Following a great fire that devastated across a row of storefronts in Jackson Heights earlier in the month, community organizations set up a fundraiser to help affected immigrant-owned businesses and workers – most of whom were already the 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 the goal of raising $50,000 to provide direct relief grants to 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 occupations structurally connected to this one. It took nearly six hours for the FDNY and 168 firefighters to bring the blaze under control. Some of the affected businesses included a cell phone store, nail and hair salons, and clothing stores.
“This tragedy is compounded by already mounting debt, lack of job security, fear of eviction and personal health concerns,” reads their fundraiser message. “There are businesses here that were ineligible for federal assistance, ineligible workers on unemployment. Some of the smaller businesses operated and made their living here, including street vendors who stored their inventory in this building. We even hear of local 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 that there were about 15 businesses affected by the fire, but they continue to discover new businesses every day as some stores have been subdivided and have subdivisions. rentals. There are about five companies that are uninsured.
Part of the funds they raise will also help replace the wages of workers at affected companies, mostly undocumented workers who are not eligible for unemployment or other government assistance. Miranda said all the different companies had about 30 workers in total, but was unsure of the number of undocumented workers, as DRUM works directly with small business owners.
There is still no clear timeline as to when repairs will be made due to an evacuation order still in effect on Thursday, March 18.
“The entire roof has collapsed on the building…we suspect it will take a long time to repair,” Miranda said. “A lot of companies have decided it’s going to take too long, so they’re looking for a new location.”
Miranda said their organizations and the Department of Small Business Services (SBS) help businesses move. And while business owners prefer to stay in the neighborhood, Miranda said they see rents rising “astronomically” in Queens.
“Prices seem to be a little lower in Manhattan,” Miranda said. “[But they’re] skyrocketing for commercial tenants in Queens, even people who have to renew leases can’t afford it.
Miranda noted that many of the affected commercial tenants were already being sued for rent arrears by their landlords.
“Queens is still bustling, there’s still a lot of economic activity, so it’s been tough,” Miranda said. “The owners still see an opportunity. People still open businesses because they see the activity.
Rising commercial rents were already a problem for small businesses before the pandemic, but the health crisis and accompanying restrictions have compounded the problems. Chhaya and DRUM advocated for state leadership to provide small businesses and nonprofits with rent relief.
So far, business owners have received limited help, according to Miranda. While SBS has helped connect them with low-interest loans from local lenders, many businesses cannot afford to take out loans.
Miranda added that while they rely on community fundraising, business owners will need more government assistance to get them back on their feet.
“We want to work with local lawmakers to see if they can help fund a relief fund,” Miranda said. “A lot of money will come to the state, and we hope that will help small businesses, especially vulnerable immigrant business owners in an ethnic enclave like Jackson Heights.”
Congresswoman Jessica González-Rojas and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez visited 74th Street with the Jackson Heights Merchants Association last weekend to hear from affected business owners.
A terrible fire destroyed small businesses belonging to our immigrant neighbors in #JacksonHeights.
Owners need our support. This afternoon I went around the damage with @AOC to listen to the concerns of business owners and executives with the Jackson Heights Merchants Association. pic.twitter.com/jesPKHHWSI
— Jessica González-Rojas (@votejgr) March 14, 2021
Gonzalez-Rojas told QNS they saw how much water damage there was on top of the fire damage. She worries about immigrant business owners, some of whom are from Nepal and Burma, who she says “felt neglected”.
“My biggest concern is getting businesses back up and running,” González-Rojas said. “It’s heartbreaking to hear about them.”
Spokesman for Congresswoman Ocasio Cortez, Ivet Contreras, said the fire was a further blow to the livelihoods of business owners.
“During her tour, the deputy saw that the damage caused by the fire was not limited to businesses, their owners and employees, but that it was in fact affecting an entire community,” Contreras said. “These businesses are community hubs where South Asian immigrants new to New York could connect to the community and where people could find a support system.”
Local elected officials are working together to try to find ways to help businesses directly. For now, they are helping to publicize Chhaya and DRUM’s fundraising.
Funds raised will go to business owners and workers. Business owners will receive assistance with applying for grants, filing insurance claims for those who are insured, and connecting with city resources. During this time, workers will receive help understanding unemployment benefits if they are eligible, access to financial counseling services and tenants and labor lawyers.
The next step will be to assess the true need once business owners can re-enter storefronts.
Miranda said she was pleased with the support she has already received from the community. They have raised over $11,000 as of Monday, March 22.
“I hope we don’t lose our momentum. It will be a long-term need,” Miranda said. “They aren’t the only ones who need support – many businesses are hurting. Hopefully as a community we can support them before we end up with nothing but chain stores and banks in our neighborhood.