Following a large fire that ripped through a row of storefronts in Jackson Heights earlier in the month, community organizations have set up a fundraiser to help the affected immigrant-owned businesses and workers — most of whom were already hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
On March 15, Chhaya Community Development Corporation and Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) created a GoFundMe with a goal of raising $50,000 to provide direct relief grants for the uninsured business owners, undocumented workers and street vendors.
According to authorities, on the night of March 4, a fire broke out in the basement of Prince Kebab & Chinese Restaurant, located at 37-56 74th St., and quickly spread to the six occupancies structurally connected to it. It took the FDNY nearly six hours and 168 firefighters to get the fire under control. Some of the impacted businesses included a cellphone store, nail and hair salons as well as clothing stores.
“This tragedy is compounded by already mounting debt, lack of job security, fear of eviction and personal health worries,” their fundraiser’s message read. “There are businesses here who were ineligible for federal relief, workers ineligible for unemployment. Some of the smallest businesses operated and made their livelihoods here, including street vendors who stored their inventory in this building. We are even hearing of nearby residents affected by smoke inhalation. This will have a profound impact on the neighborhood but we are committed to protecting and preserving the commercial corridor and the people who run it.”
Jose Miranda, director of programs at Chhaya, told QNS there were about 15 businesses affected by the fire, but that they continue to find out about new businesses every day as some shops were subdivided and had subleases. There are about five businesses that are uninsured.
Part of the funds they collect will also help replace wages for the businesses affected workers, mainly undocumented workers who aren’t eligible for unemployment or other government aid. Miranda said all the different businesses had about 30 workers in total, but was unsure of how many are undocumented, as DRUM is working directly with the small business owners.
There still isn’t a clear timeline of when repairs will be done due to a vacate order still in place as of Thursday, March 18.
“The entire roof collapsed on the building … we’re assuming it’ll take a long time to repair,” Miranda said. “A lot of businesses have decided it would take too long, so they’re looking for a new location.”
Miranda said their organizations and the Department of Small Business Services (SBS) are helping the businesses relocate. And while the business owners prefer to stay in the neighborhood, Miranda said they’re seeing rent go up “astronomically” in Queens.
“Prices seem to be a little lower in Manhattan,” Miranda said. “[But they’re] shooting up astronomically for commercial tenants in Queens, even folks who have to renew leases can’t afford it.”
Miranda noted that many of the impacted commercial tenants were already getting sued for back rent by their landlords.
“Queens is still bustling, there’s still a lot of economic activity, so it’s been hard,” Miranda said. “The landlords still see opportunity. People are still opening businesses because they see the activity.”
Commercial rent increases was already an issue for small businesses prior to the pandemic, but the health crisis and the restrictions that came with it have compounded the problems. Chhaya and DRUM have been advocating for state leadership to provide small businesses and nonprofits with rent relief.
So far, the business owners have received limited assistance, according to Miranda. While SBS helped them connect with low-interest loans from local lenders, many businesses can’t afford to take on any loans.
Miranda added that while they’re relying on community fundraising, the businesses owners will need more government assistance to get them back on their feet.
“We want to work with local legislators to see if they can help us fund a relief fund,” Miranda said. “A lot of money will be coming to the state, and we’re hoping it will help small businesses, especially the vulnerable immigrant business owners of an ethnic enclave like Jackson Heights.”
Assemblywoman Jessica González-Rojas and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez visited 74th Street with the Jackson Heights Merchants Association last weekend to hear from the affected business owners.
A terrible fire destroyed small businesses owned by our immigrant neighbors in #JacksonHeights.
The owners need our support. This afternoon I toured the damage with @AOC to listen to the concerns of business owners and leaders with the Jackson Heights Merchants Association. pic.twitter.com/jesPKHHWSI
— Jessica González-Rojas (@votejgr) March 14, 2021
Gonzalez-Rojas told QNS that they saw how there was a lot of water damage on top of the fire damage. She’s worried about the immigrant businesses owners, some of whom hail from Nepal and Burma, who she said “felt uncared for.”
“My biggest concern is getting businesses back and running,” González-Rojas said. “It’s heartbreaking to hear from them.”
Congresswoman Ocasio Cortez’s spokesperson Ivet Contreras said the fire was an additional hit to the business owners’ livelihood.
“During her tour, the Congresswoman saw that the damage of the fire wasn’t just confined to the businesses, their owners and employees, but that it actually affected a whole community,” Contreras said. “These businesses are community hubs where South Asian immigrants new to NYC could plug into the community and where people could find a support system.”
Local elected officials are working together to try to find ways to directly assist the businesses. For now, they’re helping spread the word of Chhaya and DRUM’s fundraiser.
The funds raised will go toward business owners and workers. Business owners will receive help with applications for grants, filing insurance claims for those who are insured, and connecting with resources from the city. Meanwhile, workers will receive help understanding unemployment benefits if eligible, access to financial and tenant counseling services and labor lawyers.
The next step will be to assess the true need once business owners can re-enter the storefronts.
Miranda said they’re happy about the support they’ve already received from the community. They’ve raised more than $11,000 as of Monday, March 22.
“I hope we don’t lose momentum. This is going to be a long-term need,” Miranda said. “They’re not the only ones who need the support — a lot of businesses are suffering. I hope, as a community, we can support them before we wind up with nothing but chain stores and banks in our neighborhood.”