Op-ed: Before you can help small businesses, you have to save them first

Kirsten Theodos is a Co-Founder of TakeBackNYC. Photo via Kirsten Theodos.

Kirsten Theodos is a Co-Founder of TakeBackNYC. Photo via Kirsten Theodos.

By Kirsten Theodos

Special to the Eagle

On March 18th at City Hall, the Small Business Committee held a hearing on a package of nine bills as “part of the City Council’s ongoing efforts to help small business,” yet not one bill addressed sky high rents or the unfair commercial lease renewal process. Therefore, they will not stop a single business from closing.

This is troublesome because the city’s Office of Nightlife issued a report in January that found the number one challenge faced by our nightlife business owners is escalating commercial rents.   

For our nightlife business owners, there are serious, unintended consequences to having no rights when leases expire. In Williamsburg alone, nine music venues in two years closed due to skyrocketing rents.  

More recently, the Highline Ballroom was forced to close because the landlord denied a lease renewal to this successful business that didn’t want to close.  

Exactly one year ago, popular BB King's music venue in Times Square was also forced to close after 18 years, because of an exorbitant rent hike — like so many long established businesses, it still remains vacant today.

Three months after the city's nightlife report came out, the Department of Small Business Services issued an announcement: “Calling all entertainment businesses! Apply to help your business grow!  Through this program, you’ll learn how to understand competitive positioning, change management, and marketing and sales to scale”. 

What good is a marketing plan if you don’t have a lease?

All across the city we are losing bars, clubs and other entertainment venues. The city’s own study found that 87 percent of nightlife businesses wanted help with escalating rents. But the best the city agency responsible for helping them can offer is a useless three-month marketing program.  

Before you can help small businesses, you have to save them first.  

The city’s misguided priorities and unhelpful initiatives, like the package of nine bills, do nothing to address the real problems that small businesses face in their crisis to survive.   

Counting empty storefronts and mandating vacancy reporting are beside the point when everyone in the city recognizes that the crisis of long-established businesses closing is caused by escalating rents.  

This is part of the real estate lobby’s multi-pronged approach for ensuring the real solution, the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA) never sees the light of day for a full Council vote.

It’s now been exactly six months since the hearing on the SBJSA when we heard lawmaker after lawmaker proclaim that the SBJSA needed to be changed.  So half a year later, where are these changes and what is the timeline for a vote on a bill that has garnered 30 sponsors and the support of the majority of the City Council?  

Since the SBJSA hearing, the Commercial Landlord and Tenant courts have issued warrants to evict over 2,500 businesses. Businesses like the Highline Ballroom and BB King's voluntarily closed after falling victim to the unfair commercial lease renewal process — they are just two examples of the more than 7,500 businesses estimated to close during that time.

The empty storefronts on blocks in every neighborhood confirm this reality.

Roughly 89 percent of all small businesses in NYC are considered "very small”, meaning they employ less than 20 people.  Even a conservative average estimate of eight employees per business means that the city lost more than 60,000 jobs in the six months since the October hearing.

To put that in perspective, that is more than double the 25,000 jobs Amazon promised it would create over a decade.  

If our lawmakers are sincere about the small business crisis then they need to act like they want to end it.  

Evidently, the City Council can carve out the time for a hearing on a package of bills that do not address the number one issue that all business owners in NYC face: skyrocketing rents. So it should be able to carve out the time to vote on the bill that addresses this critical issue with a real solution that will save them.

Kirsten Theodos is a Co-Founder of TakeBackNYC. Follow her on Twitter: @kirstentheodos