Every week, we hear, and publish, stories about small local businesses folding and packing up their storefronts, forced out by astronomical rent increases. While the ebb and flow of businesses based on community needs is a normal part of urban life, the closures of late go beyond supply-and-demand market forces. Even highly successful boutiques, restaurants and service shops are getting booted when landlords realize that a bank or national retail chain would happily fork over triple the current rent. The locally owned businesses are often places that the community loves and patronizes regularly – the bookstore with curated stacks and knowledgeable staff who will guide customers with their love of literature; the family-owned dry cleaners who know their customers by name, the diner that’s been serving cheap, delicious comfort food for decades. But even a thriving business can’t prevent these stores from being priced out if their rent doubles or triples overnight.
Lawmakers and advocates have tried over the years to slow the loss of these mom-and-pop shops independently owned businesses, with little success. There are major complications, to be sure – giving tax incentives to landlords for renting to small, locally-owned commercial tenants, for example, requires approval from Albany that is difficult to obtain. But there must be other options, and it’s up to the new administration to make preserving small businesses a real priority.
The new mayor and city council need to take a hard, realistic look at this problem and recognize it for the emergency that it is. In the past, just as the alarming residential rents and low vacancy rates – a crisis which continues unabated a half century later – led to the creation of rent control laws in the ‘40s, our current retail rent environment, toxic to small local businesses, should be mitigated.
It’s not enough for the city and the local Business Improvement Districts to encourage residents to “shop local.” People already do that, and voting with our feet and our dollars isn’t doing enough to inspire landlords to forgo raising rents to prodigious levels. And until they have tangible reasons to do otherwise, we can hardly blame them. Whether through zoning laws, tax credits, or other legal incentives, the city and state need to work together to find creative ways to allow small businesses stay put.
Preserving small businesses in our communities isn’t a romantic, idealized notion. It’s absolutely crucial to every resident’s quality of life, and the city needs to act before every block is flanked by two drug store chains and a bank, with nary a local florist or diner in sight.
We want to hear your ideas and suggestions for how the city can help keep small businesses in our neighborhoods. Please send your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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