Chinatown shop owner fights landlord, wins

A pedestrian walks in front of Mei Rong Song's Chinatown flower shop. Song just won a two-year court battle with her landlords to keep from getting evicted. Photo by Chelsia Marcius

For more than 20 years, Mei Rong Song has owned and operated a 260-square-foot flower shop at East Broadway Mall in the commercial heart of Chinatown. When business was booming, she prepared floral arrangements for banquets and weddings, and sold $5,000 worth of merchandise each month.

Today the store, at 88 E. Broadway, looks more like a storage space. The fridge is packed with cardboard boxes rather than flower pots. Baskets and plastic bags filled with ribbon and tinsel hang from hooks on the walls, and tangled wire cables drape from a water-damaged ceiling that has only one light fixture.

Song, 41, who lives two blocks south of the store, pays just under $3,000 a month to rent this space. But that fee seems like a bargain after mall landlords, Min Yan Chan and son Terry Chan, tried to hike the rent to $12,000 a month in November 2008.

When she refused to pay the additional $9,000, the Chans sent her an eviction notice, giving Song 30 days to pack up and get out.

“Only by robbing a bank could I make that much money in a month,” she said through a translator at a press conference yesterday near her shop.

Now, nearly two years later, the New York State Court of Appeals dismissed the landlord’s case on grounds that “the lease between landlord and tenant was subject to and subordinate to all the terms of the lease between (East Broadway Mall) and the City of New York.”

According to Wing Lam, coalition director of Chinese Staff and Workers, this is the first time a store owner went up against a landlord’s threat to evict and won.

“The system is stacked against them.  It is a group easily intimidated by an eviction threat,” said Candace Carponter, Song’s attorney.

Many of the small business owners in Chinatown cannot  speak English.

“For them, the court process is overwhelming,” Carponter said.

The property is owned by the city, but has been leased out to mall operators since 1985, according to Mark Daly, a spokesman for the Department of Citywide Administrative Services.

That means, he said, that it is the landlord—not the city—who is responsible to the more than 100 subtenants in East Broadway Mall.

“The city relationship is with the mall operator, and the mall management company deals with the tenants. The city is not a party to that dispute,” Daly said.

Daly said that DCAS met with subtenants last year and was  aware of the allegations against the company. The subtenants were advised to contact law enforcement authorities. Daly would not say if DCAS followed up.

Carponter claims responsibility lies squarely with city officials who continue to look the other way.

“Because the mall operator has breached the lease by failing to disclose rent amounts, the city has the authority to terminate the lease or add in additional protections for subtenants,” she said. “This is telling people that don’t even speak English to negotiate the map of the city government. That’s nonsense.”

While Carponter said that Song has not sued for damages, she estimates the total amount would be about $150,000.

That includes money Song has lost over the last six years from closing the shop in the winter, when the landlords, who are legally obligated to pay for utilities, shut off her water and heat.

After receiving the eviction notice in 2008, Song formed the Chinatown Small Business Association that represents more than 200 subtenants in the area, many of whom rent in the East Broadway Mall.

As she walked through the vicinity, Song pointed to various shops—a trendy hair salon, a make-up counter, a small basement eatery serving white rice and fried dumplings—and rattled off how much each paid in rent: $4,000, $8,000 and $10,000, respectively.

The Chans did not immediately return multiple phone calls seeking comment.

Many of the shop owners embraced Song as she walked past their shops. But still, getting other subtenants to do the same has seen little success, Song said. Many fear losing their businesses entirely, so they simply put up with the problem.

“People are grateful for what I’m doing,” she said. “But I still stand alone.”