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Small businesses call for protection from rising rents

Photo: An employee of Paul’s Burgers, near the site of an explosion in the East Village, serves a customer during a small business crawl.


In the last ten years, the price of commercial space in Manhattan has almost doubled.

That leaves the almost 200,000 small businesses in New York City are having trouble keeping up. Recently, Pearl River Mart announced it will close after 40 years because the landlord raised the rent four times the previous rate to half a million dollars a month.

As Camille von Kaenel reports, some City Hall politicians and advocacy groups are working to even the playing field.


Rags A Go Go is a small vintage clothing store on West 14th Street between 8th and 9th, it’s not quite Meatpacking district, not quite Chelsea. Joshua Suzanne Ethier has owned this place for 15 years. She tells a young couple browsing the racks to check out the lower level.

ETHIER: Sweetheart, if you wander downstairs, there are vintage vinyl records, all 5.99.

Customer: Great, I appreciate it.

Vinyl records are what’s saving this business from disappearing. Her fifteen-year lease was up last year. Suddenly, she was facing a new, higher rent.

ETHIER: So I said guys, I really can’t go to like… that. 12500. From 6300 to 12500. That’s doubling the rent, basically.

To make some extra money, she turned her lower-level from a storage space into the record shop. It opened two months ago and has been helping her make ends meet. She says if something unexpected happened, like another hurricane or terrorist attack, she wouldn’t make it.

ETHIER: At these prices, we can not afford to be closed for more than a week. We’ll all start going under.

That’s the risk for several businesses in the East Village. On March 26, a gas leak explosion killed two and leveled three buildings on 2nd avenue. Some stores on the block are still closed. But Paul’s Burgers, just a few feet away from where the blast happened, is open for business.

PAULS BURGERS SCENE: It’s fifty dollars sir. Thank you very much. Next!

The line snakes out the door. Customers fill every seat. They are here to spend some cash. This small business crawl was organized by hashtag SaveNYC, a new campaign to support small businesses. Jackie Broner helped organize the crawl. She says the issue is bigger than the crisis of the gas explosion.

BRONER: Small business owners that have been here 50 years are losing their businesses and losing their livelihoods and it’s not fair, how many CVS’s do you need? It’s a great store, but we don’t need one every corner.

Higher commercial rents make way for another bank or big corporate chain. Jonathan Bowles is the director of the Center for an Urban Future. He says there’s a strong economic reason for the city to do more to protect small businesses: they have jobs.

BOWLES: Over the last 13 years, the bulk of the growth in businesses has been in firms with fewer than five employees.

Some of that is because of the tech entrepreneur boom. But some are the mom and pop stores – the bodegas, the restaurants, the hair salons. The types of businesses Jackie Broner and #SaveNYC are trying to rescue.

So at the Sunday small business crawl, Broner is collecting signatures.

BRONER: The petition is right here.

The petition is for the Small Business Jobs Survival Act. Broner says it would put an end “rent-gouging and exorbitant increases.” A version has been kicking around City Hall for more than three decades – without passing. Linda John from Morningside Heights tries to understand.

JOHN: So basically what the bill entails is putting in place a negotiation process.

BRONER: Yes exactly that’s the bill. Would you like to sign?

JOHN: Yes.

The bill would include a ten year minimum lease.

Manhattan Borough president Gale Brewer has also started a fight for small businesses. She unveiled her own plan a month ago. She wants the city to put in place a mandatory negotiation period at the end of each lease…

BREWER: You know, to make sure that both parties sit down at the same table, that is mandated. But you know, sometimes a deal can’t happen, and that’s when we would have a one year extension.

She calls this short lease extension a safety valve. It gives businesses time to look for a new place getting kicked out.

Brewer has been on this issue for a while. She sponsored a bill like this thirty years ago, but it’s just never passed.

BREWER: The issue is for us we actually want something to pass.

Lawyers are currently drafting the new bill. And Brewer will be hosting roundtables to talk about her proposals with the community in May.

Camille von Kaenel, Columbia Radio News.


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