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New Law Would Help Keep Mom-and-Pop Businesses in Neighborhoods

By Amy Zimmer | June 27, 2016 4:56pm | Updated on June 28, 2016 8:15pm
 Hogs & Heifers in the Meatpacking District closed last August when the rent was hiked.
Hogs & Heifers in the Meatpacking District closed last August when the rent was hiked.
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DNAinfo/Danielle Tcholakian

MANHATTAN — From Meatpacking’s Hogs & Heifers to the East Village’s Other Music and Prospect Height’s Empire Mayo, the list of beloved small businesses being forced out due to rising rents keeps growing — and so have the calls for greater protections for mom-and-pop shops.

Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to sign legislation Tuesday establishing safeguards to prevent harassment of commercial tenants, just as there are policies protecting residential tenants.

The legislation aims to make it easier for small businesses to stay in the city, many advocates said.

It would allow small business owners, who felt they were harassed in some way and wrongfully pushed to vacate their space, to recover possession of property, attorney fees and damages amounting to one month’s rent or $1,000 from the landlord — whichever is greater — among other costs.

Harassment includes threats, unnecessary construction or repairs on the property that interfered with business, interruptions to essential services like heat or hot water, and the use of “frivolous” court proceedings against a tenant.

“It’s the first time any real meaningful reforms and protections have been created to protect small businesses who don’t own their property,” said Lena Afridi, policy coordinator from the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, which convened a citywide coalition to work on the issue. “It’s the first time tenants, who’ve experienced harassment, will be allowed to litigate against their landlords.”

The same gentrification pressures that are spurring residential displacement are hitting small businesses, too, Afridi noted. Landlords are making unnecessary repairs or not making needed repairs or even resorting to tactics like those faced by a Bushwick restaurant owner whose landlord turned off her water during her busiest shift a few months back.

“Small businesses make up a neighborhood,” Afridi added. “So, it’s not just small business displacement; it’s really cultural displacement.”

The legislation, however, needs to be strengthened, Afridi noted.

“Despite our excitement, this is a first step,” she said. “The bill needs more power.”

For one, it only applies to tenants who have leases, and many of the immigrant-owned small businesses her group has worked with don’t have leases, Afridi noted.

She’d also like to see some sort of government enforcement of harassment as well as funding to help provide legal services since many small businesses don’t have the money to hire lawyers.

Some small business advocates, led by groups like Take Back NYC, however, say the Small Business Jobs Survival Act would be a bigger help to mom-and-pops since it deals specifically with the commercial lease renewal process.

The act, which has been stalled since its 2014 introduction, would give small businesses rights in the commercial lease renewal process, including a minimum 10-year lease with the right to renewal (to help businesses better plan for their future), a provision for a third party arbiter when parties can’t agree on fair terms for a lease renewal and restrictions to prevent landlords from passing their property taxes on to small businesses.

“It’s not even a band aid,” Ahmad El-Najjar, from Take Back NYC said of the anti-tenant harassment bill. “It’s an insult to the small business community.”

The group says that roughly 1,000 small businesses in the city are forced to close their doors every month — most because they lost their lease.

“With no actual rights to renew your lease, that’s where people are being extorted,” El-Najjar said.

When legendary Meatpacking District bar, Hogs and Heifers, closed last year after more than 20 years on Washington Street, the owner blamed the landlord’s decision to increase the rent to $60,000 a month.  

Though the area has become chic for high-end boutiques and pricey eateries, the bar’s owner Michelle Dell didn’t want to follow suit.

"I sell Pabst Blue Ribbon for $3. I still sell beer for $5 or $6,” she told DNAinfo previously. “I am not a business that can sell a bottle of beer for $12 and margaritas for $15."