Updated: Demanding Progressive Politics from Progressive Politicians

by William Powhida on June 28, 2017 · 1 comment Opinion


New York is a famously blue state for politics that often seem conservative. Currently we have eight members of the Independent Democratic Conference holding the party’s agenda hostage in Albany because they think it’s too liberal. This includes single-payer health care, expanding abortion rights, and adopting public campaign financing. So, while I’d like to see more leftist policies take hold on both the city and state level, I have some concerns about the politicians that are supposedly leading that charge.

But the tides do seem to be changing thanks, in part, to the democratic activism that has taken root across the nation in response to Trump’s presidency. I’ve seen this translated into local politics as well, most recently, last Thursday at a fundraiser in Williamsburg. There, I spoke with District 34 City Council member Antonio Reynoso who is not only a Democrat, but a member of the City Council’s progressive caucus. And yet, for years he has withheld support for The Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA), a bill that would give commercial renters a small measure of agency against a powerful real estate industry. Currently, that industry is on its way to pricing out the the middle class from this city and is losing a 1,000 small businesses a month, according the Small Business Congress.  The bill is also one of the few options for artists, who often rent commercial spaces, to slow down the breakneck speed of gentrification and displacement.  

What it does is simple: the SBJSA provides current lease holders the first option to renew a ten year minimum lease. If the renter believes proposed rent increases are too high, they can ask the city for 3rd party binding arbitration.  While the city cannot set the rental prices, they can slow the leasing process down. This was one of my main points to Reynoso who initially suggested the law was unconstitutional and misunderstood by his constituents as rent-regulation. The SBJSA is not rent-regulation (a stronger measure which is also constitutional, but the subject of greater debate), but a set of city wide guidelines for commercial rent-negotiation.

After speaking with Reynoso for several minutes and making my case for the SBJSA, he expressed that he hadn’t heard the bill described as a measure to slow the pace of developer-led gentrification. It gave me a good deal of satisfaction to hear him express that, since his support, along with the progressive caucus, for the SBJSA is crucial. Notably, though, he’s up for re-election and the city’s residents are more involved in politics than they have been since the 70’s. Could this change be opening his mind?

As it happens, during a Q&A in which he fielded questions from the audience for nearly two hours, Reynoso publicly shared he is willing to change his mind as a politician and cited his new understanding of the SBJSA as an example. While I take Antonio at his word, I also had informed him that District 26 City Council member — majority leader of the City Council and chairman of New York City’s Cultural Affairs Committee — Jimmy Van Bramer had recently announced his intention, following re-election in November, to take over as the primary sponsor of the SBJSA. Van Bramer made his announcement at a Tish James town hall meeting and followed it up at a anti-rezoning rally in Long Island City.

This is an important development for artists who want to hold onto commercial spaces.  The Artist Studio Affordability Project (ASAP) has pushed for the legislation for years along with groups like the Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce, Jeremiah Moss’  #savenyc, The Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network, and the Greenwich Village society for historic preservation. Unfortunately, the bill has a long history of being sidelined by the New York City politicians.  Manhattan District 4 City Council member Daniel Garodnick—a Democrat— repeated discredited claims that the bill is unconstitutional on WNYC’s Brian Leher show, an argument first made by the powerful Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY). They aren’t exactly a disinterested party.

Garodnick’s claims that the SBJSA is unconstitutional is a flat out lie. In a sharply written piece from last year Small Business Congress president Sung Soo Kim calls the SBJSA the most “the most legally scrutinized legislation in City Council history,” citing several instances where the bill was deemed lawful, even by its opponents. That Garodnick and others continue to insist that the SBJSA is not legal continues to weaken support and provides an excuse for even progressive council members to avoid confronting powerful real estate interests like REBNY.  This is why it is crucial that artists and other small business owners get involved with our local politics, (not just freak out about the Trump administration) and push Democrats towards genuinely progressive policies. If we don’t our studios will be transformed into WeWork spaces and our delis, fancy cheesemongers.

It’s for this reason that ASAP has been working hard for years to counter REBNY’s position and push City Council members to support the bill. Van Bramer’s sponsorship announcement constitutes progress, but it will remain intangible unless we see more New York City residents—including artists—pushing their council members to support and, most crucially, vote for the bill. The SBJSA won’t even come to a vote unless council members like Antonio Reynoso feel like they are fighting for their constituents.  They need to hear from you, not only about the SBJSA, but crucial issues around city-wide rezoning plans, affordable housing, and the many issues that progressive Democrats need to fight for.    

Last Thursday, I was not planning on writing another article in support of the SBJSA. I wanted attend my first fundraiser for a local city politician with the hope that I might be able to put in a word for the SBJSA. I had donated $34 dollars to Reynoso’s campaign, which the city matches 6:1 for city residents, and took the opportunity to ask him about the bill. I wasn’t expecting to debate the bill or hear him publicly reconsider his position on it. 

But I did, and probably that’s because there are so many issues facing New Yorkers—subways that don’t work, growing income inequality, the effects of a new Trump kleptocracy—that we’re all a little more involved. And I’m glad about that. But we can’t let these issues dominate our lives so much that we forget what makes our livelihoods possible. We need affordable homes and spaces to work. If we want to keep them, we need to do more than express our outrage and disgust. We need to be involved with the actual work of representative democracy.  

UPDATE: Reynoso has signed onto the SBJSA bringing the number of supporting votes up to 29. 32 is considered a super majority, but that number of councilman had signed onto the bill in 2010 when Christine Quinn killed it just before it came to the floor for a vote.

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