If you look around the city, or follow this blog, you know that New York's small businesses are being wiped out by unregulated sky-high rents. The spaces then sit empty for months, sometimes years, warehoused by landlords who let the streetscape die while they wait for big chains to move in. At #SaveNYC, we've been pressuring City Hall to do something about a problem that Tim Wu at The New Yorker dubbed "high-rent blight."
Now Justin Levinson has added ammunition to the fight--an invaluable tool called "Vacant New York." It's an interactive map that shows where the high-rent blight is. In short, it's everywhere.
Justin is a 34-year-old computer programmer who has lived in the city for 11 years. He and I chatted over Facebook:
JM: What prompted you to do the project? What was your "final straw"?
JL: I think the anger and upset that you and I feel about the changes in the city were an undercurrent and a driver, but the last push was curiosity. I had been digging through the open data sets that the city puts out, and saw all the building footprints. I had been wandering around and saw favorite places that were closed and replaced with nothing. I wanted to see if it was really as bad as it looked.
JM: How has the response been since Vacant New York went out to the public?
JL: Surprisingly positive. I've gotten e-mails from the usual news outlets and such, but also from a lawyer, a chef, store owners. It's clearly something people are already aware of and passionate about. The project has been kind of a lightning rod for the issue, but it's clearly in the air. I just saw the Tribeca Citizen's new crop of vacant storefront photos, and the Times just put out an article (quoting you) after Tekserve went.
JM: People are frustrated about it, but no one knows what to do. One of the myths I've been trying to fight is this idea that it's just "natural," due to "market forces."
JL: I ran up against the not knowing what to do problem as well. Early feedback I got in a sneak preview was: “Right, but so what? What do we do?” And I didn't have a great answer. “Write your senator” seems ineffective.
JM: I do believe something can be done. But I can’t figure out how high-rent blight can make sense financially for landlords. What’s the incentive? I’ve heard there’s a tax break for commercial vacancies.
JL: I haven't heard about a tax break per se, but I do know that if you have a portfolio of properties bringing in revenue, offsetting it with anything you can find brings your tax bill down. So those “losses” on the vacant storefronts would reduce the company's net income, but I'm not sure how that's calculated.
JM: So the empty storefronts are “losses” that reduce income and that reduces the taxes? I am no accountant.
JL: I have a couple of accountant friends. I should buy them lunch and go over this. I'm sure it's a specialized and esoteric set of tax laws. The other possibility is they've got enough free cash to weather the minor maintenance of an empty property in the hopes that a bigger fish coming in later is going to make it all worthwhile.
JM: We're not talking about the mom-and-pop landlord, but major developers and hedgefunds.
JL: If you happen to own one building, your approach is very different. The landlord of the place where I work and run a community space is an incredibly stand-up guy who inherited the building from his father and is hell-bent on creating a real community in his building. He 100% could not weather more than a couple months without a tenant in the retail space.
JM: So what do we do about high-rent blight? London, I think, might be trying something.
JL: That is the multi-billion-dollar question. There's obviously not an amazing, simple answer, or we would have done it. I come from a startup and tech background, so I'm a big fan of small experiments. Trying to make a sweeping regulatory change across the city is going to be hard and politically difficult, so I'm wondering if there's a way to give something a shot in a district or two and see how it goes.
I think the blight is also different in different areas. The reports I got from readers about Smith Street in Brooklyn say it's common there, but I bet the ownership looks different than SoHo. We'd need to tailor a solution to the neighborhood.
JM: It seems like it's happening in neighborhoods where hyper-gentrification happened first--or fast. SoHo, the Village, the Upper West Side. I'd like to see a city-wide tax on storefronts left vacant for longer than, say, 6 months. But you're right, the administration isn't going to go for that. We are in a political and economic climate that is hostile to small business.
JL: It's happening lots of other places, too. My girlfriend grew up in Toronto and I went to school in Rochester, so I've seen some pretty sweeping changes there. The downtown core is a canyon of glass and steel.
