Monday, April 2, 2018

Small Business Crisis: Update

Back in 2014, just before launching #SaveNYC, I put together a wish list for saving the city's mom and pops. The list included, among other things, the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA) and a vacancy tax on landlords who keep their commercial spaces empty, creating a problem known as high-rent blight.

For years, activists have been pushing for the SBJSA and they've been pushing harder than ever in the past couple of years. The vacancy tax idea has also picked up steam. More and more New Yorkers are talking about the small business crisis and the real solutions that can stop it. Talk can lead to change. It seems we have arrived at a critical moment.

Last week, Mayor de Blasio mentioned the vacancy tax for the first time. On WNYC he said, “I am very interested in fighting for a vacancy fee or a vacancy tax that would penalize landlords who leave their storefronts vacant for long periods of time in neighborhoods because they are looking for some top-dollar rent but they blight neighborhoods by doing it."

At the same time, City Councilmember Ydanis Rodriquez has reintroduced the SBJSA. Corey Johnson, the new speaker of the City Council, has pledged to give the bill a public hearing, and supporters hope it will go up for a vote and pass in full force.

What does all this mean? It means they are listening. Our voices are getting through. It does not, however, mean that our leaders will do anything more than talk the talk.

Supporters of the SBJSA are worried that the City Council will kill the SBJSA once again--or rip out its teeth and pass a watered-down version just to end the discussion. But the discussion will not end.

As Sharon Woolums wrote in The Villager last week, "The question now is will the S.B.J.S.A. finally get a vote by the full City Council or will the powerful REBNY [Real Estate Board of New York] lobby influence ambitious lawmakers to water it down? Advocates fear a 'REBNY Trojan horse' version of the bill that will not be effective in saving businesses."

In Metro last week, Marni Halasa agreed, writing, "If the SBJSA is passed with changes that water down the bill to worthlessness, this will be the latest example of how City Hall is full of fake progressives serving real estate."

Protecting the mom-and-pop shops of this city will require a multi-pronged approach. Once again, we need: (1) The SBJSA, (2) A vacancy tax on high-rent blight, (3) Zoning to control the spread of chain stores, aka formula retail. There's more we can do, but I believe these three together would pack a powerful punch. Ultimately, New York needs to bring back commercial rent control, which passed in 1945 and was killed in the 1960s.

We can change this city into a place that functions better for the many and not just the wealthiest and most powerful few. We have to keep talking. Many of us have been convinced that "you can't interfere with the free market," but there is no such thing as the free market. It is a fantasy concocted to funnel money from the lower and middle classes to the top. It is meant to make us stop imagining alternatives. When our leaders start echoing back to us the alternatives we have imagined, this is a sign that the tide is beginning to turn. But we have to keep pushing. We cannot be quiet now.

Here's what you can do:

- Write to the mayor and ask him to support the SBJSA and fight in Albany for the vacancy tax. Here's a quick form you can fill out in just a few easy steps.

- Write to Council Speaker Corey Johnson and ask him to support a strong SBJSA and bring it to a vote. Here's a quick and easy form for that, too.

- Here's more you can do.

- And talk about it. Talk to your friends, family, and co-workers. Tell them that mom and pops aren't vanishing "because of the market," they're vanishing because the city and state support landlord greed -- but this can change. There are solutions. The first step is raising consciousness. We have to imagine a different city.

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