On June 28th, Mayor Bill De Blasio signed into law a very important bill in order to help limit commercial tenant harassment partially responsible for the high rate of business closures in gentrifying neighborhoods like Bushwick. Int 851-B provides a working definition of what constitutes landlord harassment of commercial tenants and puts into place a series of civil penalties ranging from $1,000 to $10,000 that can be implemented to address harassment.
The law itself defines what constitutes tenant harassment in commercial spaces. Landlords will no longer be able to cut off heat and hot water to businesses in the hopes that lack of basic services will force them out of the space. Landlords generally use these tactics to force out tenants who may pay a lower rent than what an “emerging” market can bear. De Blasio, when signing the bill into law, said “it’s up to us [legislators] to protect New Yorkers where they live and where they work. Our small businesses are not only engines of our economy – they are an essential part of our city’s character.”
According to Law360, several groups opposed the law when it was introduced a year ago including the Real Estate Board of New York, the New York State Real Property Law Committee, and the Co-op Condo Committee. The bill’s twelve sponsors in City Council include Antonio Reynoso, whose district includes parts of Williamsburg and Bushwick.
Make the Road New York and small business owners gathered two days later near Wyckoff Avenue where several small businesses have recently closed their doors. Those who were there were happy to see commercial tenants finally receive some of the same protections as residential tenants, but they also stressed how much more needs to be done to protect middle-class business owners from predatory behavior.
One Bushwick business owner weighed in:
Owner of Esmeralda’s Restaurant in Bushwick
During the last thirteen years I have been proud to own a business that serves as a gathering place for the Latino community. In the last three years I have faced harassment from my landlord: cutting off water when my restaurant is full, cutting off air conditioning in the heat of summer, not repairing a leak from the roof that has grown mold. While helpful, I worry that the new anti-harassment law will prove insufficient. The law places the burden of proof of the intent to harass on the small businesses. Without providing low-cost legal services to struggling businesses, I am concerned that few businesses will be able to take advantage of this new law.
Now that Bushwick commercial spaces are desirable, landlords with tenants paying a lot less than they could get from a bank or a national chain would have taken advantage of no laws restricting their behavior when it comes to forcing longtime tenants out. But even though the law would require landlords to pay tenant’s legal fees if the tenant were to win a court case, legal fees can add up for a small business, and some owners will still be unable to take the risk of losing their business, choosing to put up with the harassment for as long as they can instead.