YOU ARE IN HARLEM: 11 Steps to getting back to a homegrown solidarity economy for Harlem’s small businesses
Over the past year, the small businesses of Central Harlem have faced a number of existential threats: from the public health catastrophe of the COVID-19 pandemic, to the subsequent economic fallout and racial unrest against police terror. For Black small business owners, especially, this has been a tumultuous year that demands a radically different approach to the daily status quo. It’s also why I’ve chosen to run for City Council: as someone with deep roots here, I understand that Harlem’s homegrown businesses have always been the lifeblood of the neighborhood, generating wealth, opportunity, and pathways to social mobility. By investing in small businesses, we actually raise the tide for everyone.
Unfortunately, a year of endless crises has forced a reckoning with the very systems and policies that forced many businesses to shutter — and left even more to struggle under the weight of lost revenue and accruing debts. We can’t afford to let more homegrown businesses fall by the wayside. We can’t afford to let commercial rents keep spiraling out of control. And we can’t afford for more wealth and resources to flow out of our neighborhood when there are plenty of talented people here looking for jobs and opportunities.
For all of these reasons and more, I felt it especially important to address the needs of Harlem’s small business owners with its own policy platform. Below is my 11-point plan for strengthening small businesses and restoring economic justice to our community:
Dismantling Barriers and Enforcing State & Corporate Accountability:
1. Advance racial equity and economic restorative justice across all City-led community and business development programs
To address the needs of small businesses in Harlem, it is imperative that we not only address discrimination and the most immediate sources of harm to our community, but also seek to rectify the generations-long damage inflicted by redlining, segregation, mass incarceration, and systemic racism overall. Given how crucial small businesses are to wealth and job creation in a community, it is simply unacceptable that in a city that is 22% Black, only 2% of small businesses are African American-owned.
More can, and should, be done. For both our short-term needs as well as our long-term future, we must push all City-led community and business development programs to adopt principles of racial equity and economic restorative justice.
2. Push for immediate, direct assistance and supportive services for small businesses impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic
Since last year, the Covid-19 outbreak has been devastating to small businesses all across New York City. According to the advocacy coalition United for Small Business NYC, around 20% of such businesses were forced to close, and among those remaining, depressed revenue, reduced customer traffic, and added costs of implementing public health guidelines have left many on the brink of collapse. These struggles have also been felt more deeply among Black business owners, who were twice as likely to close shop than white counterparts.
Over the past year, the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) dispersed $5 million in loans as pandemic-related aid, but these have not been fairly distributed: While Black businesses were more likely to located in Covid-19 hotspots, and more likely to be concentrated in hard hit industries like restaurants and retail, Black small business owners were largely shortchanged on PPP loans.
In the face of an ongoing crisis, with many small businesses on the brink of collapse, there is simply no question: we have an imperative to provide immediate and direct assistance to those mom-and-pop shops and businesses that are the lifeblood of Harlem.
3. End discriminatory, predatory lending practices by commercial banks, lending institutions, and government agencies
For generations, discriminatory and predatory lending practices and racist obstructions to opportunity have driven many Harlem businesses to shutter while making it extraordinarily difficult for new ones to get off the ground. Despite anti-discrimination legislation, these practices continue (albeit in different form) among big banks and community business lenders — a fact evidenced by the unequal experiences highlighted by aspiring and established Black small business owners. Low approval rates for business loan applications have discouraged many Black small business owners from seeking traditional lines of credit: only 12% of entrepreneurs surveyed by Black Entrepreneurs NYC claimed receiving funds through a small business loan. As a result, fewer Black entrepreneurs in the city plan to finance their future business ventures using traditional lenders, with many instead turning to personal savings to cover start-up costs and capital improvements.
In a larger effort to ensure racial equity for small businesses, we must forcefully end discriminatory and predatory lending practices that create barriers for Black small business success.
4. Strengthen protections for commercial tenants
The unchecked rise in commercial rents have been one of the primary drivers of displacement and insecurity among small business owners, and is a leading cause for their resettlement outside Harlem and New York City. In fact, the lack of rent regulations has been so bad in recent years that commercial rents increased an average of 22% throughout the de Blasio Administration [USBnyc]. Many small businesses have made years-long contributions to the local economy, and it’s vital to Harlem’s success to halt their exodus from Manhattan. This can only be done by pushing for more aggressive measures that can tackle run-away rents, speculation, and extortion — beginning, first, with addressing the lack of protections available to commercial tenants.
Among other issues, the process for renewing commercial leases has come under attack by community groups for unfairly favoring the interests of landlords. According to research undertaken by Take Back NYC, this failed commercial lease renewal process is the primary reason established businesses (those operating for over five years) are forced to close shop or conduct layoffs. The unfavorable terms of commercial lease renewals are also implicated in landlord abuses like rent gouging, extortion, and speculation (see also point #5).
