BY SHARON WOOLUMS | After listening intently to each candidate at the Village Independent Democratic club’s mayoral forum, I had a nagging sense there was an elephant in the room. And it wasn’t the Republican symbol. No, I was in a room full of Democrats.
The elephant in the room was what was not debated: the closing of our small businesses and a lack of criticism of a 20-year Republican mayoral economic philosophy for New York City that many feel is a disaster for small businesses and the middle class.
All the candidates speak of small businesses as the city’s economic backbone and job creators. Yet, at the forum, there was no talk of the dire situation these merchants face. The very stability of our community hangs on the issue of these stores closing. And the politicians must surely know that small businesses cannot compete with banks “too big to fail” and national franchises for rental space on Main Street.
So I did my research. Statistics are staggering and speak to a crisis. Between 1994 and 2012 under Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg, the Landlord and Tenants Commercial Courts issued 143,202 warrants to evict businesses. Another estimated 235,000 businesses walked away without a court fight. In short, up to 380,000 small businesses closed in New York City under Republican economics.
Of all the economic problems facing our government, rent gouging, which is causing the closing of our mom-and-pop stores, is the easiest to resolve, restoring the American dream for our small businesses. There is a bill now pending before the City Council, the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (S.B.J.S.A.). The original version was introduced in 1986 by Councilwoman Ruth Messinger to save small businesses from sky-high rent gouging resulting from out-of-control real estate speculation in New York City; as well as the unscrupulous practice of landlords demanding “cash under the table” to remain in business; oppressive and unreasonable lease renewals, often doubling or tripling rents; and retail tenants even being forced to pay the landlord’s property tax.
A survey of Hispanic small businesses by the U.S.A. Latin Chamber of Commerce showed the No. 2 reason small businesses failed was due to paying their landlords’ commercial property tax.
All of the current mayoral candidates are aware of the S.B.J.S.A. In fact, in the last election, four of the candidates took strong positions on the bill. Posters highlighting the bill’s supporters were put in the windows of small businesses. John Liu and Bill de Blasio, who had made the bill a central topic of their campaigns, were featured in these posters.
Other candidates, however, got negative posters, including Christine Quinn for stopping the bill in the City Council and Bill Thompson for not fighting for it.
Many now feel Liu and de Blasio have abandoned the issue that they once championed to get elected as comptroller and public advocate, respectively. When candidates forget what they promised only four years ago we have to remind them! We have to remind them to revisit this crucial issue and make it the top priority it must be.
Why in this election, have none of the candidates mentioned S.B.J.S.A.’s existence? In the last election, this bill had the sponsorship of the City Council’s entire Small Business Committee, including its chairperson, David Yassky, and 32 members of the City Council, including both then-Councilmembers Liu and de Blasio. May we interpret this new silence to mean New York City will remain a liberal Democratic town continuing a conservative Republic economic philosophy regardless of which party we elect?
A major study was released in 2009 by the U.S.A. Latin Chamber of Commerce showing the true crisis state of our city’s small businesses. Small Business Committee Chairperson Yassky opened the public hearing on the bill stating, “I believe that we absolutely have to do something. Period. It’s not an option to do nothing.”
Either our small businesses face a crisis and can survive only with government intervention or they are not in a crisis and do not need help. The voters who know the truth have a right to know how their candidates actually stand on this critical issue.
For those candidates who know small businesses are in a crisis, and that the only real solution is the S.B.J.S.A., this bill is still alive in the City Council…waiting for a candidate with the political will, leadership and courage to fight and stand up to the political machine and the powerful real estate industry to get it passed into law.
This bill may serve here as a litmus test for the differences in the political parties and the candidates’ willingness to engage on this issue in depth rather than merely spouting platitudes. Any of the candidates’ jobs-creation initiatives, loan programs or economic stimulus plans would be of little value if the businesses continue to close.
Hopefully, this issue and a platform distinguishing itself from a failed Republican philosophy will be readdressed and re-enter the debate now that Anthony Weiner, “the scrappy political street fighter” as The New York Times May 22 article calls him, has announced his candidacy. Weiner has claimed, “The ideas that I have will set me apart.” And he will, according to the Times, “likely…depict his opponents as machine liberals…unprepared for the kind of tough financial decisions confronting the city.” The recently deceased Senator Lautenberg nailed it when he said, “If one of the parties is shameless, the other party cannot afford to be spineless.”
For this mayoral election, the stakes are high for every middle-class and small-business family. Business advocacy groups predict that if government does not pass the S.B.J.S.A. soon, within 16 years our mom-and-pop Main Street businesses will become extinct. We who love our neighborhoods must demand that one Democratic candidate distinguish him- or herself from the failed 20-year Republican economic policies and reflect a true progressive economic philosophy. I’m not an economist but I — and you — see, hear, discuss, listen, learn and read, and we feel that something is wrong, something has changed, and that we are in trouble and that we must fix it, and that doing nothing is not working.
Actions speak louder than words. The record speaks for itself. I have one vote, and so do you. Our vote en masse speaks louder than empty words. Some say money talks, but so do our votes, if we cast them in droves at the polls. And if just one candidate speaks to this important issue, we will prove our one vote is worth more — yes, more valuable than a corporation’s coffers or a real estate’s lobbying dollar.
Real estate campaign donations and lobbyists’ influence should never be more valuable to candidates than any one vote from a constituent who has felt the pinch from losing his or her job; or from those investing life savings and years of work into a store, only to have their businesses fail because of ridiculously high rent hikes; or of a young native New Yorker or immigrant aspiring to the American dream only to experience a nightmare of impossibility; or finally the mom and pop who dreamed of passing on their business to their children.
If ever there was a time for an elected official to stand up for “the people,” it is now. For it’s not just our quaint stores that are disappearing — but also the faith in knowing whom our government actually serves. That candidate, whoever it may be, may soon inhabit the lovely Gracie Mansion that has sadly been vacant for 11½ years.