Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1198 Mon, 18 Dec 2017 14:33:01 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Council Passes Bill to Improve Diversity at Upper Levels of City-Contracted Businesses http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6271:council-passes-bill-to-improve-diversity-at-upper-levels-of-city-contracted-businesses http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6271:council-passes-bill-to-improve-diversity-at-upper-levels-of-city-contracted-businesses crowley johnson lean in

Council Member Elizabeth Crowley and colleagues (photo: William Alatriste) 


On Thursday, the City Council approved a bill requiring the Department of Small Business Services to survey and study the gender, ethnic, and racial makeup of executive-level staff and board members of companies that contract with the city. The bill, co-sponsored by Council Members Elizabeth Crowley and Darlene Mealy, came about while the two were co-chairs of the Council’s Women’s Caucus, and is an effort to “promote transparency,” Crowley says, and to gather information needed to make the city’s workplaces more equitable.

“This legislation is not only fair and smart, it promotes opportunity,” Crowley said in a press release following the Council’s vote. “Diversity matters in the corporate world and also impacts the bottom line. Studies have proven that diversity improves financial performance, with greater economic growth, increased productivity and increased profitability. This bill promotes diversity on boards and amongst senior-level staff, which benefits employers and makes a stronger, better New York City.”

Crowley and Mealy worked with organizations that advocate for diversity in the workplace to develop the bill, including Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that promotes inclusive workplaces for women. During the full Council vote, Crowley framed the bill as a means to help achieve greater equity for women in particular, calling the lack of women in board rooms something that is “more than an injustice to women - it’s actually hurting bottom lines.”

Recent studies show “that companies with more diversified boards do in fact yield better returns,” said Council Member Dan Garodnick, chair of the Committee on Economic Development, which unanimously approved the bill Wednesday, during an Oct. 22 hearing. A 2015 study by Credit Suisse found that the presence of at least one woman on the board of directors can make a difference.

“Companies with one woman on the board have seen an average return on equity of 14.1% since 2005, compared to 11.2% for all-male boards,” Garodnick said. “The benefits are clear, which is why the bill is crucial to help us understand how diverse our corporate boards are right now and how the city can create policies to encourage that moving forward.”

Should Mayor Bill de Blasio sign the bill, which he is expected to do, the Department of Small Business Services will be required to create a voluntary survey and have it ready to distribute to proposed city contractors and subcontractors by January 15, 2017. The survey will be distributed along with existing employment reports, and will collect information regarding the selection and employment practices, policies, and procedures related to the racial, ethnic, and gender composition of city-contracted companies’ directors, officers, and other executive-level staff.

By July 1, 2018, the Mayor or a designated agency will need to publish a report on the website of the Department of Small Business Services (SBS) that analyzes the information collected and details companies’ plans for improving diversity in those positions, as well as their efforts to achieve those plans.

The bill is generally viewed as a win-win by Council members involved with the legislation, who say it will help all involved by facilitating diversity and equal opportunity while at the same time increasing the profitability and performance of companies.

While the administration is generally supportive of the bill, concerns have been raised about the onus fulfilling the mandate would put on SBS.

“The intention of this legislation is laudable and in line with the administration's efforts to fight inequality and promote the economic mobility of social inclusion of all New Yorkers,” Andrew Schwartz, then-acting commissioner of SBS said during the Oct. 22 hearing.

However, Schwartz continued, “The proposals would require significant additional work and analysis” and “many businesses may be reluctant to gather and provide this type of information. So the requirement may, in fact, deter some businesses from competing for contracts with the city.”

Additionally, Schwartz said, the new requirement could work against the city’s ongoing efforts to speed up the procurement process, and selecting vendors for contracts based on the diversity of their leadership “could raise issues that conflict with laws governing the city’s procurement process.”

Changes were made to the bill in response to those concerns. Responding to the survey was made voluntary for contractors, the deadline by which SBS must have the survey ready to distribute was extended, as was the date by which the administration has to publish a report analyzing the data collected. Notably, language was added to prohibit agencies from using information obtained by the survey as a basis for any procurement decisions.

“On it’s final version,” Garodnick told Gotham Gazette, “we have seen mostly support. We want to make sure that we encourage board room diversity among all businesses, and this bill will give us an understanding of where we stand.”

***
by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Council Passes Bill to Improve Diversity at Upper Levels of City-Contracted Businesses Fri, 08 Apr 2016 03:38:05 +0000
All Aboard the BRT Express? http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5991:all-aboard-the-brt-express http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5991:all-aboard-the-brt-express bus mta photo m86

(photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit)


Google Maps estimated an hour-and-a-half for a trip from near City Hall to a location in Southeast Queens, leaving at 5:30 p.m. on a recent Tuesday. On the E train to its final stop and a bus crawling along jam-packed Merrick Boulevard, the trip took about an hour longer, two-and-a-half hours from door to door.

