On April 12, 1993, Mayor Dinkins declared that New York City would crack down on illegal street vendors. We recognize that illegal vending has become a thorn in the side of small business, Dinkins told a City Hall audience. The following day, the mayor announced another concession to small business: Merchants in some parts of the city will no longer be fined for failing to sweep the street 18 inches from the curb in front of their stores.
Dinkins and other New York politicians are discovering that the citys estimated 189,000 small business owners are a potentially powerful political constituency. Though they have never before managed to unite and become an effective political force, they would constitute a sizable voting bloc-and a very unhappy one. A December 1992 poll conducted for Crains New York Business found that 85 percent of small business owners are dissatisfied with city services, and 80 percent said they intend to vote against Dinkins in November. Only 10 percent supported the mayor.
The dissatisfaction with Dinkins resulted in part from his abandonment of a 1989 campaign promise to push for legislation that would regulate commercial rents by subjecting rent increases to binding arbitration. Steve Null of the Small Business Congress, an influential activist group formed in 1991 to lobby on behalf of small firms, calls the proposal an antigouging bill. But with rents falling as the real estate market declines, rent regulation would have little immediate effect.
Moreover, it is seriously flawed as a strategy for helping small business. It would benefit one group of entrepreneurs-those with existing leases coming up for renewal. But it would do so at the expense of landlords, most of whom are themselves small businessmen. And, as with residential rent regulation, some of the costs would inevitably be passed on in the form of higher rents for new tenants. Its really a question of the haves versus the have-nots, says Jack Freund of the Rent Stabilization Association, a landlord group. You dont see any prospective tenants asking for binding arbitration.
Dinkins and his challengers, however, increasingly recognize that many of the burdens on small companies are imposed by the city itself. In a January 1993 New York Post op-ed article entitled Small Business Holds Key to Citys Economic Vitality, Rudolph Giuliani blasted the citys entrenched culture of over-taxation, over-regulation, and crime. Before dropping out of the mayors race, Andrew Stein used his position as City Council president to hold hearings on small businesses and promised to eliminate the commercial occupancy tax, viewed by many small firms as a particularly burdensome levy. (Dinkins and Giuliani also support reductions in this tax.)
Small businessmen across the city are in trouble, because we are now second-rate citizens in a society of bureaucrats salaried by small businesses, says Greg Etchison, owner of Brownstone Gallery, a paint store in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Statistics bear out Etchisons complaint: small business accounted for three-fourths of all job growth in the nation during the 1980s, but less than one-fourth in the city. New Yorks economic boom was primarily driven by the growth of the financial sector.
Etchison is a founding member of the Merchant and Entrepreneur Rights Coalition Inc. (MERCI), a year-old grassroots organization that represents more than thirty neighborhood small-business groups and some ten thousand businesses. MERCI is concentrating on three burdens on business that are direct results of city policy: the 18-inch sanitation law, the commercial occupancy tax, and the proliferation of street vendors.
Dinkinss decision to relax enforcement of the 18-inch rule is a welcome step, but it only applies to 15 of the citys 59 community board districts, where the Mayors Office of Operations found that at least 75 percent of the streets arc in acceptably clean condition. Poor neighborhoods tend to have the most serious sanitation problems. In West Harlem and the South Bronx, less than 40 percent of streets are rated acceptably clean. Merchants in these communities, therefore, will not benefit from the Dinkins measure.
Dinkins has proposed raising the thresholds for the commercial occupancy tax from $11,000 and $15,700 to $21,000 and $30,000. Such a move would exempt 28,000 companies from the tax, according to Dinkinss estimate. But these firms would end up paying the tax again if their rent later rose above the new threshold.
Mayor Dinkins, who was himself a street vendor during his youth, appears ambivalent about the role of peddlers in the citys economy. For better or worse, street vending constitutes a thriving industry in New York City, he said in April, as he announced his plan to expand the Police Departments 46-member unit that enforces restrictions on peddling, by adding 36 officers and 31 new inspectors and other personnel.
Dinkinss opponents immediately jumped on his plan. Stein said it was too little, too late, and Giuliani told the New York Times he was glad the mayor finally got a wake-up call on the problem, because Ive been sounding the alarm for two years. Much of this, of course, can be dismissed as election-year posturing. Indeed, it is difficult to avoid the cynical conclusion that New Yorks politicians have simply found a new interest group to pander to.
Cynicism notwithstanding, a city more sensitive to the needs of its small businesses would be far better equipped for the considerable economic challenges now facing New York. Entrepreneurs growing political clout may be the best reason for optimism about New Yorks economic future.