To deal with the flaws of commercial lease renewals, I will push for the passage and expansion of the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA), a bill introduced in City Council that would provide commercial tenants a number of specific rights, including: a minimum 10-year lease with the right to renewal; equal negotiation terms and the right to arbitration by third parties; and restrictions to abusive practices that enable landlords to shift the burden of property taxes onto small business owners. Put differently, the SBJSA would protect business tenants from sudden and arbitrary rent hikes, allow them to better plan for their futures, and ensure access to legal representation when necessary.
To more fully address the issue of rising rents, my policy agenda for commercial tenants will also include:
- Expanding provisions within the SBJSA to include stronger rent control measures for commercial tenants;
- Expanding the Commercial Lease Assistance program as well as relaxing its eligibility rules;
- More tax incentives for commercial landlords to lease spaces to local businesses and nonprofits at lower rents;
- Working with community land trusts and other nonprofits to safeguard affordable commercial spaces in the long term.
5. Impose stiffer penalties and accountability mechanisms for reckless landlords of commercial properties
As with my plan for affordable housing, we cannot rely on the sheer goodwill of landlords and the real estate lobby to protect Harlem’s small business owners. In conjunction with provisions of the SBJSA aimed at the most abusive practices employed by landlords — including extortion and rent gouging of small businesses seeking lease renewals — my small business plan will also work on imposing stiffer penalties against landlords who willingly keep their storefront properties empty in a bid to increase speculation and rents. In light of the widespread need for affordable rents in this moment of crisis, the warehousing of vacant storefronts is simply inexcusable. In fact, such reckless behavior not only jeopardizes the future of small businesses here, but produces a negative cascade effect that harms the entire Harlem community.
Building Equitable and Sustainable Opportunities for Harlem’s Small Businesses:
6. Make long-term investments in small businesses through increased grants, contracts, and forgivable or low-interest loans
In surveys and research studies, Black business owners cite the lack of access to funds and capital as the main obstacle for success. According to the survey conducted by BE NYC, 41% of forum participants highlighted funding — such as seed capital, low-cost lines of credit, and short-term microloans — as a top need. For that reason, my plan for small businesses will also include the developing well-researched, longer-term solutions and investments that can complement the emergency interventions required by the pandemic.
On the road to building business development initiatives and programs that will serve Harlem in for long-haul, my office will begin by first training and hiring local liaisons who can not only communicate between City Council and Harlem’s small business owners, but conduct the research needed for concrete and viable solutions.
In understanding that many small businesses have already faced discrimination, extortion, and unfavorable terms within their leases and loans, my office will also push for a distribution of government contracts and loans along principles of Restorative Justice. In this case, that includes prioritizing Black small business owners in government contracts, which would ensure long-term business relationships between Harlem business owners and City government.
Additionally, in cases where my office is able to control and influence the disbursement of business loans, I will push for fairer and simpler contractual terms — including expanding the number of exemptions available for complete loan forgiveness.
7. Institute a social equity plan that will increase opportunities and a level playing field for Black-owned cannabis businesses
For decades, marijuana prohibition and mass incarceration have wrecked the lives of countless Black individuals and families. This legacy cannot be overturned through drug legalization alone, as was done recently through the New York State Legislature’s passage of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA). When it comes to making amends for the incalculable harms done to our community through a vicious and racist drug war, I echo the Harlem Business Alliance’s call to enforce a racial equity plan based in principles of economic restorative justice. To this end, it is not enough that the MRTA include specific provisions around programs like affirmative action and minority- and women-owned business enterprises (M/WBEs) — programs that have under-represented the very Black New Yorkers most harmed by the drug war.
If the MRTA is truly committed to making “substantial investments in communities and people most impacted by marijuana criminalization,” then it is critical to amend the law to include some of HBA’s recommendations, including restricting the issuance of adult use dispensary licenses to Restorative Justice applicants, at least for the initial years of legalization, in order to even the playing field against existing, well-resourced cannabis companies. Cannabis businesses should not be able to reap more profits in Harlem while Black New Yorkers continue to languish in cages or suffer the after-effects of incarceration following years of prohibition.
8. Push for more protections and allowances for street vendors
There are as many as 20,000 street vendors in New York City, and for many years, restrictive vending laws have forced many of them to operate unlicensed ventures in the shadow economy. With high commercial rents blocking pathways to their own brick-and-mortar businesses, street vendors have often been susceptible to extortion, abuse, uneven regulations, and heavy-handed enforcement — particularly by the NYPD. While City Council has recently approved legislation to lift caps on new permits, this stopgap solution needs to be reinforced with stronger protections based on economic restorative justice. In this case, this means prioritizing the needs of long-standing street vendor operations in Central Harlem that were sidelined for years.
