Can NYC’s Storefront Registry Help Level the Playing Field for Embattled Commercial Tenants?
Born and raised on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Francisco Gonzalez knows New York City’s storefronts are sacred — bodegas, barbershops, beauty salons, 24-hour laundromats, legendary holes in the wall and proverbial eyes on the street. But he also knows that New York City’s storefronts are under threat of losing the deep community ties that are a large part of what makes them so sacred.
Since 2001, Gonzalez has worked as a real estate broker for commercial spaces as well as residential in his neighborhood, also known as Alphabet City, the East Village, or as he knows it best, Loisaida — the name bestowed upon it by Puerto Rican poets and activists in the 1970s.
“Casa Adela has been here since the 1970s,” Gonzalez says. “Adela was a close friend of mine. We still have some places like that. El Rinconcito, on 10th Street. They’re under contract [to rent their space] for so many years but once that contract expires, the rents go up and the business closes. That’s the real deal when it comes to that.”
Even the pandemic hasn’t seemed to re-adjust property owners’ long-term expectations. Gonzalez says during the pandemic he saw some vacant commercial spaces being offered at prices he hadn’t seen since the 1990s. But they were only offering leases at those prices for one or two years at most, anticipating they could re-raise rents to whatever they want once the pandemic is completely over. And now, even after some commercial tenants completely folded during the pandemic, Gonzalez says commercial landlords are already back to asking for prices that are close to pre-pandemic levels.
And yet, “there are still a lot more vacancies and commercial spaces right now in my area,” Gonzalez says.
Maybe some unprecedented new data can help. For the first time, there’s an official count of 70,202 storefronts in New York. The figure comes from the city’s Department of Finance, which earlier this year released the first edition of the city’s storefront registry.
The NYC Storefront Registry contains data on every storefront in the city, including lease terms (such as rent, least start and lease end dates), square footage of each premises, permitted business type, and whether the storefront is leased, occupied by the building owner, under construction, or vacant. The Department of Finance is supposed to update the registry every quarter. The most recent figures available are from December 2019.
It’s music to Gonzalez’ ears. Information is power, and his eyes light up just thinking about how it can help him negotiate on behalf of his small business clients.
“I didn’t even think a thing like that exists,” Gonzalez says. “This information is key to my commercial clients. I can show them what the market is like, I can show them comparables. It’s all useful. It’s saving me a lot of work.”
The registry exists thanks to United for Small Business NYC, a citywide coalition of small business groups, community development groups and legal aid groups serving small businesses. In 2019, the coalition pushed for the passage of Intro 1472, mandating the city’s Department of Finance to collect the data, make it available to the public, and update it every quarter. Owners of a ground floor or second floor commercial premises are required to submit the information as part of their annual income and expense statements, and face fines of up to $500 for failing to do so.
“This is the type of data that housing organizers throughout New York have for the housing market, and they really use this kind of data to create strong organizing campaigns, and that’s why we were so involved in pushing for the law,” says Karen Narefsky, senior organizer for equitable economic development at the Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development, one of the coalition member organizations.
The registry includes all “ground-floor or second-floor commercial premises that are visible from the street and accessible to the public directly from the street or from the interior of a building.” It’s no surprise Manhattan leads the way with 25,304 storefronts, followed by Brooklyn with 16,671, Queens with 15,230, the Bronx with 9,970, and Staten Island with 3,027.
Citywide, 5,831 storefronts were reported vacant — a storefront vacancy rate of 8.3%. By borough, Brooklyn and Manhattan were nearly tied with 9.2% and 9.1% storefront vacancy rates, respectively, followed by Staten Island at 8.5%, Queens at 7% and the Bronx at 6.8%.