At a five-hour hearing Monday, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson struggled with a controversial bill that would protect retail and office tenants from rent increases.
Johnson described the legislation, known as the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, as flawed but challenged critics to suggest better solutions to what he and other council members called a crisis of store closures.
"Longtime small businesses are closing at an alarming rate, leaving our neighborhoods pockmarked with empty stores," Johnson said. "When these mom-and-pops go, our neighborhoods lose essential services, goods and jobs, and we lose a piece of the city. I can't imagine a New York without its mom-and-pop shops."
Chief among Johnson's criticism is that the bill would protect not just small stores but the corporate chains that have, in some cases, been displacing them. Johnson, who, as speaker, essentially can block legislation or help it along, also appeared to suggest that the bill—conceived as a way to help retailers—should not reach into the world of office leasing. As written, it could help large office users, such as coworking giant WeWork and investment bank Goldman Sachs.
"Don't think this bill is a perfect bill," Johnson said. "It shouldn't treat WeWork the same way as a bodega, and that's what it does currently. If you're Goldman Sachs, you're treated the same way as a bodega. That doesn't make any sense. I'm not here today to help WeWork or Goldman Sachs."
Johnson and the bill's supporters, however, seized on a spate of store closures—including the recent news that popular West Village eatery Tortilla Flats would soon shutter rather than agree to a large rent increase—as evidence that otherwise healthy businesses need some kind of legislative assistance to keep operating.