OPINION: City Council is acting to save small businesses

BY HELEN ROSENTHAL | The debate over how to best help our small businesses conjures strong emotions, and for good reason. They are the heart and soul of New York City. They are the reason why many New Yorkers have chosen to live here. They are the keystone of our economy.

City Councilmember Helen Rosenthal, who represents the Upper West Side. (Photo by Emil Cohen/NYC Council)

For decades, there has been endless debate about this issue and what to do about it. But as the years passed and empty storefronts proliferated, nothing truly significant happened on a policy level. Previous administrations tinkered around the edges. Some of us even had interns do a count of vacant storefronts in specific areas. No one even began laying the foundation for groundbreaking policy.

This City Council is different. We are taking action to help our small businesses — and we’re just getting started.

Over the past several months, the City Council has been working closely with groups like the Association for Neighborhood Housing & Development (ANHD) on this issue. A coalition of grassroots progressive community groups that includes the Cooper Square Committee, Goddard Riverside Community Center and Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), ANHD has been a progressive force in our city since 1974. It has taken on the small business issue with a particular focus on owner-operated, low-income, minority-run businesses that serve low-income and minority communities.

Working with advocates and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, the Council crafted a package of important small business legislation that was passed last month, including my “Storefront Tracker” bill. For the first time, landlords will be required to register their vacant storefronts with the city, or face penalties. They’ll have to report the previous and asking rents, the length of time a property has and has not been leased, and other information. The city will now be required to maintain a searchable database that makes this information available to the public.

Why is the Storefront Tracker bill an important step toward making progress on this issue?

A longstanding barrier to any meaningful action on this issue has been the lack of significant data or concrete information about commercial rents or storefront vacancies. The information we have is largely anecdotal or piecemeal by neighborhood. Key questions remain unanswered: What is the actual vacancy rate? Are landlords warehousing empty storefronts? If so, which ones?

Real data and information are essential to passing informed legislation, especially legislation that has never been passed anywhere else and legislation that has the potential to alter the dynamics of our commercial economy in unknown ways. Data and hard facts are also essential to defending legislation in a court of law, should that be necessary.

The Storefront Tracker legislation will finally allow community members, advocates and policymakers to follow vacancy trends citywide and in specific neighborhoods. The city’s Department of Small Business Services will know where leases will come due within two years, so it can reach out to offer its services, like help with lease renewals and access to credit. This information will also be invaluable to small business owners themselves.

The Storefront Tracker bill, as well as others in the legislative package, are just one step as we work through this issue. There are a number of options under discussion, like commercial rent control or a vacancy tax on empty storefronts. A vacancy tax would first have to be passed in Albany. State Senator Brad Hoylman and Assemblymember Deborah Glick introduced this legislation in the spring.

Some proposals under discussion, including the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (S.B.J.S.A.), have been around for a long time. I am a co-sponsor of the S.B.J.S.A. and have been for years. It would make all commercial leases subject to binding arbitration if the landlord and tenant cannot agree on a renewal rent. I support the aims of this bill but there are complex issues with it that need to be resolved.

For example, the S.B.J.S.A. would apply to all commercial leases in New York City, even office space on the top floor of a commercial tower, or chain stores like Chase bank. Policy merits aside, it’s questionable whether or not that would withstand a legal challenge.

But if you limit the bill to benefit only independent merchants in storefronts, how to do you it without creating a strong disincentive for landlords to rent to them? Could this further benefit corporate chain stores? These are among the questions that we are currently working through.

The commercial economy is changing fast. The implications of online retail are being seen with empty commercial strips nationwide. The full impact may still remain to be seen, as all of us use smartphones or go online to purchase almost everything. The costs of doing business are rising while longtime customer bases change. Unscrupulous landlords are using every trick in the book to get rid of independent retail tenants, hoping to land a franchise chain that will pay more rent.

But we must redouble our commitment to saving brick-and-mortar, independently owned businesses. They are the lifeblood of our neighborhoods. They are a gateway to opportunity for immigrants. They give life to our streetscapes and add color to our lives.

