Brewer and Johnson defend affordable grocery stores
By Madeleine Thompson
In New York City, the well-known abbreviation S.O.S. has been repurposed by neighbors as a rallying cry: “Save our supermarket.” Last spring, residents of Chelsea vehemently used it to protest the closure of an Associated Supermarket on West 14th Street that had been priced out of its location. Several months earlier, residents of Turtle Bay collected signatures for a petition against their local Food Emporium turning into a CVS. High rent and competition from more expensive grocery stores are just a few of the reasons affordable supermarkets have been closing at an alarming rate. A package of bills recently introduced in the City Council aims to tackle another barrier to their survival.
Instituted in 1963, the commercial rent tax charges businesses in Manhattan between 96th Street and Murray Street that pay at least $300,000 per year in rent an additional 3.9 percent in taxes. Businesses paying between $250,000 to $300,000 are also included, but on a sliding scale. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Council Member Corey Johnson hope to pass a bill that would exempt affordable supermarkets from the commercial rent tax, boosting the staying power of the much-needed resources. “[Affordable supermarkets] serve thousands of seniors and thousands of rent-regulated and public housing tenants, so we need to do everything in our power to keep them solvent,”Johnson said in a statement. “No person should be forced to travel long distances to buy affordable food. Every time an affordable supermarket closes, the community suffers.”
Council Members Dan Garodnick and Helen Rosenthal also introduced a bill that would raise the maximum rent at which businesses are exempt from the tax to $500,000, extending the savings beyond affordable supermarkets.
According to the retail consultant Strategic Research Group, roughly 100 small, family-owned grocers in Manhattan closed between 2005 and 2015. “New York City is worse than New Orleans post-Katrina,” Burt P. Flickinger III, the managing director of Strategic Resource, told the New York Times last November.
A 2016 report by CUNY’s school of public health detailed why, even if the number of stores closing isn’t significant, the loss of a single grocer can be devastating. “The closure of a supermarket can make buying healthy, affordable food burdensome, especially for the elderly, others with limited mobility, parents of young children, and the very poor, who may turn instead to nearby bodegas and fast food,” the report reads. “In gentrifying neighborhoods, the remaining stores may be too expensive for many residents and cater to customers with different needs and tastes, reducing access to healthy food for some residents, even if the number of markets in the borough remains the same.”
A survey by Brewer’s office found that there are 132 grocery stores in the commercial rent tax zone paying $250,000 or more in rent. Paul Fernandez’s Met Foods store in NoLita was one of them until it was forced to close two months ago. In a joint statement with Brewer, Fernandez said he owed $40,000 in taxes on top of the $90,000 per month he paid in rent. “Unfortunately, my situation is not unique,” he said. “The supermarket industry is in crisis, shuttering operations all over Manhattan because of soaring rents, burdensome regulations, onerous fines and high taxes.”
Meanwhile, Harlem’s first Whole Foods is slated to open on 125th Street this year, and Trader Joe’s continues to expand.
Madeleine Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org