Small business advocate’s odds on vote for S.B.J.S.A. are small: 50 to 1

BY SHARON WOOLUMS | Unlike his predecessors, Speaker Christine Quinn and Melissa Mark-Viverito, the City Council’s new speaker, Corey Johnson, has promised a solution to end the crisis of Downtown Manhattan’s small businesses closings.

Small business owners, fearful of facing sky-high rent increases, hope the solution Johnson promised will be the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, which was reintroduced last week by its new prime sponsor, Councilmember Ydanis Rodriquez.

The S.B.J.S.A. is the longest-pending legislation in New York City Council history. Many current councilmembers weren’t even born when the bill was first introduced in June 1986 by then-Councilmember Ruth Messinger. For more than 31 years, small business advocates have fought for this bill, believing it is the only real solution to stop rent gouging, illegal extortion of cash from landlords, unfair lease terms and oppressive short-term leases, all destroying the “backbone” of the city’s economy.

Decades of zealous speculation in New York City real estate created a one-sided, unfair lease-renewal process favoring only landlords, the bill’s advocates argue. Giving tenants of all commercial owners the right to a minimum 10-year-lease renewal and equal rights to negotiate new fair lease terms with landlords, the S.B.J.S.A. “levels the playing field,” advocates say.

After Melissa Mark-Viverito, left, was elected City Council speaker in January 2014, she and her supporters — including Ydanis Rodriguez, right, and Corey Johnson, in the middle behind them — took a victory lap outside City Hall. With Mark-Viverito term-limited out of the Council, Johnson is now the new speaker and Rodriguez is the new prime sponsor of the long-stymied S.B.J.S.A. File photo by Tequila Minsky

In June 2009, a hearing on the bill was held by the Council’s Small Business Committee. Then-committee chairperson David Yassky’s entire committee selected the S.B.J.S.A. as the best solution to end the small-business crisis.

Among the most vocal champions of the leading progressives in the Council sponsoring the bill and calling for a vote were then-Councilmembers Bill de Blasio, Letitia James and Mark-Viverito. Advocates claimed, even with 32 sponsors in the 51-member Council, then-Speaker Quinn’s office, in collusion with the Real Estate Board of New York, deliberately cooked up the claim that the S.B.J.S.A. had legal issues and, thus, could not be voted on.

Thus, what advocates maintain is “the only real solution” to the crisis of sky-high retail rents was kept bottled up in committee for eight years and denied a public hearing.

Although the legal challenge was shown to be without merit, it served to give REBNY loyalists cover to do nothing as businesses closed in record numbers.

Speaker Johnson has done something past speakers refused to do: He has pledged to give the S.B.J.S.A. an honest public hearing. The question now is will the S.B.J.S.A. finally get a vote by the full City Council or will the powerful REBNY lobby influence ambitious lawmakers to water it down? Advocates fear a “REBNY Trojan horse” version of the bill that will not be effective in saving businesses.

Sung Soo Kim, a leading New York City small business advocate, has been involved in modifying the bill seven times over the years and has helped select six of its past eight prime sponsors.

“The future of our bill in a one-party City Hall rests with the speaker,” Kim said. “Speaker Peter Vallone single-handedly stopped our bill from passing in committee when he flipped a Yes vote to No. We lost 4 to 3. Speaker Quinn denied democracy at City Hall when she allowed REBNY to use her office against her own Council, stopping a vote on our bill, which was certain to pass. Speaker Mark-Viverito flipped and continued the rigging, using bogus legal claims, hiding behind fake studies and useless programs to deny economic justice to immigrant owners while bottling up our bill,” Kim charged.

Kim is the founder of the Korean American Small Business Service Center, and was chairperson of the first Mayor’s Small Business Advisory Board, appointed by former Mayors Dinkins and Giuliani. He is co-founder of Small Business Congress and creator of the Small Business Bill of Rights.

At this moment, however, he is not yet convinced that Johnson will follow through on his promise.

“A review of Speaker Johnson’s actions, not his political rhetoric, does not bode well for our bill,” he said.

A week before Johnson’s election as speaker in early January, Kim authored a talking point in The Villager (“Mom-and-pops’ future is in new speaker’s hands”), in which he stressed that the Small Business Committee’s composition would be the “litmus test” for the bill’s success. Specifically, Kim was concerned about who Johnson would appoint as the committee’s chairperson, as well as its members.

