S.O.S. campaign calls for legislation to help small businesses pay rent during pandemic

Assemblyman Harvey Epstein (File photo)

By Fanni Frankl

The “Save Our Storefronts” (S.O.S.) campaign held a virtual meeting Wednesday morning calling on New York State to enact commercial rent relief for small business owners. 

The meeting, organized by The Cooper Square Committee, was joined by State Senator Brad Hoylman, Assemblyman Harvey Epstein and a group of small business owners, all coming together to address the crisis the coronavirus has caused small businesses and specifically, their ability to pay rent. The S.O.S. legislation would ease the burden of small business owners with the goal of approaching the issue of rent as a collective responsibility. Business owners shared their experiences and anxiety at the uncertainty of their future, and their ability to stay open.

Lalita Kumut, owner of The Fragrance Shop, is one of the small business owners affected by the coronavirus shutdown who spoke about financial loss.

“We have been in business for 29 years and we always pay the rent on time,” she said. “This time is giving me anxiety and I can’t sleep because I can’t pay the rent. I was very happy to reopen, but there were no customers so I cried everyday. Without the government’s help we are going to collapse.”

Under the proposed bill, a small business or nonprofit with 25 or fewer employees would be able to affirm their loss in income to the Department of Financial Services. Once verified, the tenant would only be responsible for a third of their contractual rent per month beginning Mar. 7 and continuing for 180 days past the end of the New York State on pause period, according to the S.O.S. website. 

Landlords will also be given the opportunity to apply for aid from an expected $500 million federal fund, signalling the initiative’s two-pronged goal of helping both tenants and landlords.

Assemblyman Harvey Epstein, one of the proponents of the bill who will introduce it to the New York State Assembly, conveyed his support to the small business owners and called for the federal government to take responsibility as well.

“It is our hope that once there is negotiation, some of those federal dollars will go to help small businesses,” he said. “It isn’t the burden of the commercial tenant. It is the responsibility of the federal government.”

State Senator Brad Hoylman, also a supporter of the bill called the rent issue “a real apocalypse at [tenants’] doorsteps.” He called for a “burden of sacrifices” during this public health crisis to avoid more small businesses shutting their doors. Nearly 3,000 businesses have already been forced to close since the pandemic began.

He added that while outdoor dining does help to a certain degree, “businesses who do not have outside space are struggling everyday.”

Sen. Hoylman and Assemblyman Epstein hope to introduce the bill this week.