In an attempt to address the staggering number of empty storefronts across New York City, a Brooklyn City Council member plans to introduce a landmark bill next week that would seek to regulate commercial rents.
Councilmember Stephen Levin had been expected to introduce the bill at the end of the summer. On Wednesday, he said that his office had begun researching the possibility of commercial rent control a little over a year ago and was surprised that there had been no recent effort to propose it.
"It's a complex problem," he said. "We think it’s time to introduce this into the conversation."
The councilmember's office did not immediately provide Gothamist with a copy of the bill but Levin said that his proposal provides a "clear and predictable framework for rental increases in commercial spaces" that are limited by a certain size.
"It's fair to property owners," he added. "We’re certainly not taking away their livelihoods. We’re saying there has to be some fair rubric in all of this to allow smaller businesses to compete for their existence."
Lena Afridi, a policy expert who has been working with United for Small Business NYC, a coalition of roughly a dozen community groups, said the commercial rent stabilization bill was crafted with the input of her group, which has been advocating for protections for commercial tenants for the past three years.
"We are looking forward to getting real, meaningful protections to end the displacement of small businesses in immigrant communities and communities of color," Afridi said in a statement. "We support the introduction of this legislation and will continue to campaign for the strongest possible protections to end the displacement of commercial spaces that help create the culture of New York’s neighborhoods."
For small business activists, commercial rent control has long been seen as the holy grail. New York City did in fact have a commercial rent statute from 1945 to 1963. But the law expired and since that time, efforts to regulate the commercial rental market have largely been limited. To date, the most aggressive policy proposed has been the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, a bill that dates back to 1986 and seeks to 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.
SBJSA advocates saw a glimmer of hope last year after the City Council finally held a public hearing on the bill, but afterwards, Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who initially expressed support for the plan, said the discussion raised some concerns.
Kirsten Theodos, a co-founder of TakeBack NYC, a small business advocacy coalition, voiced skepticism about the upcoming commercial rent stabilization bill, which she has not yet seen. "If this bill is a better solution to stop the closings than the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, then why wasn't it brought up at the hearing which was over one year ago?" she said.
The problem of empty storefronts has been a long-talked about and seemingly entrenched problem in New York City that is often attributed to soaring rents. According to a recent study by New York City comptroller Scott Stringer, 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. During this period, the report said that retail rents rose by 22 percent on average across the city.
This year, city lawmakers have taken specific steps to target commercial landlords.
In July, the City Council passed a “first of its kind” package of legislation which will enable the city to track retail vacancies. Not long afterwards, council members approved wider protections for commercial tenants, prohibiting landlords from harassing small business owners based on their age, race, gender and immigration status.
Both of those measures were crafted with the assistance of United for Small Business NYC. The group, which is part of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD), has been energized by the historic overhaul of state rent regulations they won this past summer.
"This moment for sure has deeply impacted what people think is possible," Afridi, a director of policy at ANHD told Gothamist in August. "It’s gotten people to want to stop displacement and to keep our neighborhoods working for us."
Afridi has argued that small business advocates need to look past SBJSA.
"What we need is real rent stabilization and SBJSA does not get to that," she said at the time.
UPDATE: This story has been updated to include comments from Councilmember Stephen Levin.