“Now you know what we go through every day,“ City Council Member I. Daneek Miller told Gotham Gazette following that night’s event, which he co-hosted with Council Member Donovan Richards and focused on, what else, transportation.

The commute to and from downtown Manhattan that the Council members and some of their constituents face was part of the motivation behind the town hall, set in the outer reaches of the city and called to examine the challenging state of public transit in St. Albans, Laurelton, and surrounding neighborhoods - often referred to as a “transportation desert.”

In a recent op-ed for Crain’s New York Business, Miller laid out the extent of the problem: people from Southeast Queens spend roughly 15 hours a week commuting, 238 percent more time than the average New Yorker.

The residents of the area share this plight with several other neighborhoods considered transportation deserts because of their lack of public transit options - places including the Rockaways, the North Bronx, and the South Shore of Staten Island.

With the subway map sure to stay mostly as it is, communities in greatest need of good transportation options that can get residents to the city’s main jobs centers are reliant on a bus system lacking in capacity and dependability. Even though 97 percent of the city‘s population lives within a quarter mile of a bus stop, the collective problems with the service--it is one of the slowest systems in the nation and the slowest among big cities--render residents far removed from subway lines and feeling helpless.

With increased scrutiny of transportation deserts and lengthy New York City commutes come increasing calls for creative bus solutions: with more selective bus service (SBS) and bus rapid transit (BRT) at the forefront.

transpo deserts[NYC "subway deserts" - map by Chris Whong)

According to an audit released by Comptroller Scott Stringer in April, buses are not just slow, they are also often late: Stringer‘s study revealed that more than 30 percent of the city’s express buses do not run on schedule. Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island are hit the hardest, the comptroller said. The report also found that the MTA had inconsistent inspection standards for wheelchair lifts across their bus fleet, which, in addition to failing disabled riders, also slows bus time.

“This is more than just a statistic,“ Stringer said at the press conference unveiling his audit, “a late bus could mean a missed job opportunity, missed wages, or missed time with children.“

One possible antidote for lagging buses and transit hungry commuters is Bus Rapid Transit, and the idea is gaining momentum, as the Miller-Richards town hall showed. The questions ahead are about political will and community buy-in toward expanding BRT in New York City. BRT was a piece of a recent City Council hearing on transportation deserts, but the city’s Department of Transportation has already been made to study BRT through a law passed in the Council and signed by Mayor de Blasio that will lead to a report on areas where BRT should be implemented.

Started in Curitiba, Brazil in 1974, BRT was originally formulated as a cheaper alternative for a city that didn‘t have the money to build a subway. In its fullest form BRT combines a variety of features to make it operate at a speed comparable to light rail (an option also talked about for Queens and Staten Island). Long accordion style buses--in Curitiba they hold up to 250 people--shoot up and down bus-only lanes of large streets, stopping at intervals akin to a subway line (rather than the shorter ones of typical bus service).

Traffic signals have sensors in order to hold green lights for buses approaching intersections. People pay their fare before they board the bus and stations often feature elevated platforms or curbsides that coincide with the floor of the bus, making it quick and easy for elderly or disabled people to board. All this amounts to more on time, reliable, and efficient bus service.

Since the turn of the century cities across the globe including Paris, Istanbul, Bogata, and Los Angeles have all adopted BRT to curb car use and improve public transit overall.

Now, Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to bring BRT to New York as part of his efforts to help the city’s lower and middle classes. The argument also goes, of course, that if workers have shorter and easier commutes they are more productive when they’re at work.

”Bus riders are the most neglected part of our transportation system,” de Blasio’s policy book from his 2013 mayoral campaign reads. “Bus Rapid Transit has the potential to save outer-borough commuters hours off their commute times every week and stimulate economic activity in neighborhoods the subway system doesn’t reach.”

While it’s been somewhat slow to materialize, de Blasio’s pledge to bring New York City a “world-class bus rapid transit system” has been gaining steam. When signing the BRT study bill in May, de Blasio reminded that, “We all know that mass transit is particularly critical for those New Yorkers for whom resources are very tight, whose incomes are very tight - mass transit is their lifeline. It connects them to jobs, schools, everything.”

In March the state-run MTA and the city’s Department of Transportation (DOT) announced the official plan for the city‘s first full-scale BRT route on Woodhaven Boulevard, in Queens. The project will stretch 14.4 miles, cost around $200 million, and be fully operational by 2017. (By contrast, the Second Avenue subway is supposed to cover 8.5 miles, cost upwards of $17 billion, and be done at a to-be-determined date.)

