A Progressive Plan for Seattle’s Small Businesses and Their Workers

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On October 27, 2015, restaurant and nightlife venue owner Dave Meinert joined K. Wyking Garrett of AfricatownSeattle.com, Paula Lucas of Le Frock, Mike Rodriguez from Restaurant Opportunities Center United, Nate Omdal from Fair Trade Music Seattle, former small business owner Sonia Ponath, and me to introduce a series of initiatives supporting small business, including commercial rent control. 

We hear lot of small business rhetoric from corporate politicians, but little is ever actually done at the level of policy-making to help our city’s small businesses. City Hall needs to stop conferring sweetheart deals on big developers and corporations, and begin serving the interests of small businesses and working people. For more, read the details of the plan below.

A Progressive Plan for Seattle’s Small Businesses and Their Workers

Like so many working people, the majority of Seattle’s small businesses and independent self-employed individuals struggle to get by. They face ever-increasing rents, poor access to capital, and limited help from City agencies. Too often, small businesses that are integral to a neighborhood’s character are displaced. This is especially true for women and minority owned businesses.

We have come together to propose a series of innovative, progressive policies to strengthen independent and small businesses and to provide a better environment for artists. Both are important to Seattle’s thriving economy and culture. We find common ground in our belief that the City government should prioritize the needs of working people and small businesses, rather than giving special breaks to big developers and corporations.

Together, we present seven ways to begin improving conditions for small businesses and their workers.

1. Commercial Rent Stabilization to Benefit Small Businesses
Just like for workers, one of the biggest challenges facing small businesses and artists in Seattle is the skyrocketing cost of rent. While the 1981 Washington State ban on the regulation of rent blocks the City of Seattle from legally putting limits on rent hikes in the residential housing market, the ban does not apply to commercial leases.

Enacting a rent control policy on commercial property will disproportionately benefit small businesses that otherwise struggle to sustain their storefront operations and compete with big business outlets. It will also help artists who struggle for studio space in the urban core of the city. During the current City budget discussions, Councilmember Kshama Sawant will be moving a Statement of Legislative Intent for the City to commission a study and propose draft legislation to enact commercial rent stabilization in Seattle. This would form the basis for the City Council to pass an ordinance in 2016.

2. Portable Retirement Accounts for Workers in Small Businesses
Many small businesses face disadvantages compared to big business in attracting and retaining employees. In sectors of the economy with high labor turnover and precarious work, particularly restaurant and retail, small businesses face challenges providing employee benefits. Seventy five percent of Washington workers employed by businesses with fewer than 100 employees do not have a pension or retirement plan.

A City-sponsored pension plan would allow small businesses the choice of easily contributing into a portable pension account. This would increase pension benefits for workers at small companies who change employers or have multiple employers. It would also save small business the overhead of running their own plans and help them compete with larger businesses that have benefit packages. The Economic Opportunity Institute has drafted a proposal for such a plan. Increased investment in affordable workforce housing will also help Seattle small businesses have a larger pool of workers to employ.

3. Expand Late Night Public Transit
Seattle’s nightlife and entertainment sectors are an integral part of our city’s livability, economic vitality, and our small business community. But the limited availability of late-night public transit limits customers’ access to these businesses, imposes a serious burden on workers in these industries and other swing shift workers, and hinders public safety, especially for women and LGBTQ people.

A world-class mass transit system, including 24 hour service for our buses, streetcars, and light rail, will bring huge environmental, social, and economic benefits for Seattle. Rather than wait for Olympia to provide full funding for public transit, Seattle can and must lead as was done in 2014 with Proposition 1.

The City Council can immediately fund a significant expansion in late night service for Metro by re-instating the business head tax (with exemptions for very small businesses) and increasing taxes on commercial parking lot operators. We also renew the call for Washington State to give cities like Seattle the ability to regulate the hours for its bars.

4. Expansion of Social Service Outreach for the Homeless, People with Mental Illnesses and Addictions
The alarming growth of homelessness and the lack of social services for people struggling with addiction or mental illnesses are unacceptable and especially outrageous in a city as wealthy as Seattle. Small businesses are impacted by this in a variety of ways, including property and street crime.

Our city needs to make it a top priority to end homelessness and expand social services. First and foremost, this means a significant increase in funding for human service providers as part of a comprehensive plan developed in close discussion with social justice advocates.

We strongly support the proposal for opening a new Urban Rest Stop in Capitol Hill and other neighborhoods. We need progressive and creative approaches to addressing crime, such as expanding the LEAD, HOST and SYVPI programs rather than a heavy handed “law and order” strategy.

Attention to basic infrastructure, such as quality ADA compliant sidewalks, good street lighting, and more regular garbage collection in the busiest parts of the city are also simple steps which can help reduce crime.

We support using progressive taxes to fund these programs, such as business taxes, developer impact fees, and a municipal income tax on the wealthy.

5. Municipal Bank & Low-Interest Loans
Small businesses face major disadvantages in competing for affordable credit, especially from the large banks that dominate our financial system.

The City of Seattle should establish a public, municipally-owned bank rather than continuing to contract with large private banks like Wells Fargo. A Seattle municipal bank would have a public benefit mandate to provide the same access to low-interest loans to local small businesses and homeowners that big businesses enjoy. It could also help finance progressive infrastructure projects like building affordable housing, while directing any profit made from interest back to the City. A municipal bank could also help the City address critical community issues such as the Somali remittance crisis.

For background on municipal banking in Seattle, see this article in The Urbanist.

6. Priority for Local Small Businesses in Commercial Leasing
Our city’s economic policy should give priority to local small businesses and artists rather than large chain stores, franchises, or big box retailers. Small businesses face challenges in gaining access to prime commercial leases, which are overwhelmingly given to large companies. The City should commission a study on how City policies (zoning, taxation, regulations, etc.) can be leveraged to advance these goals through legislation.

7. Seattle Needs a Small Business Task Force
The City of Seattle has no task force or commission dedicated to addressing the challenges facing local small businesses. Big developers and corporations have many avenues for their needs to be addressed by the City government, but all too often, truly small businesses and artists are ignored. A local small business task force, including micro-businesses, should be established to study and make recommendations, starting with the proposals we have laid out above.


Kshama Sawant, Seattle City Councilmember
David Meinert, owner, The Five Point Cafe, Comet Tavern, & others
Molly Moon Nietzel, Molly Moon’s Homemade Ice Cream
K. Wyking Garrett, AfricatownSeattle.com which features and highlights Black-owned businesses and community
Marcus Charles, owner, Neumos & Crocodile Cafe
Mike Rodriguez, Restaurant Opportunities Center United
Sharon Blyth-Moss & Shirley Henderson, small start-up business owners
Ottman Bezzaza, owner, Med Mix
Paula Lucas, owner, Le Frock
Sonja Ponath, small landlord, former small business owner
Ed Beeson, owner, Gigs-4-U
Katey Pierini, licensed massage therapist
Luis Rodriguez, owner, The Station
Shontina Vernon, musician, writer, theatre artist & educator