Last year, shops along Knickerbocker Avenue in Bushwick also began taking down their signs because some began to receive the same violations.
In stores across the city, from Bay Ridge and Sunset Park in Brooklyn to Flushing and Woodhaven in Queens, small businesses were getting hit with steep fines for improper signage.
Since November 2017, more than 2,000 violations were reported to 311 across the five boroughs, according to Councilman Rafael Espinal, who represents Cypress Hills and Bushwick. The violations included improper font size and listing a phone number on the awning.
“It was something I found to be highly suspicious, something that businesses across the entire district were complaining about,” he said. “They did not understand why, after decades of having their signs up, they were being fined.”
The penalties ranged from $5,000 to $20,000, Espinal said, which is “debilitating” for a small business. The price for installing a new sign is another $10,000, according to the councilman.
“Given our current climate with the affordability crisis, with the amount of storefronts that we see shuttered, we should be more sensitive to how we respond,” Espinal said, “and how we look to enforce current regulations on our small businesses.”
To address the issue, Espinal has introduced legislation to provide relief for shops that have been hit with awning violations.
The bill, which is now being negotiated between the City Council and the mayor’s office, would waive permit fees for those who have already paid the fine. Those who paid would also have an expedited permit process.
For those who have not paid the fine yet, they would only have to pay 25 percent of the base fee if the bill is passed.
Finally, the legislation calls for a yearlong moratorium on DOB citations for awning violations, as well as an interagency task force to coordinate better outreach to businesses who don’t know about the process.
A DOB spokesperson said the department will review the proposed bill once they receive the finalized copy of the legislation.
Last Wednesday, hundreds of small business owners joined elected officials for a rally at City Hall in support of the bill.
Bronx Councilman Mark Gjonaj, who chairs the Committee on Small Business, said the awning regulations go back to the 1960s, and are now outdated. He said the city has allowed the violations for decades, so it doesn’t make sense to penalize businesses now.
“Fining these small businesses to the tune of $20,000 is in essence the nails in the coffin of that small business,” he said. “These are not the faces of Fortune 500 companies.”
Gjonaj said there are close to 6,000 rules and regulations that small businesses have to comply with. He suggested a moratorium on any fine until those regulations are made more transparent.
Councilman Carlos Menchaca said businesses on 8th Avenue and 5th Avenue in his Brooklyn district are upset, frustrated and want an answer from the city. He wants not just a moratorium, but a refund for small business owners who paid the fine.
Officials also blasted the use of 311 to target businesses. In multiple neighborhoods, anonymous 311 calls were made specifically about the awnings, which led to DOB sweeps.
“The weaponization of 311 must end,” Menchaca said. “We’re hoping that the Department of Investigation and our own investigators figure out what is going on.”
The DOB spokesperson said due to the anonymous nature of 311 complaints, the agency can’t make assumptions about who is calling or what their motives might be.
The anonymous calls also affected Jamaica Avenue in Woodhaven this year. Like their counterparts in Bushwick, mom-and-pop shops in Woodhaven began taking down their signs, even if they weren’t fined, according to Woodhaven BID executive director Raquel Olivares.
“On Jamaica Avenue, you will see the businesses in panic,” she said at the rally. “It’s horrible.”
Olivares said she wants the city to educate the businesses, many of whom don’t know the steps they need to take to receive a permit for the awning.
“What we want is for them to understand the process,” she said. “This information has to be given to them in different languages. It has to be given to them in a way they can understand it.”
“You’re not seeing education, you’re seeing fines constantly from every city agency,” added Councilman Robert Holden. “It’s time we put a stop to this.”
The group Asian American Federation surveyed more than 200 immigrant merchants with stores along Union Street in Flushing, and found that 90 percent of them didn’t even know they needed a permit for their signs.
To address the issue without hurting small businesses, AAF recommended that the DOB provide translated instructions and forms, an amnesty period for business to resolve their violation, and for the city’s Small Business Services to create a program subsidizing sign replacement, which is usually costly.
“It takes two to three months to obtain a permit,” said Eric Kim, small business project manager with AAF. “This process is too long and too complex for our immigrant vendors.”
Espinal said he’s been working on the legislation for more than a year. He hopes to get it passed before 2018 comes to a close.
“There is a lot of traction and support,” he said. “It’s a matter of nailing down the details and making sure we can pass something that gives relief to all small businesses across the city.”
In a statement, the DOB spokesperson said the agency generally inspects business signs when they receive complaints from the public about them.
“We are not targeting businesses around Brooklyn for sign-enforcements efforts. Rather, our inspectors typically investigate sign complaints in a neighborhood when they are in the area for other matters,” the spokesperson said. “There is nothing wrong with an owner wanting to hang a sign outside their business to draw in customers, but for the safety of pedestrians walking underneath, it must be permitted by the city and put up by a licensed professional who can do the work properly.”