Esmeralda Valencia [member of Make the Road NY] was bewildered and angry.
Sitting at a table in the small restaurant she owns under the Myrtle Ave. El line in Bushwick, she talked of City Hall’s perennial neglect of immigrant-owned establishments like hers — the places that keep so many neighborhood shopping strips vibrant.
“They always find us for Health Department fines and taxes,” she said. “But offering us help to survive? Never.”
Now a startling new survey of New York City’s immigrant entrepreneurs confirms Valencia’s worst complaints.
More than 90% of immigrant entrepreneurs have never received any kind of help from city government to start or maintain their business, the study found, and half are not even aware of more than a dozen programs the city provides to assist business owners.
The report, spearheaded by Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and the nonprofit micro-finance group ACCION USA [in conjunction with Make the Road NY], and supported by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, is to be released today.
Even though the city’s immigrant population has doubled in size since 1970 — it now totals 40% of all residents — this is the first-ever survey of immigrant businesses.
“We don’t even have a precise count because no one’s been tracking it,” Reshma Saujani, the report’s main author, said. She noted, however, that there are currently more than 400,000 minority-owned businesses in the city, and most of those are run by immigrants.
The main help immigrant owners say they need is with financing, marketing, and legal assistance, Saujani said.
Just this week, the city made headlines approving $120 million in cash assistance and tax breaks for a single major company, Fresh Direct.
Almost every month, the Bloomberg administration provides smaller but still imposing benefit packages for other big companies. It arranges low-cost financing for business expansion, sales and property tax abatements, aid for recruiting and training, discounted energy costs, help maneuvering through the thicket of government paperwork, and on and on.
So why are small immigrant businesses left out?
Many immigrant entrepreneurs simply don’t know what help is available, the study found. And the city’s outreach programs, administered largely through online information and a network of Small Business Solution Centers, don’t reach them.
An astonishing 87% of the immigrant establishments don’t have a website, far higher than the 51% national average among small businesses, while more than a third operate cash-only businesses.
The city’s economic development staff, meanwhile, is not going out into the various neighborhoods to explain these programs. What the business owners do see constantly is enforcement — traffic agents, sanitation agents, health inspectors.
“They keep increasing the fines and the inspections,” said Valencia, who came here from Ecuador 13 years ago and has been running Esmeralda’s Restaurant for nearly a decade.
“The lowest Health Department fine these days is $400 for one violation,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many friends I know went out of business because they couldn’t afford these fines every month.”
Maybe if the city spent less time penalizing immigrant businesses and more time helping them advance, everyone would benefit.
“If these business owners actually received help from the city commensurate with their weight in the economy,” De Blasio said, “they could add thousands more jobs right in their own neighborhoods.”
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