Previously the two organizations’ efforts to speed up bus time came in the form of Select Bus Service, a paired down version of BRT that also utilizes off-board fare collection, along with traffic signal priority, semi-exclusive bus lanes, and longer distances between stations. The first SBS route was launched in 2008 on the Bx12 on Fordham Road in the Bronx, and has enjoyed relative success. According to statistics collected by the MTA one year after the launch, running times increased up to 19 percent, ridership by 8 percent.

Over the past seven years the MTA and the DOT have added seven other SBS routes, including ones going up First Avenue and down Second Avenue in Manhattan. All routes have enjoyed faster service and a 2013 DOT report claimed that SBS had saved eight million hours of travel time.

Still, SBS is not BRT. The former appears more suited for the busier sections for the city, the latter for moving people from the city’s outer reaches to its transit and business hubs.

With the Woodhaven route, which will have exclusive lanes and robust, fully-outfitted stations with shelters, seats, and real-time information on bus arrivals (along with off-board fare collection and transit signal priority) the city is setting a new standard for its above-ground transportation. The fully exclusive bus lanes, which will also allow traffic signal priority to be more effective, are particularly exciting given that Kevin Ortiz, spokesperson for the MTA, told Gotham Gazette that traffic congestion and red lights are the top two causes for bus delays.

woodhaven2 int[Woodhaven BRT rendering, via NYC DOT]

The line, which will run north-south, perpendicular to the A, E, F, J, M, R, and 7 trains, is indicative of the type of improvements BRT could offer in the so-called “outer boroughs.” Joan Byron, Director of Policy at the Pratt Center for Community Development and a member of the advocacy group BRT for NYC, sees this improvement as imperative to the economic empowerment of New York’s outer-borough residents.

“We have a problem right now of people not being able to get to their jobs and employers not being able to get to their workforce. Work locations are shifting. Job growth is much faster in the boroughs than it is in Manhattan…and the subway system isn‘t set up to serve them. You can do things with BRT that would take decades to do with rail,“ Byron told Gotham Gazette.

As it stands, she explains, “if you live some place like Far Rockaway…the number of jobs that are within a reasonable commute range for you are much smaller than if you live someplace like Park Slope.”

The Woodhaven line plans to change that for its service area. BRT lines along the North Shore of Staten Island (something City Council Member Debbie Rose called “a necessity, not an amenity”) and Southern Brooklyn—two possible routes the MTA and DOT are investigating—would also serve similar purposes.

Council Member Donovan Richards, who represents part of the area the new BRT route will serve, sees this project as only the beginning. Ultimately, he wants a full-scale BRT network throughout the city, viewing the issue as one that is also key to environmental justice.

“[BRT] needs to become as natural as breathing air,“ he said to Gotham Gazette after the town hall. “We have got to remember that if we don’t get cars off the road, climate change is going to wipe out communities in New York City. Overall the city needs to adopt it,” he said, referring to BRT.

Car Ownership blog[Rates of car ownership, via NYC EDC]

Richards, along with city DOT officials, recently had lunch with and gave a tour of the planned Woodhaven route to a federal transportation secretary. U.S. Senator Charles Schumer has promised to push for federal funding.

The excitement continued into May when the mayor signed into law the new BRT-related bill.

According to the City Council website, “Under the bill, DOT would work with the MTA and gather input with the public to develop a citywide BRT plan, due to the Council no later than September 1, 2017. The plan would consider areas of the City in need of additional rapid transit options, strategies for serving growing neighborhoods, potential intra-borough and inter-borough BRT corridors DOT plans to establish by 2027, strategies for integrating BRT with other transit routes, and the anticipated operating costs of additional BRT lines.”

SBS may continue to expand, and many note that it is a version of BRT, but the extent to which a strong BRT system will be implemented is unclear. In several other cities where the system has achieved success, says Joan Byron of Pratt, the build of these cities naturally accommodated the necessary BRT infrastructure.

“The places where that has been done, places like Bogota, Columbia, that model was implemented exactly in the parts of the city that have kind of a post-World War II physical fabric and development pattern. The street there for the main bus line, the Transmillenial, is twelve lanes wide. Pedestrians cross that street on over-passes. It wasn’t a big jump to put dedicated lanes in the center region and to have physical stations that are actually enclosed.”

Woodhaven Boulevard, eight lanes wide and notoriously hazardous for pedestrians (the station islands to be installed in the middle of the avenue also act as a safety measure), is at least somewhat similar.

