Guest Op-Ed: “Store For Rent”

I’ll get right to it: There are too many vacant storefronts in our community. I’ve counted over 60 “For Rent” signs that have popped up over the past few months – and that’s just in Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bath Beach and Bensonhurst. Not only does it look terrible, but it’s breaking my heart.

Sometimes it feels like every other week, another store or restaurant that’s been around forever suddenly announces it is closing. And while businesses come and go, and good things don’t last forever, it’s clear the outgoing shops, stores and restaurants aren’t being replaced by new ones as quickly as in the past.

Sure, renting a storefront along any desirable and high-traffic commercial corridor in New York City has never been cheap, but vacant storefronts negatively affect the landscape of our neighborhoods and the city as a whole in myriad ways. It’s called “commercial blight” and it’s happening all across the five boroughs.

But it just doesn’t make any sense. Most of us equate vacant storefronts with times of economic distress but that’s not what’s happening here at all.

In fact, New York City’s economy is booming. According to New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, we are experiencing the largest and longest economic expansion since World War II.

Employment is higher than ever. More jobs are being created outside of Manhattan than ever we’ve ever seen. New Yorkers are opening new businesses and creating new companies by leaps and bounds. And there are more New Yorkers making above $100,000 per year than ever before. So why are there so many empty storefronts?

It’s complicated. And I’ve found the causes tend to vary by neighborhood. In gentrifying and more affluent neighborhoods, landlords often can’t wait to evict their current tenants in hopes of higher-paying ones. In other neighborhoods, landlords often “warehouse” storefronts because they’re banking on a rezoning to change a neighborhood’s economy.

But, to be fair, while greedy landlords hiking up rents are absolutely a big part of the problem, the full picture is much more complicated.

Both independent businesses and corporate chains are hurting because retail is on the ropes and everyone buys everything online these days. Thus making it harder if not impossible for landlords to find any tenant willing to pay the rents they’re looking for.

That’s why, rather than having these storefronts sit vacant for months or years on end while landlords wait in vain for the magical long-term tenant of their dreams, I have always believed that landlords should give entrepreneurs a chance to open the business they’ve always dreamed about – if only for a little while.

To that end, I have been meeting with folks from Park Avenue to Pitkin Avenue to come up with ways to encourage landlords to rent to small businesses even if just for a short-term lease while the landlord waits for a long-term lease.

Sure, landlords have the legal right to hold out for the rents they want but it’s making our neighborhoods look terrible in the process. So there are a few things on the table right now: My colleague City Councilmember Rory Lancman of Queens and I have introduced a bill that would create a task force and get everyone in the same room – small business retail, labor unions, real estate and the business community – so we can figure out the best path forward to fix this problem.

There’s also the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA) that would regulate and effectively force landlords to negotiate rent increases with their tenants when leases come up for renewal. Believe it or not, this idea has been floating around since Ed Koch was mayor.

The idea here is to prevent landlords from trying to double or quadruple the rent on a small business that’s been a long-time tenant and would entitle storefront tenants to binding arbitration.

Furthermore, there have been discussions around creating a vacancy tax or fee that would penalize landlords who leave their storefronts vacant for long periods of time waiting for top-dollar rents. Something like this would have to come from Albany.

The future is uncertain, that much is clear. There may not be a panacea here but something’s gotta give and I am open to working with all stakeholders to find a smart solution.

I was elected to help solve problems. While I can’t promise it’ll be quick or painless, I can promise that you’ll never see me stop pushing.

Councilmember Justin Brannan represents the 43rd C.D.

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