Building Towards Harlem’s Future:
9. Push for more ‘Buy Black’ and ‘Buy Local’ initiatives and cultural programming for commercial development
Cultural events and programs celebrating Black neighborhoods and urban history do more than just promote local districts and boost confidence and morale. For many small businesses, they also function as opportunities to increase sales and build critical relationships with local residents, community organizations, and other key neighborhood stakeholders. To that end, my Disrupt the District will promote and advocate for more initiatives and programming that emphasize local spending and relationship-building with other Harlem and city-based vendors.
To be sure, the concept behind ‘Buy Black’ initiatives has a long history that goes as far back as the late 19th century, and its promotion by countless Black leaders throughout the years was purposefully meant to address the problems created by commercial redlining and the lack local, Black business ownership even in majority Black neighborhoods. Ensuring more localized consumption not only increases local sales and improves much-needed business, raising prosperity for the families of Harlem, but also promotes Black self-sufficiency and community empowerment — in other words, addressing the issues we value most on our own terms. Rather than continue witnessing more money and resources flow towards non-Black, non-local businesses with larger and more reliable capital reserves, my Disrupt the District campaign promises to expand on previous ‘Buy Black’ and ‘Buy Local’ initiatives in Harlem — including neighboring East Harlem’s own successful buy-local initiative — with more official endorsement from City Hall.
10. Promote infrastructural improvements and improve sanitation, transportation, and access near business hubs while moving towards sustainability benchmarks of the Green New Deal
According to recent surveys of small business owners in Central Harlem, concerns around sanitation, beautification, and transportation access are top priorities — particularly because these factors impact the flow of customer traffic and revenue. Although there are, currently, a number of commercial revitalization programs and initiatives funded by the Department of Small Business Services and New York City’s 76 business improvement districts (BIDs), many of these fail to address the root causes of sanitation and transportation issues around business hubs, to say nothing of implementing a comprehensive package around economic justice. While BIDs, like Harlem’s 125th St BID, are central to the city’s strategy for commercial development, they are profoundly undemocratic and overly reliant on policing to enforce social order, which in turn puts homeless individuals, unlicensed street vendors, and countless others at risk. What’s more, according to United for Small Business NYC, their dependence on property tax assessments raises local property values and commercial rents while fueling gentrification.
As an alternative to this corporate- and police-centered approach to community revitalization, my vision for Harlem sees the Green New Deal as a policy package completely aligned with the long-term needs of our small businesses: it will incentivize more green jobs and green infrastructure that benefits the community, the environment, and our economy.
I will also expand youth employment programs that can tackle multiple issues at once: by employing youth to conduct clean-up and maintenance in local parks and commercial corridors, we can uplift family economic well-being while bringing benefits to the environment.
11. Promote and protect worker cooperatives while building a solidarity economy in Harlem
In envisioning a future Harlem that centers racial and economic justice, social equity, and self-determination, my policy platform for small businesses is also grounded in a larger belief in what’s been called the ‘solidarity economy’ — that is, an economic arrangement where the priorities of people and the planet come before the blind pursuit of profits. A solidarity economy in my view reframes the conversation away from capitalism’s obsession with markets and competition and replaces it, instead, with common sense principles based in solidarity, cooperation, mutual aid, and radical love.
Movement towards that vision, however, requires that we plant the seeds to a more just and sustainable Harlem today by investing in structures with the potential to equitably redistribute wealth among workers and small businesses owners. That includes increased funding and support for worker cooperatives, which unify the imperatives of commercial development with the needs and rights of laborers. (One potential blueprint for this can be found in the groundbreaking program Owner to Owners, which allows for employee ownership of businesses.) It also includes more investments in community land trusts, which can safeguard affordable rents for commercial and residential tenants in Harlem.
Only by securing the rights of workers and business owners can we truly speak of economic justice in Harlem.
Kristin Richardson Jordan (KRJ), Candidate for New York City Council District 9 Kristin is a poet, local activist, speaker, teacher, DSA member, Black queer woman, and third-generation Harlemite on a mission to disrupt District 9 (Central Harlem) with radical love. Started almost a year and a half before the murder of George Floyd, her Kristin for H.A.R.L.E.M. political platform includes advocacy for police accountability, abolition, affordable housing, redistribution of resources, senior care, gun control, education, and environmental justice. She is interested in making change both through her grassroots campaign and through a community-based participatory democracy once elected and has drafted policy on each of her HARLEM platform points. Find out more and get involved at KristinForHarlem.com.