Last Wednesday, Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez joined small business advocates at Flushing House to give an update on the Small Business Jobs Survival Act. First drafted in 1986, the SBJSA is the oldest unpassed bill in the City Council.
If passed, the bill would give commercial tenants three specific rights: a minimum 10-year lease with the right to renewal, stronger negotiation terms including binding arbitration by a third party, and restrictions to prevent landlords from passing property taxes onto the tenants.
Proponents of the legislation believe the SBJSA would solve the crisis of vacant storefronts in major commercial areas, and the harm suffered by mostly immigrant-run mom-and-pop shops.
“This bill is about human rights, it’s about dignity,” Rodriguez said. “If we don’t bring a solution right now, we will see more of those mom-and-pops vacant everyday.”
Opponents of the bill, including the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), have derided it as “commercial rent control.” John Banks, president of REBNY, has previously stated that the legislation would penalize owners who have invested in real estate.
Banks has also pointed out that over-regulation and requirements like family leave, a higher minimum wage, and e-commerce has made it harder for small businesses.
Advocates, however, believe SBSJA is the best way to curb the crisis. Steve Null, founder of the Coalition for Fair Business Rents, drafted the first version of the bill in 1986 along with Sung Soo Kim.
According to Null, there are 492 court evictions issued every month against small businesses. When mom-and-pop shops fold, workers lose their jobs, which in turn has a negative effect on local communities.
Steve Barrison, executive vice president of the Small Business Congress and a 30-year real estate attorney, added that there isn’t a block, even in Midtown, where there are not empty storefronts on commercial strips.
“Clearly, New York City has been in crisis, not only for small businesses,” said Kim, who founded the oldest small business service center in New York City. “Including our bill, what New York City should do is fundamentally revitalize the American business spirit.”
For the first time in history, the City Council held a hearing on the SBJSA on October 22. For advocates, the hearing itself was a victory. Null said it was the first time a speaker of the legislative body acknowledged the small business crisis and committed to finding a solution.
At an unrelated event last week, Council Speaker Corey Johnson said he thinks the bill needs some changes. The legislation, as currently written, would help all commercial businesses, not just ground-floor tenants and mom-and-pop shops. It could be used to help Fortune 500 companies, he said.
“We don’t want our bill trying to help those small businesses benefit a large corporation like Goldman Sachs,” Johnson said.
He added that they are still taking feedback, and the bill will go through the “normal legislative process.”
But Rodriguez said the bill has already been changed seven times, from the initial draft in 1986 to today. He said he’s open to new ideas and suggestions, but “nobody has presented another solution.”
Most importantly, he wants to make sure the core purpose of the bill - to give commercial tenants certain rights - is protected.
“We’re open, we’re listening,” Barrison said. “But the one thing we’re not going to do is hurt mom-and-pops more.”
Barrison noted that so many studies have been conducted on the bill that he has two large, 40-inch lateral-file drawers in his office filled with studies.
“We don’t need more studies,” he said. “Nobody in New York City needs to be told there are empty stores.
“When you have a crisis, you have to act,” Barrison added. “Otherwise, it's just double-talk.”
SBSJA has enough sponsors to pass the City Council, so Rodriguez hopes to see the bill move to the floor and voted on as soon as possible.
“Most of the homework has been done, we don’t have to debate this bill anymore,” he said. “Now is time to get this bill into action.”