Our Pandemic Era Prioritizes Passage of the SBJSA

Marni Halasa (at mic), during her press conference prior to a 2018 presser organized by David Eisenbach, to call out NYC Council Speaker Corey Johnson for inaction on the SBJSA. | Photo by Mike McCabe

BY NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL DISTRICT 3 CANDIDATE MARNI HALASA | I recently wrote about a wonderful small business, Kashmir 9, that needs and deserves our support. Having such gems means that the New York City Council, right now, needs to pass the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA). Given that the majority of the Council already supports the SBJSA, the prime sponsor, Ydanis Rodriguez, and the rest of our 51 councilmembers could easily and collectively push for an emergency vote on the bill, which in these dire times would pass with flying colors.

All we need is for Speaker Corey Johnson to take the legislation out of his desk and bring it to a full floor vote—and it’s crucial that he does this immediately. A recent study from Facebook, Global State of Small Business, (https://about.fb.com/news/2021/04/latest-state-of-small-business-report/) surveying 35K small businesses worldwide, found that the state of New York (tying with Pennsylvania) had the highest small business closure rate at 31% each. Even pre-pandemic statistics from the Small Business Congress cite that between 1,200 to 1,400 businesses closed every month, with 8,000 jobs lost to New Yorkers.

So tell me, with a crisis so devastating to our district and city’s recovery, why hasn’t anything been done?

From 2018: A “Small Business Graveyard” created by Marni Halasa appeared at events in support of the SBJSA (Small Business Jobs Survival Act). | Photo by Halasa

This is Personal | It seems almost every day some politician announces a plan to save small business. Most proposals are not particularly substantive, and few ever get a vote, or even approved. But the SBJSA is different. It is a game-changer, recognizing that the rent is the most significant part of any small business budget. Just think of the number of small businesses that could better survive the pandemic if only Speaker Johnson would cut the ties to his real estate controllers —which I documented in 2017 here, when I jumped into the race to run against the then-Councilmember.

Since 2017, I have been pushing this issue because I myself am an affected small business owner. Several years ago, my husband and I owned a coffee shop, RedEye Coffee, on 34th Street and 9th Avenue. At 110 square feet, we became known not just for our dazzling array of coffees and specialty drinks, but became a destination spot in the Clinton/Chelsea community. We never imagined it would become so popular. But baristas were java geniuses, and with my husband Peter’s maniacal drive for detail and quality control, no cup of coffee left RedEye without being top-notch in flavor and customer experience.

This is the embodiment of New York City’s soul, where a simple small business can become a catalyst for neighborhood vibrancy, uplifting and energizing an area for residents, workers, surrounding businesses, and all who visit. We provided a wonderful service and product, and gave people that sense of intimate, small-town community that all of us crave during our daily grind. But most importantly, we were also job creators.

In the three years operating, we created over 20 jobs, and gave economic opportunity to young Muslim women working their first jobs out of high school, delivery guys from the Bronx looking for a second job, and an LGBTQ youth living in shelter. With tips, our workers were often making $25 an hour, and were saving thousands of dollars—something they had never done before in their lives. But when our predatory landlord tried to extort us for $25,000 in cash for new lease, and would only agree to a new unreasonable lease of 6 months, (so he could hike up the rent after half a year), we knew we had to get out. We were devastated, and the memories of RedEye’s closing still viscerally stings even today.

It’s easy to put the blame on greedy landlords, but I blame the Speaker for not protecting us small business owners—abdicating his responsibility to help us constituents when relief was and still is within reach.

A New Era Where Voters Demand Small Business SBJSA Protections | But we are in different times. And the public is not just clamoring for genuine reform, they will vote you out or in on this very issue—especially in Council District 3, where voters are extremely protective of the remaining shops and businesses in their neighborhoods: it’s independent theater venues, affordable supermarkets and its Broadway prop and costume shops in the Garment District. They see the lack of political will and it is one of the top issues they want fixed.

Voters also understand the power of the SBJSA, which would ensure that the rent of a city commercial space wouldn’t skyrocket when the lease ends. The bill also significantly levels the playing field between business owner and landlord, so landlords wouldn’t have all the power in lease negotiations—a dynamic of property rights regulation that is desperately needed for our city’s economic recovery. I said this before in an op-ed to Metro New York, and I will say it again: “With a crisis on our hands, it’s time that the interests of the community are not just balanced against private property rights, but supersede them when necessary.”

This is not a repudiation of private property rights, this is necessary regulation so our city survives. Such a bill would give business owners flexibility, allowing them to re-negotiate their leases and start the process of digging themselves out of a hole. Couple the SBJSA with substantial rent relief (which definitely needs to be much more than the recent federal package of $1 Billion dollars), an organized rollout of the funds so women and minority businesses get an equitable piece of the pie, and then we would have a chance at a real recovery.

But business owners in the district also want the city and state to step up. Relief from the federal government is wanted, but typically it is not enough. They seek specific accommodations:

—Substantial rent relief, to mitigate the backlog of thousands of dollars in unpaid rent.

—The ability to renegotiate their leases with their landlords.

—A meaningful break on property taxes, permit and other fees that are passed on to the commercial tenant—and in fairness, property owners should also get relief on NYC business taxes and property tax abatements.

—Extend the moratorium on eviction. They want a true business-friendly environment and its time to give it to them.

The Public is Watching | So my plea continues: We need to save our small businesses, like Kashmir 9 and so many others in the district that make every neighborhood unique, provide jobs to New Yorkers as well as generate significant revenue for city services. So it’s all hands on deck to pressure our elected officials to act and act now. If we don’t save our small businesses, we will not just not have restaurants and shops to go to–we will not have a city to live in. And for elected officials and candidates–like the real estate-backed perceived favorite Erik Bottcher–who never lifted a finger to help us small business owners (see: https://www.coreysrighthandman.com/small-business-jobs-protection/), the voters are watching, and are ready to make a choice that may deservedly leave you behind.

Marni Halasa is a candidate for New York City Council District 3. To visit her campaign’s website, click here. NOTE: The views about current events and fellow candidates expressed in this Guest Opinion piece are not necessarily shared by Chelsea Community News. That’s not a read–or an endorsement.


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