BY SUNG SOO KIM | The Villager has published more articles on small businesses closing and the crisis caused by sky-high rent increases than any media in New York City. These articles went beyond what other local media stories covered because they focused on finding a solution to stop the closings and what our local politicians were doing or failing to do to end the crisis.
With every lawmaker proclaiming how progressive he or she was and how much they love mom-and-pop businesses, it was difficult for New Yorkers to know who really was committed to saving our small businesses. Many of The Villager’s articles on this subject ended with a message to the newspaper’s readers: Forget all the political rhetoric, the “litmus test” for real progressive lawmakers is that they not be controlled by special interests and are committed to saving small businesses through support of the Small Business Jobs Survival Act.
This bill — its latest version bottled up in committee the past eight years — gave rights to renew commercial leases and rights to negotiate fair lease terms to all commercial businesses. The majority of at City Hall passed the litmus test. The response from the majority of lawmakers in supporting the bill was very positive, with the bill’s sponsorship rising to 28 out of 51 councilmembers, enough for passage if a vote were taken. The majority of the members of the City Council’s Small Business Committee were sponsors, enough to vote the bill out of committee, allowing the full Council to vote on it.
Yet, in a progressive City Council, with all its leadership claiming to be self-proclaimed champions of progressive legislation, the S.B.J.S.A. could not even gain a public hearing these past eight years. For the first time in the long 30-year debate on passing legislation regulating commercial landlords and giving commercial tenants rights in the lease-renewal process, this City Council denied a public hearing on the only real solution to save small businesses.
This denial of a public hearing made the S.B.J.S.A. a poor litmus test in terms of identifying lawmakers who hold true progressive values, have high integrity and a moral obligation to New Yorkers in need, reverence for Democracy and for the will of the people, and respect for our city’s immigrant heritage.
In short, lawmakers who had no intention of ever standing behind our mom-and-pop businesses and fighting for the S.B.J.S.A. or any legislation regulating commercial landlords were signing up as sponsors of the bill. Others were purposely lying to their constituents about not fighting for a public hearing for the bill because of baseless legal claims that the bill had “legal issues.”
Whenever the public gathered to express its anger over their favorite businesses closing, lawmakers would join them to share their outrage, but would always distract the public with useless proposals that gave no rights to business owners and would not save even a single business.
The problem for small businesses in getting justice at City Hall, even as their crisis worsened, was that the powerful real estate lobby — the Real Estate Board of New York a.k.a. REBNY — also had a “litmus test” to determine which lawmakers would get the board’s money and political influence. That litmus test centered around never allowing the S.B.J.S.A. or any legislation that regulated commercial landlords to have an honest public hearing and vote.
The past two City Council speakers, Christine Quinn and Melissa Mark-Viverito, both passed the REBNY litmus test and used the Speaker’s Office to rig the system at City Hall to favor only REBNY and its landlord members. Both Quinn and Mark-Viverito abdicated the Council’s oversight responsibly for economic policy to REBNY. This antidemocratic act by both speakers allowed the most anti-small business Small Business Committee to continue the charade of helping small businesses.
The outcome of this collusion with REBNY was even more exorbitant rent increases, causing more than 1,000 small business closings each month in New York City, 8,000 jobs lost each month and empty storefronts on every main street in the city.
The new speaker of the City Council will immediately face a growing crisis that has been purposely ignored by a government unduly influenced by special interests. This mounting crisis is the rapid destruction of the “backbone of our economy” and the largest employer of resident New Yorkers — our small businesses. If ignored and allowed to grow worse, this can only lead to a major recession, record unemployment rates and sky-high property-tax increases in the near future.
The hallmark of leadership for lawmakers has always been how they address a crisis; how quickly, effectively and fairly they pass legislation that offers a real solution to end the crisis. Will the new speaker stand on his progressive principles and restore democracy to represent the will of the people? Or will he follow the path of political ambition and allow REBNY to continue to control the oversight responsibly of economic policy?
The litmus test for the new speaker on his leadership qualities, progressive values, respect for democracy and commitment to save our small businesses and New Yorkers’ jobs is easy to identify. Very simply, the litmus test will be who the speaker selects as the new chairperson of the Small Business Committee, as well as its members. The past two chairpersons of this committee were handpicked by REBNY to “do nothing” but keep the status quo protecting the landlords’ windfall profits. REBNY also stacked the committee with pro-landlord members who would never once call for a public hearing on the S.B.J.S.A. or any legislation to end the crisis.
And so, the “REBNY Committee” remained silent as the New York City courts issued warrants to evict 23,000 businesses and 185,000 New Yorkers lost their jobs, as a result. The “REBNY Committee” remained silent as mostly immigrant owners were being extorted for cash demanded by landlords under threat of being thrown out of business.
The Small Business Congress has experienced firsthand many lawmakers who were once strong voices and champions of our bill, only to flip and abandon their progressive principles for their own political careers.
REBNY has a shortlist of its most loyal cronies who it controls and who have willingly promoted their useless proposals to keep the status quo and who would want to chair the Small Business Committee. REBNY also has a list of potential committee members who have taken its money and shown a lack of courage or conviction to fight for any cause but their own political ambitions.
Lawmakers that small-business advocates would not wish to see as chairperson of the Small Business Committee include Robert Cornegy, Brad Lander, Margaret Chin, Ydanis Rodriquez, Peter Koo and Carlos Menchaca. Based on their past records of doing nothing to find a real solution to save our businesses and their promoting REBNY-created do-nothing proposals, appointing any one of these members as chairperson would signal no hope — no hope — for our struggling small business owners. Other councilmembers with appalling records of promoting REBNY status-quo fake substitutes for the S.B.J.S.A. and who do not deserve to be on the committee include Fernando Cabrera and Helen Rosenthal.
For the future of our small businesses and countless New Yorkers’ jobs, for our city’s arts community and those who love their neighborhoods, we call upon the new speaker to rise above the corrupt control of REBNY and take back the responsibility of selecting the Small Business Committee’s chairperson and its members. Select only those lawmakers who are independent of REBNY’s control and committed to serving our city’s hardworking small business owners.
Mr. Speaker, select a chairperson committed to progressive values who has the courage to stand up for our small business owners and their employees. Select a chairperson who will be a strong voice for our small business owners, who will hold an honest public hearing to find real solutions to the real problems merchants face. Only in this way will democracy be restored at City Hall and will economic disaster be avoided.
Kim is the founder of the oldest small business service center in New York City, the Korean American Small Business Service Center, and was chairperson of the first Mayor’s Small Business Advisory Board, appointed by former Mayors David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani. Kim is co-founder of the Small Business Congress and sole creator of the Small Business Bill of Rights. In 32 years he has personally negotiated and renegotiated an estimated 55,000 commercial leases for his Korean members. He personally consulted on the drafting of the original version of the Small Business Jobs Survival Act and every subsequent version introduced by seven prime sponsors.