NYC small businesses seek relief from rising rents

McNally Jackson Booksellers has been a mainstay on Prince Street in Manhattan for 15 years but not for much longer.

"I got a call from my landlord saying brokers told him he could get $850,000 for the space and I currently pay $350,000," owner Sarah McNally said.

She told the landlord she couldn't afford a $500,000 rent hike and said he refused to negotiate.

"I knew the rent should go up—it's fair for rent to go up," McNally said. "But I was surprised it would more than double."

The store will move to a new location next year but McNally said she believes her experience as a small business owner isn't unique as witnessed in the city's ever-growing number of vacant storefronts. She is among the many who support the proposed Small Business Jobs Survival Act.

"We need strong legislative action to level playing field and give these stores a fighting chance," Council Member Margaret Chin said during a rally at City Hall.

The legislation was first introduced in 1988 and has stalled in the 30 years since. Among its provisions: it would enable tenants in good standing to get a 10-year lease with the right to renewal and give tenants the right to arbitration if they believe the rent increase is too much.

"This bill is about fairness, it's about rights, it's about stopping extortion," Council Member Ydannis Rodriguez said at that rally. He is the bill's primary sponsor and said it would not be a form of rent control.

But opponents, such as the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce and the Real Estate Board of New York, say otherwise.

"Commercial rent control ignores market conditions and would hurt the economy," Real Estate Board president John Banks said.

Further, REBNY cited the New York City Bar Association's recent report that the city does not have the authority to establish commercial rent control so any such legislation wouldn't survive a court challenge. (Many members of the City Council disagree.)

McNally and other small-business owners said they feel like the real estate landscape is reaching crisis point and that urban blight is growing.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said in a statement that protecting "mom and pop" businesses is one of his top priorities and that the legislation deserves a hearing.

"I am eagerly looking forward to hearing testimony from stakeholders ranging from small businesses, academics, community activists and property owners," Johnson said. "Small retail tenants in particular, the kind of tenants that are a vital part of the character of our neighborhoods, desperately need our help."

The bill will have a hearing Monday, October 22, at 1 p.m. at City Hall. The bill's sponsors are urging small-business owners to show up and testify.