Dec 23, 2020
How Brooklyn businesses are bracing for the rent moratorium to expire
It takes a village, or in the words of one Jamaican proverb: ‘every mickel mek a muckle.'
Jamaican-born Debbie Hardy opened Martine’s Dream Shop in 2013 after years of selling designs at Brooklyn Flea and other venues. Her colorful boutique (Martine is her middle name) has become a Crown Heights community fixture. Since the coronavirus forced retail businesses to close, Hardy has been protected by New York state’s commercial rent moratorium—a moratorium that expires next month and will require tenants to pay thousands of dollars in back rent, money that many of them will likely not have.
Hardy believes she may just be able to produce the 10 months of back-rent that comes due. But with this major financial stressor added to an already unimaginably challenging year, Hardy may be forced to close her business.
A financial pandemic, too
Hardy is not alone. Hers is just one of thousands of small business owners across New York State who are facing an uncertain future leading up to the moratorium deadline: Nearly one-third of small businesses in New York and New Jersey have already closed their doors in 2020, according to some estimates. In Brooklyn, that loss is palpable. Although Governor Andrew Cuomo extended the moratorium on commercial evictions and mortgages for a fourth time in October, evictions and foreclosures will likely resume in January.
Yahsmeen Vargas has spent the last 10 months on the front lines, helping Brooklyn’s entrepreneurs apply for loans, and coaxing them to apply for grants instead. An administrator at the Brooklyn Small Business Development Center, an organization that offers free small business assistance, Vargas sees the entire cross-section of small businesses. “Every spectrum of business is getting affected,” she says. “A lot of people come to us for loans and it’s like the first thing they think about is loans. And it’s troublesome.”
Vargas says that, for many businesses, SBDC loans could counterintuitively create a bigger burden in the long run. Instead, she points out that there are grants available–grants that provide funds that don’t need to be repaid—including a COVID grant for minority businesses.
Advocates say New York State’s rent moratorium is a flawed, band-aid measure since it does not take back-rent into account. Without an infusion of funds to pay overdue rents or a full cancellation of rent due during the timeline of the pandemic, the added burden of producing that rent can put struggling entrepreneurs out of business.
When one door closes …
Debbie Hardy may actually be better positioned than other small business owners. In 2018, her boutique was featured in Black-Owned Brooklyn and with nearly 16,000 Instagram followers, Martine’s Dream has a support system. That she is still struggling with the stress of producing back-rent underlines the scope of the problem.
The virus forced her to stay closed until the summer, and business has been sporadic since she re-opened with limited hours. She had hoped that her landlord would be flexible and willing to work with her. But she says that landlord is expecting the full amount of back-rent owed throughout the duration of the rent moratorium that extends from March through January. Hardy declined to share her landlord’s details, so Brooklyn Magazine was unable to reach out for comment.
Still, Hardy remains optimistic, whether her business survives the pandemic, closes completely, or takes on a new online iteration. “Maybe certain doors are more closed now because of Covid, maybe other areas will open in different ways,” she says.
“So much of our support is up close. That’s why I believe so much in the notion of community. And when you hear the stories of what is happening, sometimes you realize there are ways that we can dig deeper and hold each other up.”
For now Hardy has a series of collaborations with local artists and entrepreneurs underway, like her pop-up with Crown Heights artist Lyfe Silva.
To describe how local businesses are stretching to fill the gaps in ways like this, she recites a popular Jamaican proverb: “Every mickle mek a muckle”: When one person contributes something small—and then another, and another—the impact is much bigger.
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