Hello, and welcome to the second edition of this NYC election-focused newsletter! If you haven’t seen the first one, check it out here. I’m independent journalist Felipe De La Hoz, and our goal is to bring you some coverage of the upcoming municipal primaries from the perspective of constituencies and communities.
Today, we turn to small businesses. It’s no secret that everyone from street vendors, restaurants and bodega owners, barbers and nail salons have been hard-hit by the lockdowns and economic downturn. (Check out Andrew Yang’s tweet drama this week over vendors.)
Not only did businesses shutter as coronavirus swept over the city, but the would-be customers have also found themselves locked-in and often merely trying to survive themselves. Whereas locals may have once gone to a favorite neighborhood spot, thousands are now likely to rely on mutual aid and worry about making rent.
“I would be on my knees every day asking God to not let me have to close my business,” said María Muci, owner of Ipanema Laundry in South Harlem. Muci has operated the laundromat in the same storefront just north of Central Park for about 26 years, she said, after immigrating to New York from Brazil. Like other retail businesses, Ipanema closed down to the public last March, though clients could still drop off laundry. Even after things opened back up, costs were steady, but business was slow. “It was sad to watch, I’d be sitting in here crying and watching TV” with no customers around, said Muci. She managed to avoid laying off employees but had some get sick or spend time away, and figures most of her clients simply didn’t feel safe leaving their homes.
Voting in New York City can be confusing. Did you know you have to register with a party before you can vote in its primary, or that this year will feature the first round of ranked-choice voting, where you can select an order of candidates by preference? For more guidance and resources, see here:
Do you have any topics you want us to focus on or questions you want this newsletter to answer? We’d love to hear from you! Reach us at NYCelections@url-media.com
Aid to these businesses could take a variety of paths, some policy-driven, some bureaucratic, and some simply financial. On the latter point, it will be up to state and local policymakers to figure out the distribution of their share of the $1.9 trillion federal aid package that was approved earlier this year. New York State is estimated to be getting $23.3 billion of the funding, with $12.7 billion going to the state government and $5.6 billion directly to New York City, adding to the $5.1 billion for the state and $1.4 billion for the city already allocated under last year’s relief bill.
Simply pumping this money back into economic circulation through state-run social service programs like insurance subsidies and direct financial aid to New Yorkers in need will go a long way to jump-starting commerce.
But it won’t be enough to rescue small businesses.
Kim Moscaritolo is a community activist who started the local business-promotion group Yorkville Buy Local in 2019. She is now running for the City Council’s District 5 — encompassing the Upper East Side, Yorkville, and some of East Harlem, among other neighborhoods. She said that the city government should “utilize a lot of those federal funds to create a grant program for small businesses, including microbusiness assistance funds focused on minority-owned businesses.”
Even relatively small cash disbursements could make a huge difference to struggling small businesses, though Moscaritolo stresses that this would be useless without a corresponding outreach effort that helped owners learn about and apply for the program. “When the original round of [the federal Paycheck Protection Program] loans came out, larger companies and businesses had an advantage because they had the resources and the know-how to really navigate the system in a way that, quite honestly, a lot of our local small business owners, especially folks who were immigrants, didn’t really have the the ability to do,” she said.
Such was the plight of Bronx resident Solange Konan, an immigrant from the Ivory Coast who is the proprietor and sole employee of a business where she sells incense and other goods from a table she sets up on Harlem’s Lenox Avenue. The stand was closed from March to August last year, and business remains very slow now, months later. “The people don’t have jobs, they cannot buy the stuff,” she said. “They only promise, ‘I’ll come back, I’ll come back.’”
Konan complained that, because she was the owner of her own microbusiness, she couldn’t get unemployment benefits when she had to shut down. She was unaware about the PPP program, and was frustrated that there hadn’t been more information available about how to apply for relief. Her stand is permitted, but even so the extent to which her business can directly benefit from the billions of dollars in federal aid, plus the additional state revenues of new measures like marijuana taxation, will depend on how assistance programs are crafted by city and state officials.
Beyond direct funding of small businesses, there are a few steps the city and state could take to reduce costs and burdens. Muci, of the laundromat, pointed out that, under a common but often-overlooked commercial lease structure, she is responsible for paying a large share of her landlord’s property tax. The revenues from her and many others’ small businesses have ended up going mostly to just covering costs, whether rent, taxes, insurance, or salaries. City and state policymakers could work to maintain caps on commercial rents and help these businesses manage other costs, rather than just providing money.
Without both new programs that are specifically targeted at business owners like Muci and Konan, bureaucratic workflows that emphasize ease of use, and an effort to proactively offer assistance instead of waiting for business owners to come to the government, the funds themselves will not go a long way to safeguarding the small-business commerce that undergirds so many of the city’s communities. It’s also an opportunity for the new slate of elected leaders to work to reform some of the systems that were already failing them before, and have been exacerbated by the economic downturn. For small business owners themselves, the elections are an opportunity to put these issues front and center, and ask the many candidates for the many open Council seats what their plan is for ensuring their survival. As policymakers continue to make decisions about the economic path forward, we will keep asking, and keep you updated.
Here’s what we’re reading:
The New York Times
New York Reaches Deal on $212 Billion Budget to Jump-Start Recovery
This newsletter was written by Felipe De La Hoz. Photographs and design by Nitin Mukul. Did you like it or find it useful? Tell a friend to sign up. Support our vendors, freelancers and efforts by making a donation to our tip jar.