How Bad Is NYC’s Vacant Storefront Problem? Council Wants To Know

(GOTHAMIST)  Sam Raskin, March 19, 2019

With a perceived uptick in vacant storefronts in parts of the city getting more attention, the City Council’s small business committee held a hearing Monday to consider a package of proposals to address the growing problem. Legislation discussed at the hearing included bills to require that landlords report storefront vacancies to the city and provide legal assistance to small businesses facing eviction—though not the contentious Small Business Jobs Survival Act, which had its own hearing last fall—with local elected officials and advocates mostly expressing positive sentiments about the proposed reforms.

One of the bills discussed Monday, Intro 1473, would mandate commercial landlords submit properties that become vacant to the city Department of Small Business Services, imposing a penalty of a $1,000-per-week fine on property owners who fail to do so. Another, Intro 1472, would mandate that the city compile a storefront-properties online database, which would include information on rent, size and permitted use.

These bills are intended to begin to address “high-rent blight,” where local businesses leave retail spaces because they can no longer afford their landlords’ asking price, and end up not being replaced. By gathering information, the council could gain insight into the city’s retail vacancy problems, as it considers and potentially tweaks the SBJSA. Council Speaker Corey Johnson in a prepared statement said the package of bills discussed Monday are a “critical part of the City Council’s ongoing efforts to help small business” in the city.

The hearing comes after years of debates of the SBJSA, which would give retail tenants the right to a 10-year lease renewal and provide tenants with third-party arbitrators if necessary. Last October, the council held a marathon deliberation on the legislation, which was first proposed 30 years ago and last discussed at a hearing in 2009, when then-Council Speaker Christine Quinn never brought it up for a vote despite the bill being sponsored by a majority of councilmembers. The bill now has 30 sponsors, enough to pass if it were to be brought to vote; the council has been meeting with SBJSA advocates, Politico NY reported Monday, and work on the legislation is ongoing.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who cosponsored the bill requiring landlords report the vacancy status of storefront properties and has been sounding the alarm on commercial vacancies in recent years, talked up the benefits of having a definitive accounting of empty storefronts.

“This database will identify vacancy trends throughout the city, spot areas where vacancies are rapidly increasing, and identify specific property owners and managers who demonstrate a pattern of forcing out small business,” Brewer said at the hearing. “Everyone I talk to about this issue agrees: We need a database.”

The city’s small business agency was on board, as well.

“While we continue to review the details of the legislation, we share many of the council’s goals in offering it,” said SBS Commissioner Gregg Bishop. “We agree that more data is needed to better fully understand the scale of commercial vacancies and address them.”

He added that a registry would be an “important part of the effort” of passing a vacancy fee, a state-level policy the de Blasio administration is pushing.