Today, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund testified before the New York City Council’s Finance Committee, opposing the proposed Chinatown Business Improvement District (BID) because of its potential negative impacts on small businesses and residents in Chinatown. A coalition of small businesses and community groups has argued that the BID will accelerate gentrification and push out small business owners that cannot afford the additional fees on top of rising real estate taxes and other costs. The coalition’s website is https://nochinatownbid.org.
The statement of AALDEF staff attorney Bethany Li appears below:
My name is Bethany Li. I am a staff attorney at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), a civil rights organization founded in 1974 and a member of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and Lower East Side. AALDEF joins the widespread community opposition to the Chinatown Business Improvement District (BID) because of the unfair process in which the BID is being pushed through and because of the devastating impact it will have on small businesses and residents in Chinatown.
Yesterday, AALDEF submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to Small Business Services (SBS) asking for items submitted by the Chinatown Partnership LDC (CPLDC) in its BID application. Among those items is a survey that CPLDC has used to push through the BID, claiming that 97 percent are in favor. What is missing from this rosy picture is that this number is based only on those surveys returned. Therefore this 97 percent could be based on 10, 100, or 500 surveys. CPLDC has evaded answering this question. The outreach and methods used to collect surveys also are not public. In a neighborhood where many landlords live outside the community, it is doubtful that many even knew what was happening.
In contrast, the barriers for opponents of the BID are much greater and practically insurmountable. For the BID to be rejected, more than half of the property owners within the proposed district must file an official objection form within thirty days of this hearing. The relevant total number in this case is all proposed lots in the District – not just those who return their forms. According to the District Plan, the BID would encompass more than 2,300 unique properties. That means more than 1,000 property owners must go to the City Clerk’s office to get the form, sign the form, get it notarized, and provide proof of ownership. In order for the community to be made aware, volunteers must reach out themselves to keep neighbors informed because the City sent out notices about how to object only in English. It was not translated in Chinese. This entire process is inherently biased towards approving the BID – no matter how great the opposition.
Furthermore, only property owners can vote to form a BID, but the impact is felt by the entire community – mom and pop shops, residents, and workers. Chinatown is first and foremost a residential, working-class community – a gateway for new immigrants. The BID represents a direct rebuke to a community that has remained vibrant and vital for so many years. The BID is not accountable to community needs. Rather it responds to the demands of outside developers and big business.
With the BID, property owners will be charged an annual fee, which often gets passed to commercial tenants. Small business owners already cannot pay the escalating costs associated with running a business. Many have stated that if another tax is added on, they will simply leave once their lease ends. While this scenario may be attractive for real estate developers, the wholesale fleeing of small businesses will decimate this community.
The BID will accelerate the building of luxury condominiums, high-class hotels, and unaffordable boutiques and commercial establishments. Developers are already circling. Recently GlobeSt.com reported that developer ABS Properties excitedly perceives the BID as the first step in getting taller, bigger, and more expensive buildings – beginning with Canal Street. ABS Properties has previously called for a rezoning on Canal Street to reach “the highest possible density.”
Bigger, more expensive buildings are not what Chinatown needs. If you talk to residents and small businesses, they will tell you that they need to keep the spaces they currently live and work in affordable. They will say that the City needs to build more housing affordable for a community whose median income is about $35,000 per year and provide more protections for small businesses facing drastically rising costs.
City Council can reject the BID if thousands of property owners are somehow made aware and go through the process of filing an official objection within this narrow period of time. City Council can also reject the BID if it finds that the BID is not in the public interest. We urge City Council to listen to the many property and small business owners and residents here today who are telling you that this BID will destroy Chinatown.