Together, we can do this. We will set an example for municipalities everywhere to follow. It’s the right thing to do and our city’s future depends on it.

Rosenthal represents City Council District 6 (Upper West Side and Central Park) and chairs the City Council’s Committee on Women and Gender Equity.

8 Responses to OPINION: City Council is acting to save small businesses

  1. This is shameful! Our small businesses are the backbone of blah blah blah. We love our small businesses that is why we have done nothing for 10 years to save them. It is not complex or complicated. Give rights to small business owners when their leases expire or keep the status quo with landlords having all the rights. Do your homework , former Small Business Chairman David Yassky in 2009
    called upon his committee to find a solution to stop the closings or small business will disappear . His entire committee selected the Jobs Act as the best solution. Why can his committee along with 32 sponsors achieve their oversight responsibility but today’s small business committee cannot?
    Maybe its because REBNY bought the council leadership and gave orders, no rights to small business owners. Councilwoman you hit every REBNY talking point on the small business crisis.

  2. Could the comments here be any dumber or misleading? First, there are more commercial businesses that are NOT on the ground floor than are. So how will CM Rosenthal help them, by counting the storefronts with BP Brewer? That is about as useful as Trumpler’s Alabama weather maps. Counting really> Every New Yorker knows we have empty storefronts everywhere in NYC! The Jobs Act so called legal challenge? That is a laugh, the SBJSA(JOBS ACT) is likely the most legally vetted legislation ever before thew city council that has had numerous legal reviews and amendments. If she doesn’t have specific legal authority, on point, to back up her bogus claims she should stop doing REBNY’s work for the landlords. NOTHING in the JOBS ACT helps large businesses or chain stores anymore than injecting a sense of fairness, commercial tenant’s rights, basic arbitration which is in every contract from million dollar deals to your cell phone or even your toaster! We are losing 1,200-1,400 businesses EVERY month while CM Rosenthal and BP Brewer distract you and have proposed nothing to save even ONE business or one job! That is the real news. Shame on those sitting at REBNY Hall, setting an example? Of what, being complicit in the destruction of main street, the extinction of the great American dream for so many in NYC as we wipe out small businesses, offering them ZERO rights. Truth time NYC> http://www.saveNYCjobs.org

    • “the SBJSA(JOBS ACT) is likely the most legally vetted legislation ever before thew city council that has had numerous legal reviews and amendments.” — you lie! If not, prove it. It would be easy to provide any links here to any vetting. So put up or shut up. It should be easy to share any case law, any court precedence, or any facts, instead of just saying so and hoping people believe you.

      • You have it backwards, the Speakers lawyers falsely claim the Jobs Act is illegal and therefore they should produce case law to substantiate their claims. For 10 years they have produced NOTHING
        to back up their bogus claims and never will. How do you explain
        the Jobs Act having 12 public hearings and 8 prime sponsors over the years and one vote in 1988 by the Economic Committee, if the bill is unconstitutional? How is it even in the Council ?
        Use a little common sense , if the bill were not legal it would NOT have had a hearing and the powerful REBNY’s lawyers would have demanded it be thrown out . NOT one word from REBNY lawyers even challenging the legality of the bill. ITS legal , live with it.

  3. LOL< will she call out Corey for stalling the SBJSA to oblivion, just like those before him?

    He will never be Mayor if the multi billion dollar New Jails Plan goes thru, bad advice from Yes Men around him .

  4. CM Rosenthal is one of the most lefty progressive electeds our City has ever seen. So is Gale Brewer. So the logic of the above comments makes no sense. Calling them corrupt simply because you disagree with them is lazy and unfair – dare i say Trumpian. If you can’t win arguments on their merits don’t fall back on conspiracy theories. It doesn’t help you.

  5. Katherine O'Sullivan

    Why will City Council not bring SBJSA to a vote? Why the rush to tower jails? Because City Council is owned by real estate developers (btw they control our NYPL too through real estate and hedge funder trustees)

  6. Every politician today calls themselves “progressive” , it means nothing in NYC today. Name one act either Brewer or Rosenthal has done to stop the closing of
    a single business. NONE! How will keeping track of empty stores save a single business?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *