On the S.B.J.S.A., this time, let’s get it right

In June, Lady Gaga caused a commotion on W. Eighth St. as she headed into Electric Lady Studios to record. In a sign of the times, the store behind her in the photo, Mountain Side Craft, which sold jewelry, textiles and gifts from Tibet and Nepal, and had been there 12 years, recently closed. Photo by Sharon Woolums

BY SHARON WOOLUMS | “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” Winston Churchill said at the Cold War’s outset in 1948 (paraphrasing writer George Santayana).

Now, with our city in crisis, New York City’s leading small business advocate, Sung Soo Kim — the author of the Small Business Jobs Survival Act and founder of the Small Business Congress and the city’s oldest small business service center — asserts, “The new litmus test for lawmakers claiming to support the S.B.J.S.A. to affirm the best solution to the crisis, is their willingness to call for the resolution of any legal challenge before a hearing of the bill…or history will repeat itself.”

Kim has written City Council Speaker Corey Johnson’s Office twice requesting his legal department to do its duty and resolve nebulous legal challenges to the bill that it created in 2009. Despite former Speaker Christine Quinn’s legal challenge to the S.B.J.S.A., preventing a hearing for eight years, the speaker’s legal department has yet to produce legitimate case-law review to substantiate claims or offer amendments to satisfy legal concerns.

Let’s do a quick recap, so that we are not condemned to repeat the Council’s past devastating failures — of which we know the dire consequences.

In April 2009, David Yassky, then chairperson of the Council’s Small Business Committee, became the first New York City lawmaker in 30 years to declare that the city’s small businesses faced a crisis. The largest independent study of immigrant business owners clearly detailed the crisis to survive. Of 1,000 Hispanic business owners, a shocking 53 percent claimed they were at risk of closing due to high rents. Yassky responded to this independent survey, saying, “The major creators of our jobs, our small businesses are going out of business… . The one thing we cannot do in the face of this crisis is nothing.”

Yassky, with progressive lawmakers’ support, gained a prompt hearing on the S.B.J.S.A., which gives business tenants the right to 10-year renewal leases and equal rights with landlords to negotiate new lease terms, with an arbitration process if agreement cannot be reached.

“I believe that we absolutely have to do something, period,” he said of the purpose of holding a hearing on the issue. “It’s not an option to do nothing. We cannot allow them [stores] to be pushed to the point of disappearance….”

At the hearing’s conclusion, all his fellow committee members chose the S.B.J.S.A. as the best solution to stop closings and save small businesses. Thirty-two councilmembers sponsored the bill, demonstrating effective democracy at work.

Next, however, the powerful real estate lobby — the Real Estate Board of New York, or REBNY — in collusion with then-Speaker Quinn’s Office, cooked up a bogus roadblock, claiming the bill’s “legal issues” would not stand up to a court challenge. Without an iota of evidence to substantiate this false claim, a vote was stopped on the S.B.J.S.A., which had been certain to pass easily and end the crisis. The process of repeatedly “rigging the system” to stop the S.B.J.S.A. began. Sadly, had democracy worked at City Hall, and the bill been allowed to pass into law, your favorite businesses would still be open today.

Because the majority of small businesses are immigrant-owned, stopping a vote on what many call the only real solution to save them was proclaimed anti-immigrant. In turn, our government’s economic policy, controlled by REBNY, was branded “The Oligarchy.”

One by one, lawmakers who were formerly progressive champions and strong voices for the S.B.J.S.A., fell in line with REBNYs’ position. Former S.B.J.S.A. advocates in the City Council — like Bill de Blasio, Letitia James and former Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, among others — took REBNY campaign funds and used its influence to promote their own political careers. Becoming silent on the S.B.J.S.A., never mentioning the bill or the crisis spiraling out of control, several of them joined in the “rigging” to stop the S.B.J.S.A. As these politicians abandoned progressive values and a moral obligation to serve people in need, the crisis spread to every neighborhood in the city, while the only real solution, the S.B.J.S.A., was denied a public hearing.

