“The reality is corporate politicians talk a lot about small businesses but do very little for them”
Earlier this week at the Eritrean Community Center just south of the I-90 on Rainier, socialist City Council member and District 3 rep Kshama Sawant held a “progressive small business summit” to raise support for her plans to assist Seattle’s small businesses with a focus on her call for commercial rent control.
The Council member stood by the likes of local bar and restaurant owner David Meinert, AfricaTown founder Wyking Garrett, Sara Mae, owner of 701 Coffee in the Central District—and vocal advocate for businesses along 23rd avenue impacted by construction who eventually got the city to fork over $650,000 in mitigation payments—and a representative from the Central Co-Op on Madison, Susanna Schult, all of whom addressed the crowd in support of Sawant, her proposals, and small business organizing. Sawant rolled out her small business plan along with her unholy alliance with Meinert—a former adversary during the fight for $15—last fall before the November election.
Framing the rising rents, gentrification, and the displacement of commercial and residential tenants as a result of a city government that “mainly promotes the interests of big business” and allows “big developers and big business” to cash in on a hot real estate market, Sawant asked attendees to sign letters addressed to the city council calling on them to act on a statement of legislative intent (SLI) passed last budget cycle to direct the city to convene a small business task force to make proposals for commercial rent control, as well as support Sawant’s efforts in commissioning a study of the feasibility of commercial rent control.
To support her claim that the city government is in the pocket of Vulcan real estate and friends, Sawant distributed and highlighted a memo responding to the SLI sent this week from the director of the Office of Economic Development, Brian Surratt, saying that an advisory committee should be convened but that the city shouldn’t “prescribe any particular actions in advance” and engage the advisory committee in their recommended “range of solutions” to issues facing Seattle’s small businesses.
“They aren’t even considering rent control,” Sawant told the crowd indignantly.
Here are a few things CHS heard Wednesday night.
- “The reality is corporate politicians talk a lot about small businesses but do very little for them,” Sawant said. “It [getting commercial rent control] will involve a political fight against the establishment. This is an organizing meeting as far as I’m concerned.”
- In reference to Vulcan’s recent purchase of six acres at 23rd and Jackson in the Central District, Sawant said: “The writing’s on the wall. This city is getting gentrified unless we do something about it. We need to get organized to demand a say in what happens in these public spaces.”
- “Another challenge we feel as the neighborhood [Capitol Hill] is changing is a influx of venture capital funded retailers and national chains that have little stake in the community but have moved in to take advantage of the busy neighborhood and the attractive consumer market that small, locally owned businesses built,” said Susanna Schultz of the Central Co-Op grocery store. “We support the formation of a small business task force.”
- “What we’ve received from the mayor’s office is $650,000 between 21 businesses. The relief is woefully inadequate,” said Sara Mae, owner of 701 coffee. “They’re beginning to despise the checks now, but people are so far in the hole that it’s a drop in the bucket.”
- “The Mayor’s anti-small business policies have sold the diversity, culture, and character of the city’s Central District to the highest bidder,” said Mae added. “I believe their intent has always been displacement, but they didn’t count on us coming together.”
- “Murray does fantastic photo ops with people of color and the community. But when it comes to rubber hitting the road, it’s all window dressing,” said Mae.
- Michael Wells, former head of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce and current small business advocate for the city’s Office of Economic Development, attended the meeting in the audience.
- Jon Grant, former director of the Tenants Union and city council candidate, was also in attendance.
- “Don’t get me wrong, light rail is great, I can get around. But I can’t afford to put up a small advertisement inside the train.” said Luis Rodriguez, owner of The Station coffee shop on Beacon Hill.
- “There’s barely any black biz out there owned by African Americans and I only hire people from my community. But if my community is moving out, who am I going to hire? I’m not going to hire the white hipster kid who just moved here 6 months ago. Not me,” said Rodriguez.
- “This is the type of community we need to end up being on small business commissions—when they actually happen—instead of what I’m used to seeing which is ten white rich guys sitting in a room talking policy,” said David Meinert.
- “Small business is getting shit on,” Meinert added. “We need to do something about that and come together. Commercial rent control is one really big idea that can happen. Another is expanding light rail service later at night so our workers can get home and our customers can get home as well.”
- “They [City Hall] don’t give a damn about us [minority owned businesses on 23rd avenue], in fact they want us gone,” said Gerald Hankerson, president of the King County NAACP. “We’ve seen this before. It’s called weed and seed: weed out the old people, bring in the new people like Vulcan is doing at the Promenade for $32 million dollars. My frustration is that we didn’t have the resources to purchase it for ourselves.”
- At one point, Rodriguez pointed out that Ian Eisenberg—owner of Uncle Ike’s recreational marijuana store at 23rd and Union in the Central District—was in the audience. “Ian Eisenberg is here and I know he owns a lot of property there [on 23rd]. A lot of people see you as the problem. Do you want to say anything?” Eisenberg responded with “I’m just here to listen.” (Uncle Ike’s is a CHS advertiser.)
- Sara Mae noted that Eisenberg had privately financially supported 701 coffee when they were recently behind on their city light bills and facing a electricity shut off. “Behind the scenes Ian has been very helpful to our small businesses on 23rd avenue and he doesn’t have to be. Frankly, he could sit there and just watch us all die off and watch my building go into foreclosure that I occupy.”
- “Our enemies are not our workers,” said Shirley Henderson, owner of Squirrel Chops coffee and a Socialist Alternative member. “It’s big business fighting to get a larger share of the market and push us out to increase their profit margins. The progressive plan that Khama and others have put together is a great way to level the playing field for small biz.”
- Andra Kranzler, a legislative aide to council member Lisa Herbold, spoke briefly, saying “Herbold is inspired by the work that is happening here [at the summit]” and is interested in continuing the conversation of how to support small businesses.
- “The next steps would be for us to have a meeting at City Hall where we can involve all the other council members so that they can hear that you are all determined to push for studying the commercial rent control policy,” Sawant said towards the end of the meeting.
Meanwhile, Thursday night, Mayor Ed Murray held a press conference at the Taste of the Caribbean restaurant in the Central District to announce new investments in neighborhood business districts through the city’s Only in Seattle program.