Who really won the hearing on the S.B.J.S.A.?

Sung Soo Kim.

BY SUNG SOO KIM | It was strange for me sitting at home watching the hearing that I had fought hard to have for the past nine years.

I helped draft the original version of the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (the Jobs Survival Act), and all seven changes made to it over the years. I organized 11 hearings on the bill and dozens of forums and rallies in support of it. So I can view a hearing with an insight that allows me to see which statements are really “codes” for the hidden message they don’t want the public to know.

Listening to the testimony three times, I constantly heard a Real Estate Board of New York talking point — the phrase “unintended consequences.” REBNY allies use this phrase as a fear tactic against the bill. But the truth is the entire hearing is really about “unintended consequences.”

The empty storefronts on every block are the unintended consequences of REBNY stopping a vote on the Jobs Survival Act after the last hearing in 2009, when the bill would have easily passed.

The sky-high rents that everyone is angry about are another unintended consequence created by REBNY and the City Council Speaker’s Office.

The court issuing 54,151 warrants to vacate commercial property and put 108,000 workers out of a job after the Jobs Survival Act was denied a hearing for nine years are unintended consequences.

In fact, REBNY easily won the hearing due only to the tactics of two lawmakers — Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Mark Gjonaj, the chairperson of the Small Business Jobs Committee — who interceded on their behalf by controlling the hearing’s entire narrative.

The first tactic was to change the purpose of the hearing and thus open the floor for hours of useless REBNY talking points only meant to distract, delay, destroy and cover up the truth. I personally requested of Gjonaj that the long-awaited (nine years) hearing should have the same goal as the last hearing, in 2009: to find the best solution to stop the closings of small businesses, primarily happening when a business’s lease expires. The hearing was on a specific bill, the Jobs Survival Act, with a specific purpose, a statute for guidelines for a commercial lease renewal process in New York City.

Chairperson Gjonaj instead followed the lobby’s direction and made the hearing about store vacancies, more studies, why businesses close, gentrification and more useless initiatives, etc. The hearing should have focused on a simple single process — the commercial lease renewal, which is what this act specifically deals with.

Advocates did not want a hearing to discuss empty storefronts — but a hearing to prevent empty storefronts. In other words, to stop the closings in the first place. Neither did we want Gregg Bishop, the commissioner of the city’s Department of Small Business Services, to keep throwing more and more data on store closings at us. Why isn’t S.B.S. outraged that there are a record number of stores closing in the first place?

The fact is that just talking about useless studies of empty stores, tax incentives for landlords, failed zoning efforts, worthless initiatives to help merchants, describing the arbitration process as “cumbersome,” etc., constituted a win for REBNY. Our bill is actually very simple and straightforward.

Johnson will either be a hero or a sellout.

The second and major tactic change was REBNY’s biggest win at the hearing. This was led by Speaker Johnson. What the speaker did was a shock to me. In my experience of having seen 11 hearings on this bill over the last three decades, not once did a Council speaker indicate or make a statement for or against it. But this speaker not only appeared but stayed almost to the end and took center stage to repeat dozens of times a major REBNY talking point: “The Jobs Survival Act is not a silver bullet; we will need other measures for the complex problems facing small businesses. The bill must be changed because we do not want to protect white-shoe law firms, Goldman Sachs, big-box stores and Fortune 500 companies.”

This is code for “We are changing the bill to retail storefronts only” — what REBNY has always wanted.

Most have heard of “good cop, bad cop.” This always involves two people to succeed. But the speaker did something I have never seen: He played “good politician, bad politician” all by himself. First, he was the good politician, lamenting popular small businesses that were long established, successful and well liked by customers, but forced to close due only to high rents.

But this populist declaration was always followed with the “bad politician” statement: “The bill is not a silver bullet…and must be changed because it protects big chains, box stores etc.” This was REBNY’s goal for the hearing — to change the tenants’ bill to a landlords’ bill.

At one point, Johnson passionately stated for the umpteenth time, “For those who say they will not change the bill, every bill is changed. That is how the process works.”

However, this is not a new bill with its first hearing. Former Councilmember Ruth Messinger would not even recognize today’s legislation with her original 1986 version.

The bill’s new prime sponsor is Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez. I personally trust and believe in his integrity and commitment to immigrant families because he knows from personal experience how vital the role of small businesses is to every immigrant community. I predict he will end up being the most courageous prime sponsor our bill has ever had.

I propose a meeting with Speaker Johnson, Councilmember Rodriguez and myself (or a representative, if I am ill), REBNY President John Banks (or a representative) and a mediator to oversee the group. The mediator will represent every New Yorker who loves our city and neighborhoods and seeks only justice and fair play for those in need.

Kim is founder, Small Business Congress, and founder of the oldest small business service center in New York City, the Korean American Small Business Service Center; he was chairperson of the first Mayor’s Small Business Advisory Board, appointed by former Mayors David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani. 

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