Council Member Brad Lander, the lead sponsor of the BRT bill, sees Manhattan’s First and Second Avenues as streets also appropriate for the full BRT service, especially given the MTA‘s recent announcement to forgo $1 billion in funding for the Second Avenue Subway project.

Most buses, though, don‘t operate on streets the width of a small highway (even dedicating a full lane of First or Second Avenue could prove quite contentious). For these routes Lander and Byron see smaller BRT-like features being incorporated into bus operation citywide on a case-by-case basis.

“The simple idea of off-board fare payment, that’s something we want to get to on every city bus,” Lander told Gotham Gazette. After that, he said, what is doable will depend on infrastructure features and funding.

Lander cited the SBS M86 route, the MTA‘s latest SBS addition, as a prime example. Even though there is not enough room for a dedicated bus lane (the bus runs crosstown on 86th Street in Manhattan), the MTA has already installed off-board fare collection and plans to add bus bulbs - protruding, bulges of sidewalk in front of bus stops, constructed so that the bus doesn‘t have to pull over when it picks up passengers. Stations are also equipped with real-time bus arrival information. A similar approach could be effective on smaller streets in the outer boroughs as well.

imgres[A bus bulb, via Streetsblog.org]

Council Member Daneek Miller is impatient, saying that his transit-starved constituents can’t wait a decade for BRT lines.

“There are 300,000 people in Southeast Queens who it’s talking an hour-and-a-half, an hour-and-forty-five minutes to get to their job in the city, who can’t wait 20 years for a change,” Miller said after his town hall.

Miller, who ran a transportation workers union before joining the Council, takes a slightly more cynical view of SBS. He says the recent buzz around BRT has led the city to overlook basic adaptations that could yield considerable results, like those he outlined in his op-ed, such as fare reform on the LIRR. For his constituents, Miller said, “BRT might be the second best answer. I can get to City Hall in 50 [minutes] on the LIRR; it takes me an hour-and-40-minutes using public transportation.”

Still, Miller certainly wants to see extended express bus service to Downtown Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn. He acknowledges infrastructure challenges of implementing BRT in some places, saying “We don‘t want to put square pegs in a round hole,” and that it is essential to have all the components, otherwise it won’t be BRT, but a “glorified express bus service.”

With an eye toward communities like those represented by his colleagues Miller and Richards, Lander points to the need for more options for commuters. Citing “low-income New Yorkers and communities of color” that “have disproportionately long commute times,” Lander said at the May bill-signing that “New Yorkers across the city – especially in transit-starved, outer-borough neighborhoods – need more mass-transit options. This law, and subsequent exploration of a Bus Rapid Transit network, will significantly improve public transportation access in the parts of NYC that need it most, at a cost we can afford, and help insure a more sustainable future.”

BRT and SBS advocates, like Lander, stand confident that their plan will deliver, and sooner than projected.

“I think it’s going to accelerate,“ said Byron. “For every elected official that will stand up and say ‘I want BRT in my district now,’ which all the Council members along the Q52, Q53 routes have said, you’ll get others that say, ‘Forget it, my constituents ride the bus,‘” Byron said, referring to hesitant Council members who she thinks will acquiesce.

When asked about the twelve year timeline in his BRT bill, a charged Lander replied, “the city - the DOT with the MTA - is already rolling out BRT at a pretty rapid rate...we are not waiting.“

****
by Colin O’Connor
@GothamGazette
@colinqoconnor93

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All Aboard the BRT Express? Mon, 16 Nov 2015 19:06:12 +0000
Why Don’t We Ever Hear About Commercial Rent Policy? http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5792:why-dont-we-ever-hear-about-commercial-rent-policy http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5792:why-dont-we-ever-hear-about-commercial-rent-policy levine small biz

Council Member Levine & co outside an evicted business (photo: @MarkLevineNYC) 


Mid-June, it was a block in Washington Heights that was poised to be the next to close up shop. The landlord, Coltown Properties, looked to evict the mostly Latino-owned stores on the street, which included a barbershop, restaurant, and income tax service. The store proprietors faced the same issue as many other small business owners in New York — there was nothing they could do.

“Collectively, the businesses on this block have been in operation for over 80 years,” local City Council Member Mark Levine said at a press conference on 162nd Street and Broadway. “At a time when unemployment rates in our neighborhood are disproportionately high, these businesses are vital to the economic livelihood of this area.” Levine’s office is partnering with Legal Aid Society to provide legal assistance to small businesses in his district.

This is New York today, the plight of the city’s small businesses is grumpily accepted like a late train. It’s perceived by many New Yorkers as a part of the city grind, the dog-eat-dog, if-you-can-afford-it-here-you-can-afford-it-anywhere reality of a town teeming with opportunity, but becoming evermore competitive - and expensive.

