Barkan: Commercial rent control will save small businesses


When I speak to small business owners across my district, I hear the same concerns over and over again. No matter how successful they may be in a given month or year, they are always afraid.

It’s not the fickleness of the economy or the changing habits of customers that keep them up at night. It’s simply that the rent is too damn high.

State Senate candidate Ross Barkan.

Throughout Southern Brooklyn, we’ve witnessed the spread of a virus that has its origins in Manhattan. High-rent blight has ruined our small business ecosystem, where mom-and-pop businesses could once make a go of it in New York. We are fast approaching a time when running a small business will be impossible.

Why? When leases run out, landlords have the power to raise rents as much as they want. The small business owner has no recourse. With real estate remaining such a hot commodity, a landlord has no real reason to cater to a small business—rather, the owner of the property can wait for a mega-chain, like a Starbucks or a Chase Bank or a Dunkin’ Donuts, to swoop in and pay the astronomical rent.

Storefronts sit vacant as landlords wait for these prized tenants who can afford any asking price and pay indefinitely. Small business owners are left out in the cold, unable pay rents that triple or quadruple in a year.

As a state senator, I promise to do everything I can to help small business owners in our community by bringing commercial rent control back to New York City. Long blocked by a greedy real estate lobby and the politicians beholden to them, commercial rent control would restore rights to commercial tenants who have virtually none.

Like the rent control and stabilization programs for tenants, which keep the working class from being entirely priced out of the five boroughs, commercial rent control could save countless small businesses, cut down on vacancies, and keep chain stores from fully taking over our neighborhoods.

Under commercial rent control, a cap would be set on the legal rent increase for any type of commercial tenant. A tenant in good standing would have the right to renew a lease.

This common-sense approach once existed in New York City. From 1945 to 1963, the state legislature enacted commercial rent control at the behest Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in response to rampant real estate speculation. After the law expired, there were sporadic renewal attempts but politicians—even those who claimed the progressive mantle—kowtowed to the real estate and landlord lobby and scuttled such efforts.

With a true affordability crisis on our hands, the time has come to bring commercial rent control back. Many of our small business owners are immigrants and people of color trying to live the American Dream.

Without help from the city and state, they are doomed to be crushed by out-of-town corporate interests who don’t care about our neighborhoods. Our favorite restaurants, bars, boutiques, bookstores, hair salons, and all kinds of businesses are disappearing before our eyes.

Only quick, drastic action can save them. If Democrats and Republicans cared about small businesses as much as they claimed, a commercial rent control bill would sail through the state legislature tomorrow.

We can’t afford to wait any longer. Small businesses are dying. They need a lifeline right now.

Ross Barkan is a Democratic State Senate candidate for District 22 in Brooklyn. He is also an award-winning journalist and columnist.