S.B.J.S.A. prep

A concerned citizen at the October 2016 City Hall hearing on the city’s small business crisis, at which the Small Business Committee hoped that one key bill, in particular — the Small Business Jobs Survival Act — would not even be discussed. Villager file photo

As this newspaper first reported in early May, the City Council reportedly will be holding a hearing soon — possibly in as soon as a month from now — on the long-stalled Small Business Jobs Survival Act.

Corey Johnson, the new City Council speaker, has promised to hold this hearing, and that’s very encouraging news. Of course, his predecessor, Melissa Mark-Viverito, made the same promise to The Villager three years ago. But when the Council’s Small Business Committee finally did hold a hearing on the city’s small business crisis in October 2016, as The Villager reported then, “noticeably absent from the committee’s briefing paper was any mention of the Small Business Jobs Survival Act.” Members of the public took it upon themselves to bring up the bill at that hearing — but that it was essentially “not on the radar” of the committee was telling — and very cynical, especially after Mark-Viverito’s prior assurances.

Now that it seems that the bill, at last, will get a robust public discussion, it’s important that we go into this hearing fully informed. Namely, we want to avoid this session being dominated by what is essentially a red herring — that is, whether the S.B.J.S.A. is “legal” or not.

In short, here’s what we do know. The bill would require landlords to give commercial tenants a 10-year minimum lease with the right to renew; create a third-party binding arbitration process if a “fair” lease could not be agreed upon; limit security deposits to two months’ rent; and protect tenants against rent-gouging and retaliation from landlords, among other provisions.

It’s the lease-renewal process — when landlords jack up rents — that is the biggest issue for mom-and-pop stores. And amid today’s hyper-gentrification pressure, especially in Manhattan, we increasingly are seeing the results: streets lined with empty storefronts. In the Village, Bleecker and Christopher Sts. are poster children for this shocking commercial blight.

Of course, a major factor fueling the vacant retail spaces is the boom in online retail. Yet, landlords stubbornly persist in kicking out small merchants, vainly hoping to land a cash-cow national-brand tenant. Meanwhile, we get stuck with empty storefronts and a stark lack of basic and affordable neighborhood retail services. This is the shocking new element in the equation, though — namely, all the empty storefronts — that is making the need for a bill like the S.B.J.S.A. so glaringly apparent.

The City Council has a top-notch legal staff. So, that staff should, prior to this hearing, determine — again, because it has been already done many times before — to its own satisfaction, whether or not this measure is legal.

As Sharon Woolums, who has reported extensively about the S.B.J.S.A. for The Villager, wrote for us last August, “The S.B.J.S.A. is the most legally vetted piece of legislation in New York City’s history. The scrutiny of its many versions spans 30 years, including legal oversight by the city’s Law Department, a special public hearing prior to a vote by committee, two amendments to the bill recommended by the City Council’s Legal and Legislation departments, two motions to discharge the bill from committee [for a vote by the full City Council], 11 public hearings at which [the Real Estate Board of New York] could challenge the act’s legality, support by seven prime sponsors over the years who submitted the bill to Council Legal for review, 18 years of court rulings (many from the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals) and, most importantly, a vetting by an independent legal review panel of the bill’s constitutionality held in the Bronx courthouse.”

And yet, when The Villager interviewed two leading mayoral candidates in 2015 — then-Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and then-Council Speaker Christine Quinn — they both gave the same, terse answer, as if from the same playbook: “It’s not legal.” But they didn’t expand on that, or explain one bit why they thought the bill wasn’t kosher under the law. Similarly, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer has stated that the legislation — which she worked on back when she was an aide to former Councilmember Ruth Messinger — will not pass legal muster.

This is exactly what REBNY wants to hear. And REBNY would love to hear a hearing dominated by a confusing back and forth on the bill’s legality. But, again, that issue has already been clarified by courts and the Council’s legal staff in past years. Again, it’s a red herring. And if the question of the bill’s legality still needs to be clarified — at least to the Small Business Committee members’ satisfaction — then it should be done before, not during, this upcoming hearing. Let those who testify at the hearing say and argue what they want. But the committee itself should enter into this process with a baseline understanding of where it stands on this bill. Again, our understanding is that there is more than ample precedent out there attesting to the fact that the S.B.J.S.A. is, in fact, legal.

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