Last Thursday evening, The Villager and the Village Independent Democrats co-sponsored a truly historic community forum, “A Call to Action: Solutions for Saving Small Businesses.”
Despite a heavy snowstorm earlier in the day that even saw a jet skid off the runway at LaGuadia Airport, 100 intrepid, intensely concerned New Yorkers braved the bad weather to hear about — and offer their own ideas on — what can be done to save mom-and-pop stores in an era of skyrocketing rents.
This forum’s expert panel was as grassroots as you can get, including committed small business advocates, the president of N.Y.U. Faculty Against the Sexton Plan and an artists’ representative, plus an East Village landlord.
The discussion started with a bold premise: that there exists — right now, at this very moment — a mechanism to help our small businesses survive amid an onslaught of banks, Duane Reades, Starbucks and other chains, which are among the few types of businesses that can afford today’s astronomical Manhattan rents. And, in truth, this discussion really focuses on Manhattan — which is now nothing less than the epicenter of global wealth.
At the forum, we also learned that, threatening to further upend the local retail landscape, more than 100 “baby Walmarts” will be hitting town in just a couple of years from now.
In short, the mechanism to save small businesses is a bill that has been repeatedly blocked from coming up for a vote in the City Council ever since the mid-1980s — the Small Business Jobs Survival Act. This legislation would entitle commercial tenants in good standing to 10-year lease renewals. If the landlord and tenant cannot reach terms, then there would be nonbinding mediation, to be followed, if necessary, by binding arbitration. The legislation mandates no minimum or maximum caps on rent increases.
Since The Villager first editorialized about the S.B.J.S.A. two weeks ago, support for the idea has snowballed. Following our forum last Thursday, Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York has gotten onboard, with the blog’s Jeremiah Moss penning his support this week in a column in the Daily News. In addition, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation has put out an e-mail blast calling on people to write letters in support of the S.B.J.S.A. A press conference —with the requisite celebrity activists — is now being planned to keep the momentum going.
It’s wonderful to see this movement building and broadening. What emerged from last Thursday’s forum is precisely that such a movement is what is needed to pressure the political powers that be to finally bring this long-blocked bill to a vote in the City Council.
Why has the bill been obstructed so long? As one panelist said, while making the international finger-rubbing sign — it’s all about money.
To back up for one second, it’s only fitting to give credit where it’s due. Let the record show that this renewed focus on the perennially stalled S.B.J.S.A. — at least in terms of its coverage in the media — all started with V.I.D member Sharon Woolums’s hard-hitting columns about this issue right in this newspaper, The Villager. Over the past two years, Woolums has written a half-dozen columns on this subject that we have run in The Villager. Unfailingly, every one of her columns has gotten hundreds of “likes” from concerned readers.
Helping Woolums in her effort has been Steve Null, who wrote the original S.B.J.S.A for then-Councilmember Ruth Messinger.
Clearly, Woolums tapped into a deep sentiment — namely, that our city is becoming unaffordable, not only for residents, which we all already know, but also for small merchants, as well, who add so much to our communities. As higher-paying retail tenants have been brought in, we can no longer find a hardware store, a shoe-repair shop, an affordable deli in our neighborhoods. The nature of our city is being fundamentally altered — its fabric is being shredded before our eyes — but there is a way to address this.
There have been a couple of previous forums that have touched on this issue — yet, a solution has never been offered. One, last summer by G.V.S.H.P., brought together food critics and others to brainstorm about saving restaurants. A second one, by another media group in October, included an agency head and a hotel union representative, and concluded with Borough President Gale Brewer saying, “There is no magic wand” to save small businesses.
But the forum by The Villager and V.I.D. took things a big step farther, arguing that there is a solution — the S.B.J.S.A.
But, in reality, it doesn’t matter who is leading the charge. It’s time to put egos aside and for this movement to coalesce and gain strength. And yet, we are proud that it was indeed Woolums, The Villager and V.I.D. that jumpstarted this call to action.
Right now, we’re told that the bill has 14 sponsors in the Council. One local politician’s aide tells us that this isn’t really enough to bring the bill up for a vote. And yet, just five years ago, there were 32 sponsors, including all the members of the Council’s Small Business Committee — but Council Speaker Christine Quinn, again, refused to let the measure come to the floor for a vote.
Both Quinn and Bill de Blasio, when they were running for mayor two years ago, tersely told The Villager they had been told by the Council’s lawyers that the S.B.J.S.A. was “not legal,” and declined to discuss it any further. But small business advocates charge that’s just a red herring, a cover for inaction. A legal panel five years ago, specifically assessed those concerns, and found that the S.B.J.S.A. is constitutional and would withstand legal challenge. We’re told that Quinn had no follow-up comment on that finding, nor did she move to modify the bill in any way to make it more acceptable to its silent opponents — the real estate industry.
To put this all in context, let’s not forget, from 1945 until 1963, the city actually did have commercial rent control.
Following last Thursday night’s Villager/V.I.D. forum, we have repeatedly asked the current Council speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, if she will let the full Council vote on the bill. To date, we have not gotten a response. However, it’s high time for a vote — and let’s see, for once, where our councilmembers really come down on this critical issue.
And a veto-proof vote of 34 councilmembers isn’t needed. A simple majority, 26, will do. Would the mayor really dare defy a bill that would be this popular among voters?
De Blasio has shown he’ll go to bat for tenants, as the Rent Guidelines Board last year approved its lowest increases ever for rent-regulated apartments. (This year, there should be a rent freeze.) Now, he needs to go to the mat for small businesses.
It would be, well…wonderful if things were just like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and beloved local businesses, like George Bailey’s fictional little savings and loan, could be saved by the goodhearted townsfolk turning out to show their support when the ruthless Old Man Potters are moving in for the kill. But as we’ve seen again and again, this just isn’t enough. Yes, the community has rallied more than once in the past to save Ray’s Candy Store on Avenue A, for example, but, sadly, that’s the exception.
Simply put, small business owners are more than owed a vote on the S.B.J.S.A. In many cases, they have invested their life’s savings into their stores, making sacrifices, working long hours to sustain businesses in this city. They have created jobs and are employing mostly local residents.
Candidates and elected officials, in their speeches, regularly proclaim that small businesses are the “backbone of our economy, the engine of job creation.” That should at the very least entitle these merchants to a vote — that is, if our elected officials really mean what they say. It’s time for local politicians to stop cynically playing both sides of the fence, and show where they honestly stand.
It’s time to let democracy run its course. For crying out loud — after all these decades, and before all of Manhattan becomes little more than an overbuilt, unaffordable, soulless mall of “baby Walmarts” and other chain stores — let the S.B.J.S.A. finally come to the floor for a vote!