesses. Furthermore, the majority of Bronx Council Members have not signed onto the SBJSA, a bill which would ultimately save Bronx businesses and jobs. Council Member Cabrera, whom like the Speaker also sponsored this bill previously, has withdrawn his support at a time when the small businesses located near the future home of the Kingsbridge National Ice Center have become victims of skyrocketing rents and shorter lease renewals by scheming landlords. In September, there was a forum to save Bronx small businesses in Council Member Vacca’s district. According to Council Member Vacca’s office, whose district lost the 3 businesses in Pelham Bay, they have received communications from both merchants in support and landlords in opposition to the SBJSA. He also has yet to sign onto the bill.
For 30 years the SBJSA has been denied a vote by the successful efforts of the Real Estate Board of NY (REBNY) rigging the process behind closed doors to prevent landlords from being regulated and protecting their profits. Most recently in 2009, Speaker Quinn obstructed a vote on the same bill, which at that time had 32 Council Members sponsor it including the unanimous support of the Committee on Small Business. The real estate lobby has proven they can collaborate at City Hall with elected officials who receive unprecedented sums of REBNY money. REBNY with its compliant Council Members has two goals: to rig the process to prevent a vote on a law that gives rights to commercial tenants and to pass legislation which keeps the status quo, keeping all the lease negotiating power in the hands of landlords. In 2014, Senator Ruben Diaz illuminated this problem: “The real estate industry’s grip on the City Council has become a nightmare for bodegueros and many successful Hispanic businesses, destroying any legacy that thousands of Hispanic New Yorkers could hope to pass on to the next generation”.
Sadly, our lawmakers choose to hide behind the unsubstantiated claim the bill has “legal problems” as an excuse for inaction, even though the constitutionality of the bill was established back in 1988 at a special hearing and again in 2010 at another special hearing in the Bronx. Sung Soo Kim, Chairman of the Mayor’s First Small Business Advisory Board, appointed by Mayors Dinkins and Giuliani said: “I am an eyewitness to the special hearing held in City Council in October, 1988, prior to a vote in committee, on the original version of the SBJSA. This hearing was held exclusively to determine the legality of the bill. Though both former Mayor Koch and Speaker Vallone were strongly opposed to the bill, the city’s own corporate counsel testified that the city had home rule to pass the bill and that the bill was fully constitutional.” And today’s corporate counsel, ironically is making the same false claims. As far as the issue of legality is concerned, the City Council is a legislative branch, not judicial. If there is any reasonable concern over legality, we have a judicial branch where we can uphold or deny any challenges. The City Council’s job is to represent the will of the people, in this case the majority, who is demanding the passage of the SBJSA.
If democracy can play out and the SBJSA can just get a vote, it would pass, and in 180 days all NYC small businesses would have rights in the commercial lease renewal process. The SBJSA would automatically combat gentrification that has already penetrated the Bronx. Let change come to a neighborhood, but let the small businesses who sacrificed and invested in that neighborhood have the opportunity to stay in business, protect their investment, and the jobs of their employees.
The only hope for our small businesses to get fair treatment at City Hall is if enough true Progressive Council Members keep their campaign pledges to fight for progressive legislation, even if it’s against the influence of special interests. Call upon your Council Member to end the rigged process at City Hall that has successfully denied Mom & Pops a vote on legislation giving them rights to survive in business. Make your voice heard at City Hall and let’s stand against greedy landlords and developers who do not care about our communities, only profit, and pass the SBJSA. Bronx small business owners and their employees deserve their Council Member’s support and are entitled to a full vote by City Council.
Find out who your Council Member is here: http://on.nyc.gov/1a4RDWR
Log onto http://on.nyc.gov/1POTiZ1 If you do not see your Council Member listed as a sponsor call him/her NOW and demand he/she sponsor the SBJSA along with the majority of City Council.
Contact Speaker Mark-Viverito and demand she hold a Public Hearing and vote on the SBJSA and put an end to this crisis, stop over 1,000 small businesses from shuttering every month across the 5 boroughs, and stop the extortion of our hard working immigrant business owners.
|Vanessa L Gibson
Kirsten Theodos is a third-generation immigrant from a family of small business owners and spokesperson for TakeBackNYC, a coalition of NYC small business owners and residents advocating for the Small Business Jobs Survival Act. For more information on the SBJSA log onto www.takebacknyc.nyc
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