Echoing all too quietly in the halls of both city and state government, the average retail rent in Manhattan has risen 22 percent over the past decade, causing a sprawl of small businesses to relocate or simply close. It is a disease that’s spread to Brooklyn too.

As news and debate over residential rent regulation dominated Albany and New York City over the past several months, what happens on a daily basis to small businesses throughout the city tends to fall by the wayside. Commercial tenants have far less protection against sudden rent increases than residents do, and now, that deficit is playing out in pockets of the city at an increasingly rapid pace. In comes another Chase, next to the new Duane Reade.

Depending on who you ask, the reasons vary as to why elected officials in New York and Albany have acted — or, to some advocates, failed — on reforming commercial rent policy.

“No one is lobbying the state Legislature for commercial rent control, so obviously legislators are not thinking about the issue,” Michael McKee, the treasurer of Tenants PAC, says. “I am not even aware that there is a bill that would provide protections to small businesses.”

As it stands, the only bill in the New York State government that pertains to commercial rent in New York City is the “Small Business Survival Act,” first proposed by Senator Tony Avella of Queens in 2013. It aims to level the playing field between tenant and landlord by mandating arbitration privileges to small businesses. Landlords must follow certain criteria when setting a lease, and the commercial tenant has more time in negotiations. “The current commercial rental market results in unjust, unreasonable, and oppressive leases for the payment of rent for commercial space in New York City,” the bill reads. As of this legislative session, it has not seen a vote.

The more common small business bills that do exist are like the resources offered by the city and state’s economic development agencies: they seek to provide clarity with forms, regulations, and other bureaucratic nuances that come attached to opening and operating a small business in a tax- and rule-heavy state. The same situation stands in the Business Council, the most prominent lobby for businesses in Albany. Providing commercial tenants with some sort of leverage in lease negotiations did not make its 2015 ‘Top Ten Objectives’ list, or the webpage for its subdivision of small businesses. Rejecting a higher minimum wage did, though.

“If there is ever to be any movement on this issue, folks have to organize,” McKee said, talking with Gotham Gazette while he was in the midst of yet another major push to influence tenant rent regulations being set by lawmakers in Albany and the city’s rent guidelines board.

As many can attest, it is especially tough to compete against what is, without a doubt, the most powerful force in New York politics: real estate. This is a business community that spends millions every year on political campaigns; the contributions of one of its biggest entities, the Real Estate Board, made up a tenth of the entire state’s campaign money last election cycle. And that’s just one group.

To James Parrott, the deputy director and chief economist of the Fiscal Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, that wealth of influence explains the radio silence both down- and up-state, among Democrats and Republicans, on an issue that directly threatens real estate hegemony. Reasoning seems to be that if small businesses had more protections against space-seeking developers, it would cut into the pace and profits of the city’s longstanding natural order. Landlords either want to charge more for commercial space or developers want tenants out so they can sell or demolish and build anew.

“The real estate community has always been aggressive in campaign contributions,” Parrott explains. “And, by doing so, they’ve successfully prevented anything that would restrict them.”

This, of course, includes commercial tenant rights. Parrott makes a key point: in a state government where the recently former Speaker of the Assembly and Majority Leader of the State Senate are both indicted for crimes involving real estate’s influence, it’s hard to believe a bill called the Small Business Survival Act would even last a day. Not to mention the probe into the abrupt closing of the Moreland Commission by Governor Andrew Cuomo; an investigation that is specifically looking into tax breaks for huge developers.

City government is not excluded, either, Parrott argues.

The tale of the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (better known as the SBJSA) in the City Council is a long yet uneventful one. Basically, the bill — which, in structure, is very similar to its upstate counterpart — has been floating around the chambers of City Hall since 2008. (Last year, Gotham Gazette dove into its reintroduction.) It would let commercial tenants have the right to lease renewal ten years or more. If a landlord wants to raise rent, mediation with the tenant would be mandated, and, if the parties don’t come to an agreement, an arbitrator would make the final decision.

In essence, it is a flexing of New York City’s municipal home rule, which allows the Council to bypass Albany and regulate commercial code on its own turf. Similar proposals have existed in the Council for decades now, but all have met the same fate: failure. No surprise, Parrott says: the power of real estate is as strong in the city as it is upstate, if not stronger. Also, past mayors and council speakers have strongly sided with that community, meaning any bill is unlikely to ever see a vote, and even if passed by Council, likely vetoed.

But, to tenant advocates, this time around offers hope. Finally, they argue, a legislative body and a mayor progressive enough to actually take up the issue. At least on paper.

