In New York City, commercial landlords may soon be prohibited from harassing small business owners based on their age, race, gender and immigration status under legislation passed Wednesday by the City Council.
The bill, introduced by Bronx City Council member, Vanessa Gibson, builds on a law passed in 2016 that made it illegal for commercial landlords from engaging in eviction tactics like physical intimidation, threats, denying repairs, cutting off heat and utilities, and “frivolous court proceedings.”
As part of a growing campaign to enact protections for small business owners, the City Council voted to broaden the definition of what constitutes commercial tenant harassment as well as issue stiffer maximum fines to landlords who break the new law, from $10,000 to $50,000. Moreover, the bill also gives courts the right to order the city Department of Buildings to withhold certain work permits to landlords who have been found guilty of commercial-tenant harassment.
On the same day the City Council passed the legislation, New York City comptroller Scott Stringer released a study that found that the reported vacant retail space in the city roughly doubled over a decade, up to 11.8 million square feet in 2017 from 5.6 million square feet in 2007.
According to the report, retail rents rose by 22 percent on average across the city during this period.
“Even as our economy has grown, many mom-and-pop stores have been left behind, transforming spaces once owned by local small businesses into barren storefronts,” the comptroller said, in a press release. “This isn’t just about empty buildings and neighborhood blight, it’s about the affordability crisis in our city. We need to use every tool in the box to tackle affordability, support small businesses and ensure New Yorkers are equipped to succeed in the new economic reality.”
Stringer, who is widely expected to run for mayor in 2021, has urged the city to lessen the bureaucratic burdens on small businesses. In the report, he called for tax credits for independent stores located in areas with high vacancies. He also said an analysis of retail demand should be required for major development proposals or rezonings.
The city has over the years rolled out a series of somewhat limited measures to address the retail crisis. But in July, the City Council approved a “first of its kind” package of legislation which will enable the city to track retail vacancies.
Small business advocates have not been in agreement on how the city should tackle the vacancy problem. One group has continued to press the Council for a vote on a long stalled bill called the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA). The proposal, which dates back to 1986, would give tenants the right to a 10-year lease renewal and force landlords and tenants to go to arbitration if they cannot agree on a rent increase.
On Thursday, Kirsten Theodos, a co-founder of TakeBack NYC, a small business advocacy coalition that supports SBJSA, said of the latest harassment measure, "The bill will not provide any meaningful protection for commercial tenants to remain in business like the Small Business Jobs Survival Act."
The City Council held a hearing on the bill last October, but to date, City Council speaker Corey Johnson has not called a vote. Asked about his position on the SBJSA on The Brian Lehrer Show in August, Johnson said the hearing had raised concerns about the bill—such as whether it was fair to include large businesses or corporations, and whether immigrant business owners are able to bear the challenges and costs of arbitration. Nonetheless, he added: "I’m not against the SBJA. I want to make sure it gets done in a targeted way."
Wednesday's harassment bill is expected to be signed into law by Mayor Bill de Blasio.
"Small businesses drive our economy are an essential part of our City’s character," said Avery Cohen, a spokesman for the mayor, in a statement. "We’re supportive of the measure and will continue to work with the council to strengthen protections against commercial tenant harassment."
UPDATE: An earlier version of this story included a misstatement from Kirsten Theodos. The legislation does not include a "certificate of no harassment." Also, Council member Gibson's last name was incorrect.