PROGRESS REPORT: Fighting to save and promote small businesses

Carlina Rivera. Photo by Lincoln Anderson

BY CARLINA RIVERA | Last year was a tough one for the local businesses that help define our district. With ever-rising rents, it’s just as common to walk down a street on the East Side and see a big-box or vacant storefront as it is to see a small business. We did see some victories for small businesses, though.

The City Council successfully adjusted the costly commercial rent tax, lifting a significant financial burden for an estimated 2,700 businesses south of 96th St. But there is still so much more that we can do. That’s why protecting and revitalizing our small business community is one of my top priorities for my first year in office.

I’m proudly supporting the Small Business Jobs Survival Act and will work with my colleagues to pass this important legislation. This bill will provide shop owners with strengthened positions from which to negotiate lease renewals, and limit landlords from passing on property taxes and other financial burdens to already hard-pressed commercial tenants.

With the shift to e-commerce, many of our businesses are struggling to compete as New Yorkers go online to shop. Since mom-and-pop storefronts are what help make New York City so unique, we must do what we can to preserve this vital part of our streetscape and economy.

In Council District 2, the challenge for small businesses is particularly acute. I am working with the city’s Department of Small Business Services and Department of Consumer Affairs for a better outreach plan to establish stronger relationships with access to entrepreneurial education for these operators. In going store to store, we can gather basic data to understand merchants’ backgrounds and expertise, where they live, whether their business plan can be improved, and if they possess the access to capital for upgrades and expansion. The resulting profile may not only give us in-depth understanding of who is taking the risk of maintaining and starting a business, but would also enable government to connect with stakeholders in unprecedented and direct ways.

But we cannot stop there. With our neighborhoods still undergoing decades-long real estate speculation, commercial rents continue to rise, pricing out homegrown businesses in favor of chain operators and big-box retailers. This means we have to explore land-use routes to small business preservation. In the East Village, I would look to continue discussions about the proposed special commercial district that mandates maximum square footage for storefronts with the goal of attracting smaller-format operators to this historically important commercial area.

Additionally, we should ensure small business owners have access to knowledge that will help them compete and thrive. We want owners and their employees to be able to easily access both the technical assistance and financial information that is available to them but is unfortunately difficult to find within the city’s bureaucracy. Clearer guidelines and plain-language explanations of local regulations governing their type of business is essential, since many mom-and-pops are immigrant-owned and may need access to this information in multiple languages.

Grassroots education efforts in this process are also essential. I am organizing a small business breakfast with relevant agencies and inviting local businesses to hear directly from these representatives. The conversation can include how we can improve rules on sanitation and health inspections, workshops for entrepreneurs, and more.

To stem the tide of vacant storefronts, I am exploring ways that we can encourage landlords to bring in local business instead of holding out for an expensive corporate client. Through legislation, incentives and working directly with property managers, we can hopefully find an economically beneficial way to keep our neighborhoods diverse, affordable and true to their historic roots.

Over the past year, I logged more miles traveling across Council District 2 than I ever thought imaginable during my campaign for New York City Council. During that time, I connected with the many activists, innovators and independent thinkers whose passion has come to define much of what makes this area so special. Now into my fifth month in office, I am so excited to work for each and every one of you to keep our district strong and thriving. 

I have long been focused on small business survival, having previously served on Community Board 3’s Economic Development Committee and worked with business owners at Good Older Lower East Side (GOLES).

While my Council staff and I are just getting started tackling myriad issues in our communities, I assure you that we will continue to make an independent spirit — and the mom-and-pop stores that help foster it — a signature part of District 2.

Rivera is city councilmember, District 2 (East Village, Flatiron, Gramercy Park, Rose Hill, Kips Bay, Murray Hill and Lower East Side)

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