“Historically, the deference to Albany has served as a smokescreen/distraction for elected city officials to validate their appalling inaction on issues that they, in all actuality, have complete control over,” Kirsten Theodos, a spokesperson for Take Back NYC, a grassroots advocacy group for tenants and subset of the larger group Save NYC, told Gotham Gazette.

Right now, the SBJSA has 19 City Council sponsors in a 51-member boday. Seeing the bill heard at a committee hearing and then brought to a vote is unlikely, and would probably first require a number of additional sponors signing on (Council members can support a bill without co-sponsoring, but sponsorship levels show strength). To land those additional sponsors, Theodos hopes that situations like the eviction of businesses in Washington Heights will shed light on the issue. When asked if Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who endorsed the bill before becoming speaker, would support the bill now, a spokesperson pointed to remarks made by Mark-Viverito to The Villager in late May. She did not provide an endorsement of the bill then, but mentioned an argument that has been repeatedly made by the real estate community in the past: that the SBJSA is illegal.

“The bill gets introduced once the [Council] staff do their due diligence,” the Speaker said. “Then there are hearings to hear from all sides. And then we figure out what the next steps will be — because sometimes options are being explored that legally we don’t have the ability to implement as a city or as a legislative council.”

Last year, in Gotham Gazette, the president of the Real Estate Board, Steven Spinola, called the bill an “unconstitutional intrusion” on property owners. A spokesperson for the Board told me this position hasn’t changed. Essentially, the board believes it is not in the Council’s jurisdiction to regulate commercial tenants. Home rule doesn’t apply here, they say.

Theodos stresses that this is not true; SBJSA would target the negotiations process, she says, and not install commercial rent control. The legal counsel to the Small Business Congress, a coalition of tenant advocates, supported this argument last year, citing Supreme Court decisions that enable local autonomy.

As a member of the City Council, Mayor Bill de Blasio supported the SBJSA, but he has remained relatively mum on the bill since entering his current office. For many advocates, the hope is that he’ll extend the drive that he has recently demonstrated around housing rent regulations in Albany to the parallel issue for small businesses. However, although he was elected on a ‘helping the little guy’ message and a promise to embrace them, small business owners and their allies also worry that his tendency to meet with representatives from the Real Estate Board and other commercial heavyweights threatens his adherence to their cause. Holding an office that naturally attracts real estate interests, Council Speaker Mark-Viverito has also met with REBNY heads. While neither de Blasio nor Mark-Viverito appears especially cozy with real estate titans, neither has pushed directly on the commerical rent issue either.

That isn’t to say nothing has been done by the de Blasio administration to help small business owners since he took office in January of 2014, though. His office’s Department of Small Business Services (SBS) is spending upwards of $27 million to streamline and defuse the regulatory process and, with the Department of Consumer Affairs, made sure that fewer fines are handed out to small businesses that can barely afford rent. More importantly, SBS has rolled out initiatives aimed at providing pro bono legal services to small businesses in lease negotiations; a policy which will soon expand, SBS spokesperson Merideth Weber told Gotham Gazette.

“We are working to roll out additional programs that span the range of supports we can provide including education, assistance, and tools that can help businesses avoid pitfalls in leases, and make the retail market more transparent,” Weber said in a statement.

When asked if the mayor supports SBJSA, Weber responded, “We’re reviewing the bill and this administration is working on a comprehensive plan to ensure that small businesses have the tools and resources they need to compete in an ever-changing marketplace.”

Still, tenant advocates argue that these measures dance around the main issue: that small businesses have no legal powers against immediate evictions or rent gouging. In a hyper-developing environment reaching further into several boroughs, small business owners are often defenseless. With a state government not inclined to act on commercial rent policy in New York City, and a city bill that, for now at least, is on the back burner of the Council agenda, the urgency stressed by owners and advocates doesn’t seem to be resonating here nor there.

Council Member Mark Levine, who spoke out against the eviction of the small businesses on a block in Washington Heights, in his district, says that there are other options that can help stem the tide of closing small businesses. And these, he said, do not necessarily require either a dying bill or a dead government. “Albany is not acting in any domain, really,” he quickly noted.

The city government, Levina argues, could set an example by not renting out its own real estate to chain stores. Also, zoning laws can be regulated in order to prevent chains and encourage small businesses — a policy that Columbia University has undertaken in Morningside Heights, Levine said. He added that the city should look into preventing developers who receive city subsidies from renting out to chains.

One of the 19 sponsors of the SBJSA, Levine argues that the city needs to set out a structure in which commercial tenants can have enough time whereby they are properly notified of a lease change. He also referred to a bill recently introduced by Council Members Helen Rosenthal and Dan Garodnick that would raise the commercial rent tax exemption in Manhattan (below 96th Street) from $250,000 to $500,000 per year. As of now, the bill has 16 sponsors.