“Johnson’s choice for new chairperson was in fact REBNY’s choice,” a disappointed Kim told The Villager. “The only possible worse choice for small business would be keeping REBNY pawn Robert Cornegy as chairperson. New Chairperson Mark Gjonaj, a wealthy real estate owner — on record being opposed our bill or any regulation of landlords, including opposing residential rent guidelines — is an insult to democracy and against economic justice for desperate small business families.”

Advocates charge that Rodriguez takes his lead from Congressmember Adriano Espaillat, who they contend is “controlled by real estate interests.”

Kim said Johnson’s office rejected his request to meet after Councilmember Annabel Palma, who had previously been the bill’s prime sponsor, was term-limited out of office at the end of last year.

“I requested a meeting with Speaker Johnson to discuss which councilmember would be the best choice to continue the fight for our bill,” Kim said. “His office refused my request, though Johnson knew our group had written the bill, selected the past prime sponsors, and led the fight for 30 years to pass it.”

While surprised by Gjonaj’s appointment as chairperson, Kim already knew who the bill’s new prime sponsor would be: Councilmember Ydanis Rodriquez.

“Another REBNY top choice,” Kim said, with disappointment. “Since 2012, the Speaker’s office has been trying unsuccessfully to get Rodriquez to be co-prime sponsor to make changes to our bill to water it down and keep the status quo.

“All Democratic leaders at City Hall at one time were proud supporters of our bill, calling for a vote to save businesses,” he said. “All have either flipped to join the rigging to stop the bill or remained silent and complicit. REBNY has their handpicked chairperson and members of the Small Business Committee, along with their handpicked prime sponsor that we rejected twice in the past.”

Kim doesn’t give the bill very good odds of arriving before the full City Council for a vote without being diluted by REBNY. Right now, he’s saying it’s got a 50-to-1 chance.

In an interview with The Villager in January after he was elected speaker, Johnson stated that the S.B.J.S.A. was “not a silver bullet” solution for the city’s small business crisis and that an array of measures would be needed.

“I am supportive of a hearing,” Johnson said at the time. “But I also think I am not sure that that bill is a silver bullet. The bill does a really important thing: It talks about mediation between landlords who are trying to drastically raise the rent — double, triple, quadruple, quintuple the rent — on small businesses. But I also want us to think in a holistic way about this. Are there things we can do to incentivize landlords — because not all landlords are bad — who want to actually keep a small business? Could we give a property tax abatement on the retail square footage of a building, where they would get a significant property-tax break, so long as they re-sign the lease for a certain amount of years at a low level?”

Similarly, in two separate interviews with The Villager in February, new Councilmember Carlina Rivera, who is on the Small Business Committee, when asked about the S.B.J.S.A. echoed Johnson’s assessment, and said that a variety of tactics would be needed to address the issue.

“We’re going to have a hearing that we’ve been calling for for a long time,” Rivera said then. “Everyone’s saying the bill’s not legal, but where are the specifics? If it isn’t legal, what can be done to make it legal? Let’s put it all on the table — what’s legal and what’s not.”

She added that she thinks a mix of different initiatives should be considered to address the issue, from restricting landlords from combining spaces to create extra-large storefronts, to creating “special zones” to keep out formula retail.

“I think we have to do multiple things,” she said.

Like Johnson, Rivera said the S.B.J.S.A. “is not a silver bullet,” adding, “We’re going to have to look at a 21st-century version of it.”

Kim is now calling for community members to ramp up the pressure by making their feelings known to their local lawmakers.

“If the customers of small businesses and those that love their neighborhoods — who are all voters — send the same message to their lawmakers that the exuberant school kids sent, our bill can pass,” he declared.

Kim’s message to councilmembers is simple:

“Enough is enough, we know who you serve — REBNY! Why? For campaign money. Finally, stop! Serve the will of the people. Save our small businesses and jobs or we will vote you out. Election-cycle candidates come before voters pledging to support progressive legislation. But they also pledge in private to never actively call for a vote on the most progressive legislation in Council history, the S.B.J.S.A. Keep your pledge to your voters.”

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