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City Council debates small-biz bill at heated hearing

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The Small Business Jobs Survival Act came up for debate for the first time in a decade

Scott Lynch

Nearly a decade after it was last granted an audience in front of the New York City Council, a bill that seeks to protect small businesses against massive rent hikes was in the spotlight again on Monday.

A version of the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA) was first introduced in 1986 by then-City Council member Ruth Messinger, but it never came to a vote. In 2009, the bill came up for discussion at the City Council committee level, but then-speaker Christine Quinn declined to bring it to a full vote.

Now, nine years later, at the urging of a different speaker—Corey Johnson—the bill is once again being considered. Over the course of eight hours of sometimes heated testimony, many New Yorkers spoke passionately for and against the bill’s passage. Some of the core tenets of the SBJSA, now being sponsored by City Council member Ydanis Rodriguez, would allow tenants a 10-year renewal upon the completion of their lease, and create the option of arbitration if the tenant and landlord aren’t able to agree to the terms of a rent increase.

Prior to the meeting on Monday afternoon, the bill’s supporters held a rally on the steps of City Hall.

“We have a small business crisis in New York City and it’s not about Amazon or high taxes, but about rising rent,” said David Eisenbach, founder of the Friends of SBJSA, a Columbia University history professor, and one of the key champions of the bill.

“32 years is an extraordinary and unacceptable amount of time to not engage, hold hearings, and solve the problem,” added Messinger, who also testified at Monday’s hearing. The bill has a raft of prominent supporters including preservation groups like the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and chambers of commerce like the New York Hispanic Chamber and the Veterans Chamber. Jeremiah Moss, who has chronicled the decline of mom-and-pop shops in his popular blog, Vanishing New York, is an ardent supporter.

“This is an issue of inequality and injustice,” said Moss. “And [Monday’s hearing] is a step we can take toward justice in New York City.”

As supporters of the bill rallied outside City Hall, those opposed to it, many donning blue caps with the words “vote no commercial rent control,” emblazoned on the front, made their way into the City Council chambers.

The Real Estate Board of New York has been one of the most vocal critics of the bill. Its president, John Banks, said Monday that it was a myth that landlords were somehow benefitting from empty storefronts.

“This bill will kill jobs, kill ingenuity, and ensure the homogenization of retail in NYC,” said Banks. “It was deeply flawed 30 years ago, and it is deeply flawed today. The only survival the bill ensures is of continued vacancies.”

Many other groups and individuals fell somewhere in the middle of this debate. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer supports the central ideas of the bill. In 2012, Brewer, then a City Council member representing the Upper West Side, became the first to implement specific retail laws for her neighborhood that prevented the proliferation of banks on every corner, and promoted the creation of more grocery stores.

At Monday’s hearing, Brewer said the scope of the existing bill should be narrowed. As it stands right now, the rights of the bill would also automatically extend to big box stores, possibly allowing them to remain in place for decades. Several others testified about what the they called the “unintended consequences,” of the bill as is. Jessica Lappin, the director of the Downtown Alliance, a Business Improvement District which has hundreds of retail businesses within its catchment district, said the bill could unintentionally encourage landlords to only give leases to seemingly reliable tenants like banks and decline to take a chance on more independent, experimental businesses.

Many of the City Council members at Tuesday’s meeting also fell somewhere in the middle. They were in favor of restrictions but also had doubts about the SBJSA as is. They did however express their frustration at the de Blasio administration, particularly the Commissioner of the Small Business Services agency, Gregg Bishop.

In a particularly testy exchange, City Council member Brad Lander asked Bishop why his agency hadn’t compiled any hard data about the retail blight facing the city. Lander mentioned a discussion the Council had had with Bishop two years ago about providing data and creating a database of empty storefronts, and expressed disappointment that no progress had been made on that front.

Monday’s meeting was not intended for a vote, but more for the Council members to take the pulse on where New Yorkers stand in regards to the bill. Even those in support of the SBJSA are amenable to changes in the existing bill, and will likely work with Council members to create a more favorable version of the bill that can be eventually brought to the floor for a vote.