Finally, today, after eight years, the Council’s new speaker, Corey Johnson, has pledged to give the S.B.J.S.A. a public hearing. Unlike his predecessors Quinn and Mark-Viverito, Johnson acknowledges the growing crisis faced by our small businesses and has pledged to find a solution.

Will democracy finally be restored? The past eight-year charade at City Hall has seen every “progressive” proclaiming to be a friend of small business, calling it “the backbone of our economy,” all the while being complicit in the rigging to stop the S.B.J.S.A. Lawmakers, promoting REBNY, created worthless government programs, ensuring the status quo.

Will the powerful “Oligarchy” (REBNY) still control the destiny of any legislation that regulates its members, the wealthy landlords? Did the rigging continue with REBNY picking a loyal chairperson of the Small Business Committee, and also picking the S.B.J.S.A. prime sponsor and loyal committee members? Will a fake hearing look and sound like the one held eight years earlier by Yassky — but with a hidden purpose? Will the City Council revert to form after the hearing, behind closed doors, changing and watering down the bill to something palatable to REBNY?

To answer these questions, I asked our local councilmembers, Speaker Johnson, Margaret Chin and Carlina Rivera, eight basic questions, including, “What do you see as the goal of the S.B.J.S.A.?” and “As a present or past proud sponsor of the S.B.J.S.A., what factor or factors of the bill convinced you to give it your full support and made you proud to sponsor it?”

Considering how important this bill is to the future of small business owners and our community — quality of life! — I was surprised, after extending my deadline three times, that still no lawmaker responded. For this talking point, I narrowed it down to only one question: “Do you believe all the legal challenges to the S.B.J.S.A. should be resolved prior to a hearing on the bill? Yes or no?”

With the legal challenges controlling the S.B.J.S.A.’s fate for the past eight years, it is of utmost importance to resolve the central question hanging over the bill. Once again, I was disappointed to receive no response from our three Downtown councilmembers.

Even more disappointing for me, for an issue I’ve been advocating on for five years, things recently got up front and personal! Four businesses — two that had been there for 30 years, the others for 12 and 2 years — on my block of W. Eighth St. shut down last month — the heart of the Village!

Mark Gjonaj, the Small Business Committee’s new chairperson, led the charge at a bogus City Hall rally in June billed to help protect small businesses. Gjonaj just happens to be the most pro-landlord lawmaker in the City Council. We have to wonder and ask why Speaker Johnson, who claims to be a proud sponsor of the S.B.J.S.A. — and who has called a hearing on this bill — would choose Gjonaj as the pitchman to “help” small business and find a real solution to end the crisis. The election campaign of this councilmember, who is the owner of a real estate company, was heavily financed by real estate, and Gjonaj is repeatedly on record opposing the S.B.J.S.A. or any legislation regulating landlords — even including residential rent regulation!

Tellingly, no one at this rally mentioned sky-high rents as the major problem for small businesses’ survival. Instead, they focused on burdensome fines by the city, among other things.

Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez, the only one at the rally to mention the S.B.J.S.A. at all, quickly added the REBNY-inspired “toolbox” rhetoric of, “We plan on doing many measures to help small business.” His chant before his speech was “Yes We Can!” Given the substance of this rally, though, it should have been “No We Won’t!” — pass the S.B.J.S.A. as is!

It’s very discouraging that the lawmakers involved have no intention of passing the S.B.J.S.A. It was very clear at that rally: They were there to blame anything and everything as the problem rather than landlords’ astronomical rents. My advice: Y’all stay cool — and away from hot air, as in REBNY-influenced politicians!

No, history must not repeat itself. This city cannot afford that. Speaker Johnson has given us this opportunity — let’s get it right this time! Here’s a call to action: Call your councilmember. Ask her or him, “Why wouldn’t you want to settle the bill’s ‘legal issue’ before the hearing?” You just might have better luck getting an answer as a voting constituent than I did representing the paper of record for their district.

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