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OPINION: City Council is acting to save small businesses

BY HELEN ROSENTHAL | The debate over how to best help our small businesses conjures strong emotions, and for good reason. They are the heart and soul of New York City. They are the reason why many New Yorkers have chosen to live here. They are the keystone of our economy.

City Councilmember Helen Rosenthal, who represents the Upper West Side. (Photo by Emil Cohen/NYC Council)

For decades, there has been endless debate about this issue and what to do about it. But as the years passed and empty storefronts proliferated, nothing truly significant happened on a policy level. Previous administrations tinkered around the edges. Some of us even had interns do a count of vacant storefronts in specific areas. No one even began laying the foundation for groundbreaking policy.

This City Council is different. We are taking action to help our small businesses — and we’re just getting started.

Over the past several months, the City Council has been working closely with groups like the Association for Neighborhood Housing & Development (ANHD) on this issue. A coalition of grassroots progressive community groups that includes the Cooper Square Committee, Goddard Riverside Community Center and Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), ANHD has been a progressive force in our city since 1974. It has taken on the small business issue with a particular focus on owner-operated, low-income, minority-run businesses that serve low-income and minority communities.

Working with advocates and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, the Council crafted a package of important small business legislation that was passed last month, including my “Storefront Tracker” bill. For the first time, landlords will be required to register their vacant storefronts with the city, or face penalties. They’ll have to report the previous and asking rents, the length of time a property has and has not been leased, and other information. The city will now be required to maintain a searchable database that makes this information available to the public.

Why is the Storefront Tracker bill an important step toward making progress on this issue?

A longstanding barrier to any meaningful action on this issue has been the lack of significant data or concrete information about commercial rents or storefront vacancies. The information we have is largely anecdotal or piecemeal by neighborhood. Key questions remain unanswered: What is the actual vacancy rate? Are landlords warehousing empty storefronts? If so, which ones?

Real data and information are essential to passing informed legislation, especially legislation that has never been passed anywhere else and legislation that has the potential to alter the dynamics of our commercial economy in unknown ways. Data and hard facts are also essential to defending legislation in a court of law, should that be necessary.

The Storefront Tracker legislation will finally allow community members, advocates and policymakers to follow vacancy trends citywide and in specific neighborhoods. The city’s Department of Small Business Services will know where leases will come due within two years, so it can reach out to offer its services, like help with lease renewals and access to credit. This information will also be invaluable to small business owners themselves.

The Storefront Tracker bill, as well as others in the legislative package, are just one step as we work through this issue. There are a number of options under discussion, like commercial rent control or a vacancy tax on empty storefronts. A vacancy tax would first have to be passed in Albany. State Senator Brad Hoylman and Assemblymember Deborah Glick introduced this legislation in the spring.

Some proposals under discussion, including the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (S.B.J.S.A.), have been around for a long time. I am a co-sponsor of the S.B.J.S.A. and have been for years. It would make all commercial leases subject to binding arbitration if the landlord and tenant cannot agree on a renewal rent. I support the aims of this bill but there are complex issues with it that need to be resolved.

For example, the S.B.J.S.A. would apply to all commercial leases in New York City, even office space on the top floor of a commercial tower, or chain stores like Chase bank. Policy merits aside, it’s questionable whether or not that would withstand a legal challenge.

But if you limit the bill to benefit only independent merchants in storefronts, how to do you it without creating a strong disincentive for landlords to rent to them? Could this further benefit corporate chain stores? These are among the questions that we are currently working through.

The commercial economy is changing fast. The implications of online retail are being seen with empty commercial strips nationwide. The full impact may still remain to be seen, as all of us use smartphones or go online to purchase almost everything. The costs of doing business are rising while longtime customer bases change. Unscrupulous landlords are using every trick in the book to get rid of independent retail tenants, hoping to land a franchise chain that will pay more rent.

But we must redouble our commitment to saving brick-and-mortar, independently owned businesses. They are the lifeblood of our neighborhoods. They are a gateway to opportunity for immigrants. They give life to our streetscapes and add color to our lives.

Together, we can do this. We will set an example for municipalities everywhere to follow. It’s the right thing to do and our city’s future depends on it.

Rosenthal represents City Council District 6 (Upper West Side and Central Park) and chairs the City Council’s Committee on Women and Gender Equity.

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