In terms of Albany attention, residential tenants supersede their commercial counterparts in numbers, Levine says, and the politics involved are different. But still, the council member describes challenges faced by small businesses in New York right now as a “crisis;” one that is perhaps even more alarming than the affordable housing problem, given the conditions. “There’s not much a tenant can do,” he says. “Therefore, we’re seeing dramatic changes in our streetscapes, and the scale of the problem is great.”

“It is the mom and pop stores that make this city,” Levine said. “And the city government should be doing much, much more to protect them.”

***
John Surico is a freelance journalist. His reporting can be seen in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The Village Voice, and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn.

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Why Don’t We Ever Hear About Commercial Rent Policy? Wed, 01 Jul 2015 05:01:01 +0000
As City Eases Burdens, Access to Capital, Rising Rents Remain Issues for Small Businesses http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5621:as-city-eases-burdens-access-to-capital-rising-rents-remain-issues-for-small-businesses http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5621:as-city-eases-burdens-access-to-capital-rising-rents-remain-issues-for-small-businesses torres-springer sbs

SBS Commissioner Torres-Springer (photo: @NYCBusSolutions)


Small business assistance is a perennial political promise. Few can argue with the goal of stimulating the city's economy and almost everyone has some connection to the issue.

After all, the Department of Small Business Services (SBS) reports that 98 percent of the city's 220,000 businesses are considered small (fewer than 100 employees). The number has increased in recent years due to an entrepreneurial boom in the city. According to the Center for an Urban Future, nearly twice as many businesses were incorporated in the city in 2011 than in 1991. Every day, many New Yorkers go to work or shop at these businesses, often doing both.

Mayor Bill de Blasio sees owners and employees of these businesses as squarely in the crosshairs of his mission to reduce inequality and create opportunity. The needs of individual business owners vary some because the category is so large, but, there are many commonalities among those looking to start, maintain, or grow a small business.

After a first year in which the de Blasio administration drastically reduced fines levied on small business, the City has just launched a new, multifaceted approach to reduce regulatory burdens. While these moves are certainly welcome, many in the small business community say that access to capital and ever-rising rents remain their largest challenges.

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York's 2014 Small Business Credit Survey, 40 percent of local business owners say they're struggling with common problems of finding customers and managing cash flow. Many businesses also said that securing loans was a major issue.

"Twenty percent [of businesses] cited credit availability as a top concern. Most small firms reported needing micro loans of $100,000 or less," said Claire Kramer Mills, an assistant vice president in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York's Community Affairs Office.

The survey was conducted over a two-month period during the fall of 2014. More than 2,000 businesses with fewer than 500 employees were surveyed from 10 states. Responses were weighted to reflect the full population of small businesses in each state. Specific New York City figures were then highlighted for Gotham Gazette.

Most businesses need some kind of loan in order to launch or stay alive, especially in New York City. "Very small" businesses with fewer than 20 employees make up the majority of the city's small businesses and are growing at the fastest rate. These are local restaurants, tech start-ups, boutique retail stores, neighborhood coffee shops, and more.

Many of these business owners have little or no additional support outside of family or friends, and navigating the banking system can be difficult. According to the Federal Reserve survey, more than 20 percent of local business owners applied for funding from online lenders last year despite often higher interest rates.

Aissatou Bah, a loan officer at the Brooklyn Cooperative Federal Credit Union, cautioned against using online lenders for their expediency, because interest rates can be double or triple the standard.

The Brooklyn Cooperative's mission is to help community businesses, but that doesn't mean it can give money to just anyone. Bah said that a strong business plan and a little patience is essential.

"Every lender wants to lend money, that's what business owners tend to forget sometimes," said Bah.

She said that the average loan decision can take two weeks. In cases where people aren't fully prepared, she'll refer them to SBS or local business development centers for more guidance before giving them financing.

The Brooklyn Small Business Development Center (SBDC) is one of those places where owners can get advice at any stage of a very complicated process. Operated by the State University of New York and funded by federal money, the Brooklyn SBDC helps people with business plans, networking, research, and other services from the start-up phase onward.

"It's a very daunting situation to open a business," said Director Robert Piechota. "You better make sure you know what the heck you're doing."

The Brooklyn SBDC also helps people, particularly those who don't speak English, understand the City's complex bureaucracy, "It's not very easy to open a business or maintain it given the constantly changing landscape of regulations," said Piechota.

