Photo of  Brianne K. Nadeau by Darrow Montgomery
Photo of Brianne K. Nadeau by Darrow Montgomery

Whether you were a regular at Nam-Viet or a permanent fixture at the bar at Ripple, last week stung. Both restaurants closed for good in Cleveland Park. Meanwhile in Shaw, Seasonal Pantry, Table, Chao Ku, Zenebech Injera, and others have shuttered.

Rising rents that accompany gentrification are causing many mom-and-pop restaurants to consider waving the white flag. But a new bill introduced today by Ward 1 D.C. Councilmember Brianne K. Nadeau aims to combat commercial gentrification by ensuring local small businesses don’t get pushed out. Nadeau says small businesses, including restaurants, are what give neighborhoods their character, and they often cater to low- and moderate-income District residents.

The “Small Business Rental Assistance Program Establishment Act of 2017” would support businesses that have operated in the same location for at least 10 years and that are in good financial health by awarding grants or loans not to exceed exceed $50,000 per year.

Additionally, no business could receive more than five grants over the course of program’s life. And finally, businesses must be eligible for certification as a small business enterprise to qualify.

Richard Nguyen, whose family ran Nam-Viet, fears that landlords might retaliate if they learned one of their tenants had been awarded a grant as a part of the program. “I understand the city wants to help,” he says. “But if a landlord hears about an assistance program, will they keep the lease the same or jack it up because of potential assistance?”

He says his restaurant closed for reasons other than rent. “Our situation was that we’re facing down the barrel of the D.C. center shifting to new neighborhoods,” he says. In fact, his landlord never raised his rent by more than a couple hundred of dollars a month. But as a small business owner of a restaurant with longevity, he says $50,000 per year could have made a difference.

“Setting aside payroll and taxes, equipment, and renovations, it might help upgrade a few freezers or cooking spaces in the kitchen,” Nguyen says. “Roger [Marmet] at Ripple told me he needed to replace his AC unit. He was quoted $80,000. They don’t know the true cost [of running a restaurant] until they look at your invoices every month.” 

The bill was co-introduced by Councilmembers Elissa SilvermanRobert C. White Jr., and Trayon White Sr. and co-sponsored by Councilmembers David Grosso and Charles Allen. There is a similar program in Montgomery County, Maryland. The next step is a hearing before the Committee on Business and Economic Development, which is chaired by Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie