Recovery planners fail to harness small business power
Bloomingdale is gentrifying. Ten years ago, the pretty neighborhood in central Washington, D.C., with the brightly painted Victorian townhouses and wide tree-lined streets was plagued by drugs, robberies and gang violence. Today those problems are greatly reduced, thanks in part to the efforts of the neighborhood’s tight-knit community of black families and young professionals. In the past five years, residents cleaned up the streets, developed two new parks and a small urban farm and watched their home values rise.
Now, residents of Bloomingdale — east of the U Street corridor, near Howard University — could use some businesses. There is Windows Market, which sells sandwiches and groceries; Big Bear, a popular coffee shop; and Timor Bodega, an organic grocer. But the closest place to grab brunch or a drink after work is a fifteen-minute walk away. “There’s just tremendous pent-up demand,” John Salatti, the neighborhood commissioner, says. “I couldn’t imagine how well a business would do if it could just open up.”
But the problem for Bloomingdale is that it just cannot get businesses to open up. It is not for a lack of trying. In the past year, at least half a dozen restaurants have attempted to set up shop in one of the neighborhood’s empty storefronts. There is the sandwich and pizza place attempting to move in next to the Howard dorm and the fancy new condo building. There is the neighborhood tavern trying to open near the yoga studio. There is the restaurant that wants to take over the old fire house. Not one has succeeded.
Consider, for instance, the case of Aleks Duni. He owns Veranda, a Greek restaurant in the Shaw neighborhood, as well as Heller’s Bakery and Marx Cafe in Mount Pleasant. The three small businesses together employ nearly 40 people and did well even during the worst of the recession. Duni set out to open a pizza restaurant on the main drag in Bloomingdale. He scouted out a location and secured the necessary permits, even getting a liquor license and thus a guarantee of good revenue. Now, no bank will lend him the $50,000 he needs to finish the job. “It is only a matter of getting the money,” Duni says. “If I did, I could be open in a month.”
Duni approached four banks about securing the loan to finish construction and open the doors. Each one said no. “There are a million reasons they give,” Duni says. “The first of them is that credit has been reduced.” Now, he says, he is concerned about continuing to apply for loans just to be denied. “If you apply and you don’t get the loan, your credit score goes down,” he notes. Frustrated, he has even sought the help of the Small Business Administration, the government agency. “They had nothing for me,” he says. “I don’t need to know what the loan requirements are. And the SBA cannot give me a loan.”
Duni is one of millions of frustrated small-business owners, who represent a lost opportunity for economic recovery and a major concern for the Obama administration. Over the past 15 years, two-thirds of the new jobs created in the United States were created by a small business. Small businesses, like big businesses, require loans to grow and hire new employees. But unlike their medium and large counterparts, small businesses are still hobbled by frozen credit markets. Lending remains on the wane despite the Obama administration throwing tens of millions of dollars at the problem. An SBA initiative to back loans has worked, but only on a limited scale. Most Main Street banks continue to decrease funding to small businesses, allergic to the higher risks they pose.
Small businesses generally use commercial banks and finance companies for loans, and those lenders have continued to cut back their books even as the recession has started to lift. Commercial and industrial lending — the economic category that includes small-business loans — fell 20 percent in 2009 and declined a further four percent in the first three months of 2010. In January, the latest month for which data is available, nine big banks provided 28 percent less credit to small businesses than the month before, the Treasury Department reports.
A recent report by the National Federation of Independent Businesses, a small-business lobbying organization, underscores the point. The NFIB found that in 2009, 20 percent fewer businesses held a loan or credit line than in 2008. Just 40 percent of small-business owners that applied for a loan had “all of their credit needs met,” down from nearly 90 percent five years ago. The continued seizure of the credit markets is reducing small-business hiring and confidence, NFIB argues. Its index of small business optimism actually fell in March, with most businesses saying they had a gloomy outlook and did not feel it would be a good time to expand.
The underlying economic problem is twofold. First, banks claim that they do not have enough funds to lend to small businesses. Second, banks with funds are unwilling to take the risk of lending to small businesses, since they tend to default at higher rates. The Obama administration has tackled both problems with a spate of bills and initiatives. The two main ones include: a $730 million infusion of funding to the SBA, letting it increase government loan-backing to 90 percent and reduce fees, enacted last spring; and $17.5 billion in tax cuts, credits, and subsidies aimed in part at small businesses in the jobs bill passed last month.
These efforts have successfully boosted SBA lending back to pre-crisis levels. “Once the recovery act passed in February 2009, provisions went to the SBA to let us increase our guarantee immediately,” Hayley Matz of the SBA explains. “Since then, lending has increased 90 percent. We’re where we were. We’re at 2007 levels.” But the SBA is not a direct lender — and credit markets outside of the SBA’s control have remained frozen solid. “There is bipartisan support for SBA has done and acknowledgment that our recovery programs have been good,” Matz says. “The next step is not just to continue with what works.”
The administration is thus now pushing a stronger set of provisions to entice lenders to extend credit to small businesses in a bill currently being assembled under the watch of Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who heads the Senate Small Business Committee. The bill includes various tax breaks, including an exemption for earnings from small-business stock. But its centerpiece is a Treasury program to redirect $30 billion from the Troubled Asset Relief Program to community banks.
Still, small business advocates say it is too little, and too late. “We sure would have liked to have seen quicker action,” says Terry Gardner, policy director at the advocacy group Small Business Majority. “Like so many issues, these proposals are just bogged down. With the SBA loans, I had to ask — who is actually against this? Why is this still not moving? It has bipartisan and presidential support, plus support from banks and small business groups. It is frustrating.”
Moreover, he says that it is not clear if the administration plans will effectively convince banks to lend to small businesses. “The Treasury proposal providing more capital to community banks is only a good idea if it actually induces them to make loans,” Gardner says. “There has to be some incentive structure that guarantees that taxpayer money being loaned to these banks is accomplishing its purpose — to get more capital to small businesses to create jobs — because efforts to do that have stalled.”