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Sky-High Rents Squeeze Small Businesses Uptown

By Nigel Chiwaya | March 13, 2013 8:46am

INWOOD — More than a year after a fire destroyed her yoga studio on 207th Street in Inwood, Marcela Xavier is still struggling to find a new location.

Xavier, whose Bread and Yoga studio has been operating out of the Holy Trinity Church on Cumming Street since the blaze, said that she has been unable to move into a permanent space because commercial rental prices uptown are expensive.

"Prices are unrealistic for Northern Manhattan considering that we don't have the volume of Midtown or Downtown," Xavier said. "We dont have the deep pockets in terms of clients to support our businesses at these rents."

Xavier is just one of several uptown businesses that are feeling the crunch of rising rental prices.

Before moving into its current space at 208th Street, Dichter Pharmacy, another business that was affected by the fire, balked at the chance to move into a space on 204th and Broadway because the owner wanted $11,000 per month for a 450-square-foot space, a price that was much higher than the $7,000 per month that owner Manny Ramirez was used to paying.

"It was just too expensive," said Ramirez, who eventually struck a deal with a the landlord of his current space on Broadway for less.

Xavier is searching for a space that is comparable to the $24-per-square-foot monthly rent she paid at her old location, but in her year of searching for the cheapest space she has seen cost $30 per square-foot, with most averaging between $50-60.

Community Board 12 Chairman George Fernandez said that the problem isn't limited to Inwood; high rents are a problem throughout the district.

"I've heard of businesses being charged $8,000 per month," Fernandez said. "That's insanity.

"That's why we have clubs and bars," Fernandez added. "They can afford that rent. But a Mom & Pop bookstore? I can't see them paying them much."

Fernandez said the problem stems from a lack of commercial rent-control laws. While the city has regulations in place to protect tenants from sharply escalating prices, no such laws exist for small businesses.

An online petition asking Mayor Michael Bloomberg and city Council Speaker Christine Quinn to create legislation to protect small businesses from sharp rent increases has gained over 600 signatures.

The petition was started by Washington Heights resident Sara Kotzin, who became concerned with rental prices after VIM Pharmacy, a local drug store on 181st Street, closed down in October after its rent was increased.

"This trend has been going on for a while in the neighborhood," said Kotzin, who has lived in Washington Heights for 12 years.

"My hope is that this brings some attention. I'd love for it to be an issue for the mayoral campaign, because it's happening across the city."

At the community board-level, Fernandez said that a resolution will be proposed next month to make its Business Services Committee a standing committee. If the resolution passes, the committee would then begin to partner with elected officials and community-based organizations to combat the problem.

"We need something that protects our small businesses," Fernandez said. "Unemployment in the district is already high. What's going to happen if they can't afford the rents?"