In a press conference last Friday, Mayor Bill de Blasio expressed remorse at the city’s decision to cut the Commercial Lease Assistance Program, the only full-service legal assistance program for small businesses.

“It should have been discussed differently in the budget process rather than just allowed to lapse,” he told reporters. “So, we’re going to go back and look at that one again and see if there’s a way to revive it.”

As the city faced a projected multi-billion dollar budget shortfall, it selected the Commercial Lease Assistance Program as one initiative to be cut from the city’s FY2021 budget. This was in spite of the fact that demand for its services have increased tenfold during the pandemic, according to participating legal firms. The program was helping small business owners that were specifically low-income, people of color, female, and/or immigrant to operate in the city. Since it was established two years ago it has helped over a thousand small business owners, like Kadiatou Diallo, negotiate their leases

Diallo, 49, has been running a beauty supply store in a NYCHA complex in Harlem for over a decade. She began to have problems with her landlord a few years ago, when he claimed that she owed him thousands of dollars in unpaid rent. At that time she owned two stores, and he seized one of them. With the help of lawyers at the Commercial Lease Assistance Program she was able to compile all her receipts to prove that she had paid everything, she says.

“I’m much better for my business, if it wasn’t for [the lawyer] I wouldn’t have this store,” she says. “The way they took the last one, they would have taken this one.”

Small business owners represented by the program face disproportionate burdens in negotiating their leases, namely, harassment, discrimination, the high cost of rent, and the high cost of legal services. The program was designed to create equal opportunity for entrepreneurship, and to ensure that the city’s small business owners were representative of the diversity in the population at large.

“I am deeply disappointed that New York City chose not to continue funding the Commercial Lease Assistance Program for the 2020-2021 fiscal year, which had become a lifeline for minority and low-income business owners trying to negotiate their leases,” says Councilwoman Carlina Rivera. Rivera, who represents parts of lower Manhattan comprising the 2nd Council District, has been a staunch advocate for the program.

“These businesses already had the highest need before COVID-19 and now they need our help more than ever,” says Rivera.

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