The city offers similar services as well. The Department of Consumer Affairs, which investigates many businesses, not only scaled back the fines it levies, but launched expansive new initiatives in order to communicate with businesses in a variety of languages. SBS operates seven "NYC Business Solutions" centers where people can get pro-bono legal services, help reviewing leases, business courses, and access to capital. According to an SBS spokesperson, the department helped connect businesses with approximately $58.5 million in capital last year through various methods.

The City Economic Development Corporation (EDC) also helps small business get lines of credit and loans of up to $250,000 through its Capital Access Loan Guaranty Program. The EDC helps facilitate financing through various lenders and provides up to a 40 percent guarantee for qualified applicants.

Many of these systems were already in place under the Bloomberg administration. As a council member and the public advocate during that time, Mayor de Blasio often talked about the need to reduce the regulatory burden on small businesses. Since taking office he's made efforts to reach that goal.

Last year, he lowered revenue targets for fines given out by the Department of Consumer Affairs and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Keeping with this tack, his administration recently announced its Small Business First program to further improve the climate for small businesses.

Led by SBS, the $27 million initiative seeks to streamline the regulatory process across more than 15 different city agencies over the next four years. Opening any business - particularly one involving food - requires permits and inspections from more agencies than many people may realize. While the initiative won't change that, it includes 30 ways in which the City is making the process easier - including an online portal to find and file forms, translating materials into multiple languages, and more.

Local business groups have reacted positively to the plan, but say that regulations will still pose a challenge for owners.

"Small Business First won't eliminate all of the regulatory barriers small business owners face, but anything the City does to make it easier for small business owners to understand and comply with local regulations is a step in the right direction," said Victor Wong, director of business outreach and GoBizNYC at the Partnership for New York City.

SBS will be creating a Small Business Advisory Board - made up of city personnel, elected officials, and small business owners - to monitor the program's success and offer future recommendations.

City Comptroller Scott Stringer has also announced a "Red Tape Commission," made up of various business and community leaders, that will spend a year producing recommendations for streamlining the regulatory process. How this will differ from Small Business First remains to be seen, but representatives from SBS and the comptroller's office both said they plan to work together on the issue.

"I am confident that the Red Tape Commission's work will provide valuable new insight, reform proposals, and audit topics that will help make city government more responsive to the needs of the small business community," Stringer said in a statement.

City Council members have been getting in on the action as well. Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito proposed the idea of a "small business advocate" position in her February State of the City address and other ideas have been floated by various members.

Robert Cornegy, Jr., chair of the Council's Committee on Small Business, said that he supports increasing access to capital and finding ways to reduce regulatory burdens by providing industry-specific advice. Cornegy told Gotham Gazette that one of the most pressing issues is the ability for businesses to afford space.

"So many small businesses have been devastated by enormous and unmanageable rent increases and it's heartbreaking. Too often, businesses that have been part of a neighborhood's renaissance are unable to remain and reap the rewards of the changes they have helped to create," Cornegy said by email.

Cornegy said he often hears stories of commercial tenants being harassed by landlords in his Brooklyn district, but they have less protection than residential tenants.

The council member has introduced a resolution calling on the State to pass legislation that would establish a property tax credit for commercial landlords who limit rent increases to small business owner tenants upon lease renewal. Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, of Queens, has introduced a similar resolution, focusing on small businesses that own property.

Council Member Helen Rosenthal said that she's also seen this happening in her district on the Upper West Side, particularly when landlords get an opportunity to bring in larger corporate tenants for more money. She hopes to change this when designing new construction.

"In new buildings I'd love to have an opportunity to negotiate for physical spaces that would imply a small business," Rosenthal told Gotham Gazette.

Some advocates worry that rent increases will have an irrevocable effect on the small business community. Steven Barrison, executive vice president of the Small Business Congress, estimates that thousands of "mom and pop" businesses are closing shop every year.

"Businesses are in a crisis, they're on life support now," he said.

City and state officials are often wary, of course, of alienating the real estate industry - and there is a limit to what the City can do without receiving more support from Albany for commercial rent regulations.

Good news includes that as the economy continues to grow, small businesses are seeing better success rates. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, 80.7 percent of the establishments that opened in New York State during 2013 survived through 2014, and bankruptcies have declined since 2010.

Despite positive trends, entrepreneurs still face tough odds when running one of the city's many thousands of small businesses. Even with the possibility of additional federal and state funding, and the city's efforts to reduce regulatory hurdles, starting a business in New York will always be a risky proposition.

"Just having an idea is not enough in this country to have a sustainable business," said Cornegy. "You can open one, but sustainability is based on a good solid plan."

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by Cole Rosengren, Gotham Gazette
@ColeRosengrenNY

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As City Eases Burdens, Access to Capital, Rising Rents Remain Issues for Small Businesses Thu, 12 Mar 2015 05:00:00 +0000