A small business visit (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)
After a devastating year for small businesses, we are heartened to see commitment from Mayor de Blasio and the City Council to dedicate $155 million to small business recovery and job training. In the last year, we’ve lost many businesses and community spaces due to the pandemic and the lack of timely and sufficient action at all levels of government. Now, thanks to the advocacy of small businesses and commercial tenants from across the city, the mayor’s executive budget plan shows some real hope for the businesses that have been able to make it this far.
One exciting part of this investment in economic recovery is expanded funding for the Commercial Lease Assistance Program (CLA). Launched by the Department of Small Business Services in 2018 after sustained advocacy from our coalition, USBnyc, the CLA Program provides free legal representation in connection with commercial leases to underserved small business owners who otherwise cannot afford counsel. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the CLA Program has seen a 10-fold surge in requests for help from commercial tenants who urgently needed advice and representation in approaching lease negotiations with landlords or formalizing unwritten agreements.
In March 2021, United for Small Business (USBnyc) coalition members testified before the City Council small business committee at the preliminary budget hearing. Together, we called for CLA funding to be expanded and baselined. Now that the mayor has announced a proposed expansion in CLA funding, we look forward to working with both the administration and the City Council to ensure this critical program is funded in the final fiscal year 2022 budget, due by July 1, at the proposed level of $5 million and that the program is retained continuously with current providers so that services are not again interrupted.
In future years, we would also want to see that funding baselined and the program scope expanded to serve nonprofit commercial tenants, as well as including litigation in harassment and other cases.
On top of expanded legal assistance, the $100 million small business grant program represents a huge opportunity to help small businesses get through the next few months. Many of the businesses we work with owe tens of thousands of dollars in back rent, if not more, from periods of state-mandated restrictions on activity and capacity. They need financial support to ensure that back rent doesn’t foreclose the possibility of recovery. It is critically important to make sure that these grants are rolled out in a way that is accessible to immigrants and people of color, who have struggled to access assistance throughout the pandemic. Information about the programs should be widely distributed, in multiple languages, to businesses and community-based organizations before applications become available, and a wide range of documentation should be acceptable. This is an opportunity to prioritize New York’s smallest businesses and those who have not been able to access other forms of support.
In the first official debate among leading Democratic mayoral candidates, almost all of them highlighted small business support as a critical piece of the city's recovery from COVID-19, and some acknowledged the importance of rent as a barrier to recovery, along with discriminatory enforcement.
Small business recovery should be part of the discussion for the upcoming debate as well. We hope the next mayoral administration will take bold and comprehensive action to ensure that local economic development is supported.
And in the last year of the current administration, we hope the Council and mayor will take steps to address these long-term challenges of commercial rent and vacancy. This proposed budget represents a step in the right direction, and we are proud to have helped get the city to this point.
Abigail Ellman is Director of Planning and Development at the Cooper Square Committee; Olympia Kazi is founding member of the New York City Artist Coalition; and both are members of the United for Small Business NYC Coalition. On Twitter @usb_nyc.