Punta Cana looks like your childhood friend’s grandmother’s kitchen circa 1995. The 600-square-foot Dominican restaurant at 3880 Broadway in Washington Heights has little in the way of décor. There’s a blue-green — and some places bleach-stained — counter that runs the entire length of the room. There are just two tables, each with two chairs, that sit in a corner, up against an imitation-wood back wall.
This is the kind of neighborhood joint in which the menu is entirely in Spanish (with no pictures), most patrons order in Spanish (the mofongo is popular), and the three women behind the counter greet you in Spanish (“¡Mi amor!”). It doesn’t have a website. It has stood for at least 40 years at the corner of Broadway and West 162nd, but over the last several months Angel Santos, who has owned the restaurant with his family since 1997, has been fighting to keep it for another 40.
Punta Cana will most likely close its door in the next few weeks, when a judge is expected to order the restaurant’s eviction.
“There’s not much we can do,” Santos’s daughter Jacelyn Santos tells the Voice. “Honestly, I would have preferred that he let it go earlier, but I understand this was more of an emotional decision that he made.”
In 2012, real estate investors Israel Weinberger and Steven Neuman of Coltown Properties bought the building in Washington Heights as part of a $31 million real estate deal that included five rental buildings in the area. The buildings housed 217 rental units and 12 small businesses, of which Punta Cana was one. The acquisition by Coltown was part of a new trend of investors looking uptown for real estate holdings in a hot new market in the Upper Manhattan neighborhoods of Hamilton and Washington Heights.
When the building sold, says Quenia Abreu, the president and CEO of the New York Women’s Chamber of Commerce, the new owners declined to renew the commercial rental leases at 3880 Broadway. When a lease is not renewed, whether for a residential or commercial tenant, landlords can continue renting to the existing tenant under an implied month-to-month agreement until the tenant moves out or a new lease is negotiated. That’s where the trouble usually starts for businesses that fail to force landlords to issue a new lease.
“Buildings are being sold in the community, new landlords are coming in with no regard to the community, to the businesses, even the residents that have been there a long time,” Abreu tells the Voice. “You can open a business and invest your life’s savings, $100,000, $200,000. And when the lease expires, the landlord can say, ‘I don’t want you anymore, goodbye,’ and give you 30 days.”
Representatives from Coltown Properties did not return repeated messages left by the Voice.
In March, seven businesses at 3800 Broadway, including Punta Cana, were given eviction notices and told to vacate by the end of April. The businesses’ owners were each given the option of paying higher rent — for the restaurant, nearly double the current rate of $5,000 a month. When the Santos family declined because they couldn’t afford the new rent of $9,000, they were given another month’s extension and then another, when the Legal Aid Society and Councilmember Mark Levine rallied to the business owners’ cause.
“It is not cheap to open a restaurant, so for them to pick up and leave in 30 days, it’s just not possible,” Abreu says. “We forget that a lot of these community businesses are immigrant-owned, they are disadvantaged, low-income. They’re not making a lot of money. They provide employment for themselves, for their family, and for other people in the community. But they’re not a multimillion-dollar company. These are mom-and-pop stores.”
The Legal Aid Society’s Community Development Project was able to help the business owners by negotiating leave terms that included more time and relocation expenses. Susan Chase, an attorney with the project who handled the case, says the businesses had little legal recourse when they were told to vacate.
“Unfortunately, if there’s no lease, there’s not a lot a commercial tenant can do,” Chase tells the Voice. “They don’t have any rights to stay. They are at the end of the term and the courts are going to hold that the landlord can take its property back. You know, there’s no defenses to that if there’s no lease.”
Chase says when a landlord refuses to renew a commercial lease, it should signal to businesses that they are in a precarious position and should view it as a warning. And at this point, no law exists in New York to protect commercial renters against these unfair business practices. In this case, though, Chase says the landlord was more than amenable.
“The landlord was flexible,” Chase says. “He’d initially given them 30 days then realized they needed more time, then reissued and gave them another 30 days. They had asked for June 30th and he was willing to give them until June 30th to leave. So it wasn’t like — I don’t want to demonize this person. And then he made it a little bit more attractive if they left a little earlier. And many of them were willing to do that.”
Levine has been highlighting the issue of these disappearing businesses because, he says, there is not as much attention paid to the epidemic.
“All the attention in the press is going to the residential displacement, but what small businesses are facing in commercial rents is in essence even worse because there’s far fewer protections,” he says.
Levine says the city should be increasingly concerned with these community businesses because they are vital to the economy. Levine, a Democrat, represents District 7, which includes West Harlem and a portion of Washington Heights.
“I reject the notion that bringing in higher-paying tenants equals economic development,” he says. “The longtime tenants, they are community-based, many are local entrepreneurs. They’re hiring locally, they’re producing economic activity in the neighborhood, they’re providing a way to earn a living for people in the neighborhood.”
Punta Cana is the only business that decided to stay and fight the evictions. Chase believes one reason the Santos family took the landlord to court is because, ultimately, their options are limited. Angel Santos, the owner, is nearly 80 years old.
“I don’t know if he can really leave at this point in his life,” Chase says. “It’s not about starting over. I feel it’s unfortunate we don’t negotiate [leases] sooner.”
Kirsten Theodos, an organizer with TakeBackNYC, a grassroots organization dedicated to empowering and protecting the lives of small-business owners, says the New York City Council needs to pass a law to protect these longtime, minority-owned businesses.
“They’re being discriminated against, basically,” she says. “Everyone in the city unanimously agrees that what’s going on with the rent laws is a debacle. You have councilmembers getting arrested in Albany standing up for [residential] rental rights, but the same councilmembers haven’t said a peep on commercial tenant rights. How is that different? Don’t small businesses deserve rights like residential renters? What’s the difference?”
Theodos says there is already a proposed bill, the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, before the City Council that would protect these businesses, but it doesn’t have enough sponsors to bring it up for a hearing. Councilmember Levine, who is a sponsor of the bill, believes it could make a difference.
“The real estate industry is pushing back and will continue to push back,” he tells the Voice. “I think that’s unfortunate. I think it’s shortsighted.”
Levine says he’s seen this scenario play out time and again across the city: Landlords raise the rent on their commercial tenants, the tenants can’t pay and are forced to move out, chain stores and restaurants move in, and the local fabric of the community is destroyed.
“The money earned in that establishment leaves the neighborhood, and people who work there are less likely to be local,” he says. “The management is less likely to be local. I’d much rather see local businesses hire people from the neighborhood and reinvest in the neighborhood. The smartest people in real estate know that neighborhoods are more valuable, therefore their property is more valuable, when they have character. Those are the kinds of places people want to live in. People today do not want to live in the middle of a suburban-style shopping mall.”
Punta Cana is slated to go to court on July 2 to receive a final judgment. Jacelyn Santos is not optimistic.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she says. “To see that area gentrifying like that — I totally get it; it’s money. It’s just horrible, though. We sit there through the shootings. We were there early. And now that it’s changed, it’s safer, we gotta go. What can we do?”