As the city prepares to shell out over $1 billion in subsidies to Amazon so they can build a flagship office in Long Island City, it’s hitting small and immigrant-run businesses with fines of at least $6,000. The cause of these fines? Having unregulated signs and awnings.
Councilmembers Justin Brannan (D-Bay Ridge) and Carlos Menchaca (D-Sunset Park, Red Hook) have committed themselves to helping small businesses owners in Brooklyn that have unexpectedly been hit with steep fines over their awnings and signs.
According to data from the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB), the number of 311 reports over illegal signs and awnings in Brooklyn surged from 77 in October to 234 in November — a threefold increase.
Menchaca will host the DOB at a meeting Wednesday evening in Sunset Park’s Brooklyn Community Improvement Association, where locals may ask department officials questions about the sign and awning fines.
Andrew Rudansky, Deputy Press Secretary for the DOB, denied a crackdown was occurring, telling KCP that the department is legally obligated to respond to all such 311 calls of any sign violations, the existing regulations of which have been on the books since 1968. These include a mandate that all non-painted signs greater than six square feet in size must require a permit and placement by a licensed sign-hanger as well as neighborhood zoning laws.
Under a 2017 law, the minimum fine for business owners that put up such illegal signs and awnings is $6,000.
“There is nothing wrong with an owner wanting to hang a sign outside their business to draw in customers,” said Rudansky. “But for the safety of pedestrians walking underneath, it must be permitted by the city and put up by a licensed professional who can do the work properly.”
Despite prior instances of such unauthorized signs collapsing and posing risks to the public, Brannan dismissed the idea that safety was the primary motivator behind the calls, suggesting they were motivated by economics and racism instead.
“Seems there may be some sign companies looking for extra business behind this campaign as well. Sort of like the guy who owns the flat tire place that goes around slashing everyone’s tires or the glass repair place that goes around breaking car windows to `create’ new business,” he said. “To be clear, this is not about signs that are unsafe or were installed carelessly, etc. This is about paperwork and permits, etc. And it appears many of the stores being targeted are immigrant owners – especially Chinese and Arabic.”
Even if the 311 reports are disingenuous, as Menchaca and Brannan suspect, there is not much the DOB can do to help shed a light on it. “311 complaints are anonymous,” explained Rudansky.
One neighborhood that has been especially hit hard by these fines is Fort Greene, and specifically Fulton Street.
According to neighborhood activist Schellie Hagan, there has been a cluster of four stores, two sets of two stores side by side, on one side of the block between St James and Washington on Fulton Street that have taken their awnings down.
“I think they were all hit at the same time, but am not sure because the owners haven’t been around when I stopped in — but even when I manage to talk to an owner, he can’t say who it was who told him his awning had to come down. It’s hard to hear how easy it is to push these small businesses around, how self-defenseless so many are,” said Hagan in an email to City Council Member Laurie Cumbo‘s (D-Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights, Crown Heights) office.
Cumbo’s office did not return several calls and emails at post time.
Hagan has also produced emails stating that small business owners in Crown Heights and Coney Island are also being hit with the fines.
Menchaca’s meeting with business owners and DOB officials is slated for 6 p.m., tomorrow, Dec. 5 at the Brooklyn Community Improvement Association, 720 57th Street in Sunset Park.