The whole country is supporting small business this weekend, but in New York, the protections for independent business owners are becoming increasingly vulnerable. What does the future hold for this modern-day David and Goliath struggle?
By James Litkett
On Monday, October 22, Honeysuckle writer James Litkett attended a rally at City Hall hosted by Community Control of Land Use, (CCLUNY) which concerned the upcoming hearing for the controversial SBJSA (Small Business Jobs Survival Act) bill, which was first proposed in 1986 by City Councilmember Ruth Messinger and spearheaded in public attention in recent years by Dr. David Eisenbach, founder of the Friends of SBJSA coalition. Inquiring minds might wonder why it has taken the city this long to reconsider the bill, as currently 1,200 business close each month in New York City, taking 800+ jobs with them.
The rally featured a diverse array of community leaders, small business owners, anti-gentrification activists, and anti-corruption activists, all of whom came out to speak out in support of small businesses in New York City. Speakers included Pete Cecere—owner of Red Eye Coffee, who fears that recent rent hikes might cause his independent business to close—and Jeremiah Moss, whose popular site Vanishing New York chronicles the rapidly changing landscape of the city, largely due to unchecked gentrification.
Should the SBJSA pass, it would provide commercial tenants in good standing with a ten year lease renewal at fair rent. It would also guarantee legally binding arbitration to settle rent disputes if or when landlords and tenants disagree. In addition, it would ban pass-alongs, like property taxes and water bills, from falling on tenants’ shoulders.
The bill would provide vital support for small business owners, especially for immigrants, the largest group of employers in that demographic in NYC. Exorbitant rent is the main culprit behind New York’s thousands of abandoned storefronts, which constitute roughly 20% of its real estate, according to the New York Times.
The city continues to prioritize real estate agents and large corporations over small businesses, as seen in its recent rezoning of Inwood, its approval of the Union Square Tech Hub, and particularly its under-the-table efforts to persuade Amazon to build its new headquarters in Long Island City, Queens. Amazon will provide 50,000+ high-paying jobs—to a select highly
educated group—while its factories, listed as one of the most dangerous places to live in the US by the National Council for Occupation and Health in 2018, pay barely liveable wages, and while its arrival could create a “prosperity bomb” that prices out already struggling residents in a matter of months or years. Many would attest that this was a underhanded deal done in secret and off the grid, without oversight or knowledge of or by the people.While there is obvious care and concern for big businesses, there seems to be an overall dismissive attitude toward the average small business owner.
A budding citywide anger at the exponential gentrification of New York City, which began far before Amazon’s entrance, coalesced at City Hall on that October day. Ann McDermott of Take Back NYC, a political coalition of New York-based small businesses, residents, and advocacy groups, is doing a great deal to bring awareness to the issue and many others surrounding the fight for the SBJSA. She works to open the eyes of New Yorkers to the city’s blatant imbalance of power.
Marni Halasa, founder of activist consulting service #RevolutionIsSexy, told Honeysuckle that the purpose of the press conference was to hold City Council and its Speaker Corey Johnson to account for doing nothing about the rent crisis that has been going on for the past 20 years.
“Rumor has it that City Council will water down the bill to worthlessness because of pressure from the big real estate lobby—who donates outrageous amounts of money to all the electeds’ campaigns,” Halasa stated. “And we believe in pushing this message about the corruptive role of money in politics to pressure councilmembers to do the right thing and help small business owners once and for all.”
James Litkett is a revolutionary activist poet and host of the series Now We Rise: Quest to Self-Determination on Manhattan Neighborhood Network. View the show’s first 10 episodes now on YouTube. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
Additional Reporting: Eden Gordon is a New York-based writer, editor, and songwriter. She has contributed to Catalyst, The Columbia Spectator, Untapped Cities, and Lilith Magazine, among other publications. She currently studies English at Barnard College and is the creator of the multimedia zine Crossroads. Follow her on Instagram at @edenariel117.