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A Full Block of Latino Small Businesses in New York City Could Be Evicted Due to Skyrocketing Rent

First Posted: Jun 20, 2015 04:40 PM EDT
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Punta Cana, a Dominican restaurant located in the Washington Heights on Manhattan, is one of seven Latino-owned businesses in the area in jeopardy of closing down due to a pending eviction.

Angel Santos has owned the 600-square-foot Dominican restaurant at 3880 Broadway since 1997. However, if a judge moves forward with evictions as expected, he and his family will lose the property.

The cost of rent for local businesses went up after real estate investors from Coltown Properties purchased the Washington Heights building in 2012 as part of a $31 million real estate deal. Included in the deal were five rental buildings, which housed 217 rental units and 11 small businesses besides Punta Cana.

According to Quenia Abreu, the president and CEO of the New York Women's Chamber of Commerce, the new building owners declined to renew the commercial rental leases on the street.

"When a lease is not renewed, either for a residential or commercial tenant, landlords can continue renting to the existing tenant under an implied month-to-month agreement until the tenant moves out or a new lease is negotiated. That's where the trouble usually starts for businesses that fail to force landlords to issue a new lease," The Voice reported.

"Buildings are being sold in the community, new landlords are coming in with no regard to the community, to the businesses, even the residents that have been there a long time," Abreu told the Voice. "You can open a business and invest your life's savings, $100,000, $200,000. And when the lease expires, the landlord can say, 'I don't want you anymore, goodbye,' and give you 30 days."

In March, seven businesses at 3800 Broadway, including Punta Cana, were given eviction notices and told to vacate by the end of April. The businesses' owners were each given the option of paying almost double the current rent price or leaving. The Santos family declined because they couldn't afford the new $9,000 monthly price, so they were given extensions.

"It is not cheap to open a restaurant, so for them to pick up and leave in 30 days, it's just not possible," Abreu said.

"We forget that a lot of these community businesses are immigrant-owned, they are disadvantaged, low-income. They're not making a lot of money. They provide employment for themselves, for their family, and for other people in the community. But they're not a multimillion-dollar company. These are mom-and-pop stores."

Susan Chase, an attorney with The Legal Aid Society's Community Development Project, said the businesses had little legal recourse when they were told to vacate.

"Unfortunately, if there's no lease, there's not a lot a commercial tenant can do," Chase told the Voice. "They don't have any rights to stay. They are at the end of the term, and the courts are going to hold that the landlord can take its property back. You know, there's no defenses to that if there's no lease."

As of now, no law exists in New York to protect commercial renters against these discriminatory business practices that target minority and low-income business owners. However, Mark Levine, a New York City councilmember who represents Washington Heights and other neighborhoods in District 7, is looking to change that. He said the Small Business Jobs Survival Act would protect these businesses; however, it does not have enough sponsors to bring it up for a hearing before the City Council.

"The real estate industry is pushing back and will continue to push back. I think that's unfortunate. I think it's shortsighted," he said.

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