One problem is that commercial rents here don’t obey normal laws of supply and demand. Generations ago, many proprietors owned their stores. Nowadays, most rent and they often lease from limited-liability companies or sprawling investment groups disconnected from the neighborhood. So though owners ask for sky-high rents, many can afford to leave a space empty for years, waiting for a deep-pocketed occupant to come along and snap it up.
The tax code doesn’t help, since property owners can count losses from vacancies as offsets on what they owe. Some mortgages have minimum rent rates locked in, and others are securitized and sold as financial products — all of which makes it extremely difficult for tenants to negotiate lower rents with their landlords in response to, oh, say, a world-changing pandemic.
With such a complex welter of causes, it’s unlikely legislation sponsored by Councilman Ben Kallos, which would require disclosure of obscure property owners’ identities, will do much to help fill empty retail spaces. It will shine a light on who it is that’s behind the glass, though, and we count that as a step forward.
Several leading mayoral candidates have other ideas for helping businesses open and flourish. Some propose a yearlong forgoing of permit and license fees, along with the creation of a streamlined website for business owners to manage regulatory issues. We endorse both. The city should make it far easier to convert empty storefronts from one commercial use to another, or even to a different use entirely. Last, government should do more to market small businesses and connect owners with small banks and lenders so they can borrow to build themselves up.
To most New Yorkers, the health of their nearby commercial strip is inextricable from the well-being of their neighborhood. Send in the doctors.