What would Francis do? Voting on the S.B.J.S.A.

The pope’s description of the “powerful feeding on the powerless” also applies to the plight of the city’s small merchants, the writer says.
The pope’s description of the “powerful feeding on the powerless” also applies to the plight of the city’s small merchants, the writer says.

BY SHARON WOOLUMS  |  During his heralded visit to our city in September, Pope Francis sent a powerful message to elected officials to use their office for the good of those most in need, reminding them of their obligation to employ morality and ethics when making political decisions that could lessen the suffering caused by unbridled greed.

Two years ago, in criticizing capitalism, Francis said, “Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”

For 30 years while City Hall continuously gave the New York City real estate industry a pass, economic justice has been denied small business owners. During this longstanding public-policy vacuum, a tremendous “Darwinian” redistribution of wealth has taken place in New York City — the life’s savings of small entrepreneurs flowing to uninhibited real estate speculators, wreaking havoc on the character of our neighborhoods and instilling fear and uncertainty for small merchants’ futures. Prayers for compassion and spiritual values when determining their fate have remained unanswered for most businesses. 

The longest debate in the City Council will soon come to an end. At the center of this debate is the question: Do we need a law regulating commercial landlords upon expiration of leases, granting rights to fair lease-term negotiations? Upcoming City Hall public hearings on this issue will be different from all past ones: It won’t just be small businesses versus landlords, rather democracy versus oligarchy, and progressive values versus a corrupt political machine. 

Small business owners argue that speculators and profiteers have manipulated the commercial market through warehousing storefronts, flipping properties or demanding exorbitant rent increases. The rents demanded, merchants groups argue, have no relationship to the actual costs of operation or reasonable return for landlords. A commercial lease renewal agreement, they say, is little more than an “indentured servitude agreement.”

The real estate lobby counters that development revitalizes run-down neighborhoods. Older, declining businesses are being replaced by those that new residents welcome, they say. Government should stay out of the commercial real estate market, they warn, or future development and our city’s economic prosperity will be hurt.

Several proposals will soon come before the City Council for a hearing and a vote on whether they would become a law. Each bill’s supporters claim theirs is the one that offers the solution to stop small store closings. 

What changed after 30 years to finally allow a vote by the full council on the real solution, the Small Business Jobs Survival Act? During that time, the real estate lobby became the number one power in New York City, beginning under Mayor Koch, expanding under Giuliani and enhanced by Bloomberg. An anti-small business/entrepreneur environment was created by placing the Real Estate Board of New York on top of the waterfall, in a “trickle down” economic policy.

REBNY spokesperson Steve Spinola’s sense of entitlement was exposed when asked by The Villager about the S.B.J.S.A.’s chance of passing (“REBNY president fires back; Says shoppers like Duane Reades, want Walmarts” [news article, March 26, 2015]):

“In general, as REBNY members see it, the S.B.J.S.A. would put way too much power in the hands of retail tenants,” Spinola told The Villager. But small business owners with no power — without divine intervention — will go out of business unless a law passes giving them rights to survive. 

Mayors Koch and Bloomberg, with Speakers Vallone and Quinn, worked in collaboration with REBNY, to stop a vote on the S.B.J.S.A. from ever happening. Otherwise, the bill would have been certain to have passed by now.

Now, with the Council’s “progressive” makeup, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito in power, and 27 sponsors already signed on to the bill, it could easily pass — if democracy doesn’t get passed over once again at City Hall.

But de Blasio and the speaker have been largely silent on this issue — except for murmurings about fines and loans being the major problems facing small businesses. We hope there is not again a plot to stop a vote on the S.B.J.S.A. and substitute a feckless bill in its place. 

The major pathway for upward mobility for low-income immigrant families has been through small businesses. But politicians have simply watched as the foundation for immigrants’ future crumbles and the American Dream deteriorates into a nightmare of despair. 

Carlos Menchaca — chairperson of the City Council’s Immigration Committee and the only Hispanic member of the Small Business Committee — along with other city’s immigrant leaders, met with Pope Francis, who called upon them to rely upon morality and ethics as they stand with immigrants. Agreeing with Francis’s message and the need to protect struggling immigrant merchants, Menchaca recently became the S.B.J.S.A.’s 25th sponsor. 

Immigrants — and Hispanic immigrants above all other groups — comprise the largest number of owners of the city’s small businesses.

Which New York City elected officials most need to be guided by Pope Francis’s message? Mayor de Blasio, Speaker Mark-Viverito and Councilmember Robert Cornegy could have the greatest impact.

Mr. Progressive, Mayor de Blasio pledged to take the city in another direction from Bloomberg and end economic inequality. However, Sung Soo Kim, “The Godfather of Small Businesses,” summarized our current mayor’s true record on small businesses.

“In my 30 years advocating for small business, no elected official has exhibited as dramatic a change in small business policy as de Blasio,” Kim said. “He has gone the gamut, changing his assessment of the crisis from ‘rent gouging and extortion’ to ‘fines and lack of access to loans,’ a complete flip-flop from his public advocate election when he championed the S.B.J.S.A.”

If de Blasio signs a “do nothing” law that merely keeps intact the status quo benefiting only landlords, the cry of betrayal would give new meaning to the word “hypocrite,” in stark contrast to the pope’s message. 

With this vote, Speaker Mark-Viverito’s legacy, leadership and reputation will be put on the line.

As the first Hispanic speaker in New York City, presiding over a diverse Council, will she implement the pope’s message of compassion, creating legislation to correct unregulated greed’s dire consequences? Or will she, like past speakers, thwart a vote, even with the Council’s majority ready to pass a real solution? 

Councilmember Robert Cornegy, chairperson of the Small Business Committee — having the central role and responsibility for the future of small business — will decide if entrepreneurs get a fair and honest debate on all proposals and a vote by the full Council, or if government will again rig the system, with career bureaucrats scheming with the real estate lobby to deny democracy. 

“Hard to employ” and underemployed African-American young males’ best job opportunities come from the breaks small businesses give them. The right solution will ensure that pathway remains open, not closed. If  this crisis worsens, it will end hope and opportunity for those needing jobs to ensure stability in their families and neighborhoods. 

Cornegy’s top priority also must be to protect jobs that African-American working single mothers — with the cost of living skyrocketing — can’t afford to lose. Will Cornegy heed Francis’s wisdom?

In my nine prior columns on this topic, I viewed solving this problem as a moral imperative. But it took the pope to frame it in no uncertain terms and so definitively that this subject cannot be denied. Francis has injected economic inequality into the equation and is challenging politicians to step up. 

In this time of crisis, our representatives must finally represent our interests. The “game” is over: No more angling for how little they can do to say they did something. It is no longer O.K. to drag hard-working people through the muddy waters of uncertainty and leave them to drown because you can.

We can no longer stand by and watch our mom-and-pop stores disappear into the sinkhole of neglect and apathy by a so-called “progressive” administration that pretends to care.

Deceit is shameful and insulting — especially when it’s obvious. But no amount of “Hail Marys” can persuade a hardened heart corrupted by a political machine with just one goal — political ambition, the bottom line — truly, political bottom feeders.

It’s time to go fishin’ folks. “They” won’t have a prayer if you get out and vote — and vote with your conscience.