JM: It's definitely global. In the course of writing my book on Vanishing New York, I've come to the conclusion that this is the impact of globalized neoliberalism--the whole anti-regulation, "free market," "trickle down" problem that's caused such a mess in the world. It convinces people that "this is natural and inevitable," when it is really the result of specific policies.
JL: I really want to see something tried. Start with some place that already has a strong sense of community--Park Slope, the East Village, Tribeca--and see if we can swing the tide backwards. Put in a vacancy tax, give breaks to businesses who own less than X outlets, something.
There's only a couple of tools that I see the administration having--taxes and regulation. And regulation takes forever to implement and always gets watered down.
JM: Regulation gets watered down in this anti-regulation system we're in. But it wasn't always that way.
JL: When was it different?
JM: Things really changed in the 1980s. The city was restructured after the crisis of the 1970s. Before, New York took care of its people. After, New York took care of big business, developers, and tourists. That's a very different approach.
The economic environment we're in today is not the only one we've ever had. There is an alternative. When I've suggested commercial rent control, people flip out. “You could never!” But we did. New York City had commercial rent control for years after World War II.
JL: Wow, I did not know that.
JM: The city implemented commercial rent control as an emergency measure to protect businesses. Do you think, after making your map, we're in an emergency today?
JL: Not an emergency in the four-alarm fire sense. More of a climate-change emergency. It's been a long, slow process to get where we are, and we're tracking towards a disaster if we don't shift course.
A problem is that, while nobody is fine with sea-level rise and major storms, there are plenty of people who seem to be fine with nothing but bank branches and chain restaurants.
JM: How would you characterize that coming disaster? What future do you see for New York if we don't make a change?
JL: Having unaffordable vacancies is effectively the same as having no vacancies as far as small business is concerned. There's no space to get a foothold. So nobody can take risks, and we get nothing but the tried-and-true businesses (i.e., chains) that seem to be taking over. It's like Hollywood. Movies are so incredibly expensive to make that we just get reboots and sequels.
There’s a strange dichotomy between the image of New York as a place where you can be your own weird self, and there's space to do that, versus all of the weird and unique stuff slowly being squeezed out.
JM: What brought you to New York? I'm guessing it wasn't the chain stores.
JL: Gravity, I think. I grew up not far away, and I remember coming into the East Village in the ‘90s to see shows, shopping at Yellow Rat Bastard, and taking a class at SVA where the teacher suggested we steal our books. To a teenager from the suburbs, that all seems awesome. I moved here after graduation for a terrible corporate job, but I could do what I wanted after hours: midnight bike races, weird DVDs from Kim's Video, and Reverend Jen's Anti-Slam in the basement of Cake Shop.
It was the fact that, no matter what you were into, there were a few hundred other people that loved it, too, and you could be part of that community.
JM: I think sometimes that many people come to New York now because there's a Starbucks on every other corner. People seem to want that.
JL: It really is weird to me--coming all the way here and spending insane amounts of money to stay in a hotel and eating at the same Olive Garden as back home?
JM: That is something I'm trying to get my head around. Okay, last question: What do you hope your project will achieve?
JL: Ideas are much harder to grasp than concrete examples. We're seeing isolated reports and grumblings from around the city about the blight problem, but it's easy to dismiss that as existing in isolation. If this project can get people--citizens and government--to say, "Wow, that does look pretty bad. We should fix that," it's a big step. If there's a push at the policy level to implement changes, even on a trial basis, and they point to evidence that includes this map as their reasons for doing so, I'd be ecstatic.
It's hard to not throw your hands up and say it's unfixable, there's too much money, etc. But that seems like tossing in the towel, and the encouragement I've gotten from just a couple of small business owners in response to this says it's not time for that yet.
Get involved. Visit Vacant New York and go to #SaveNYC where we've made it easy for you to write the mayor and more.