Mel Wymore (center) who is running for City Council District 6, spoke out in support of small businesses at a rally Wednesday afternoon. The political hopeful promised to prioritize the passage of the Small Business Jobs Survival Act if elected. Photo: Madeleine Thompson
Undeterred by the unyielding heat of a summer afternoon, several candidates running for city offices lined the steps of City Hall last Wednesday to show their support for small businesses. Though the speakers and their supporters outnumbered the crowd of about 10 people, there was no less passion for the plight of small business owners than if the steps had been packed, perhaps because all but one of the candidates are facing incumbents.
“We’re here today because the city has been betrayed by our mayor, by our public advocate, the leadership of the City Council,” said Steve Barrison, vice president of the Small Business Congress. “They’ve turned their back on the mostly immigrant small businesses of New York City.” A main failure of these politicians, Barrison said, has been their inability to pass the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, which would help preserve mom-and-pop shops by, for example, requiring that they be offered leases lasting a minimum of 10 years and preventing them from taking the brunt of landlords’ property taxes.
Barrison also called for an immediate, emergency freeze on commercial evictions in order to stem the loss of small businesses. “The only hope will come from the independent-minded candidates in order to save jobs from the extreme crisis decimating our small businesses, being evicted at a rate of ... almost two an hour,” he said. “We can’t wait another day.” Barrison went on to cite statistics showing that, under Mayor Bill de Blasio, an estimated 1,200 to 1,400 businesses throughout the city are closing each month, eliminating between 9,600 and 11,200 jobs. He accused de Blasio, Public Advocate Letitia James and City Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito of being in “willful denial” of these issues. The Department of Small Business Services declined to comment on both the Small Business Jobs Survival Act and on the call for a freeze on commercial evictions.
Christopher Marte, who is running against incumbent council member Margaret Chin for the district including Lower Manhattan, Chinatown and Soho, used his personal experience as a talking point. “I am here not for political ends, but because I will never forget the day my dad had to close up his shop for the last time,” said Marte, whose father owned a bodega on the Lower East Side. “When his rent went up, it didn’t matter if his bodega was the staple of our neighborhood.” Marte criticized Chin for abandoning the Small Business Jobs Survival Act despite her initial support. Chin is one of the bill’s 28 sponsors in the City Council.
Mel Wymore, who is running against incumbent Upper West Side Council Member Helen Rosenthal, also has a background in small business. “I myself have the experience of having been a small-business owner who had to close their business because of soaring rent prices,” he said. “I know what it feels like, and it’s not fun.” Wymore spoke of the seven empty storefronts on 72nd Street between Broadway and Columbus Avenue as an example of why small businesses are in “crisis” in the district.
According to a 2016 study by the Center for an Urban Future, New York City has “more than 207,000 businesses with 20 or fewer workers,” and “the number of businesses employing fewer than ten workers has increased by nearly 12 percent since 2008.” However, a survey completed last spring by Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office found that a third of all small-business owners had to wait at least six months for city approval to open their businesses, and 48 percent said they “did not feel like they had been treated fairly by city agencies.”
Both reports recommended multiple ways that opportunities for growth could be increased for small businesses, and concluded that doing so is crucial to expanding the city’s middle class. The Center for an Urban Future wrote that “as small businesses grow, they often add middle-wage positions and increase benefits for their workers, including paid sick leave, time off, and subsidized healthcare.” Its study pointed to barriers such as high tax rates and the ever-climbing real estate market as causes of stagnant small-business growth.
Democratic mayoral candidate Sal Albanese, who attended last Wednesday’s rally, led a walking tour of the Upper East Side the next day to further illustrate the issue. “Soon, the city will be a town only of big chain stores, drugstores and banks,” Albanese said in a statement. “This is yet another result of Mayor de Blasio’s pay-to-play atmosphere at City Hall, which favors big real estate over the needs of the community.” Council Member Ben Kallos, who is a sponsor of the Small Business Jobs Survival Act and represents parts of the Upper East Side, said often residential buildings don’t want to offer space to restaurants because they can attract insects and rodents. “Any time the storefront is in a co-op or condo, which is most of the time on the Upper East Side, we need to work with those buildings to fill the space with a lower rent,” he said. “Anyone ... can do their part to make that space available for a mom-and-pop small business if they wish, and I wish they would.”
Harris Healy, owner of Logos Bookstore on York Avenue at 84th Street, is struggling after the building’s previous owner sold out to a large, corporate landlord who drastically increased the store’s rent. He was offered a five-year lease under the new management, rather than the two 10-year leases he’d had before. Healy blamed the modern challenges of running a small business on the rise of online ordering and on the lack of activism by residents.
“Manhattanites have to get off their butts and do some work,” Healy said. “[Elected officials] need more support from the private citizen. Private citizens have got to get off expecting everything to come through a computer.”
Madeleine Thompson can be reached at email@example.com