D.C. Council’s Committee on Business and Economic Development recently fast-tracked legislation that would provide property tax relief to Sankofa Video Books & Cafe, placing it before the entire council Tuesday for what many supporters anticipate will be its final approval.
While committee members heralded the Mypheduh Films DBA Sankofa Video and Books Real Property Tax Exemption Act as an example of highly organized civic engagement that produced a positive outcome, Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) raised the question of how to expand similar protections for other local legacy businesses.
“While [Sankofa Video Books & Cafe] may get support, there are a lot of other businesses that don’t have that sort of support system, or resources to do what Sankofa continues to do,” McDuffie said on June 19 during the Business and Economic Development Committee’s markup of the Sankofa tax abatement bill.
“There are other businesses that give flavor to various neighborhoods that wouldn’t approach a council member for a tax abatement,” McDuffie said. “This committee is looking to identify broader relief for people affected. It’s a serious problem and I appreciate how the supporters have elevated this issue.”
If the tax abatement bill passes, Sankofa has a decade of property tax relief for its Georgia Avenue property. Council member Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1), whose constituency includes the well-regarded bookstore, introduced the legislation in January after owners Haile and Shirikiana Aina Gerima learned that they would have to pay $30,000 for the year. Without the tax abatement bill, that amount would increase $3,000 by October.
On June 3, hundreds of people packed Room 500 of the Wilson Building during a public roundtable on the Sankofa tax abatement bill. In the weeks following, committee members received 2,000 written testimonies from community members, in part compelling a vote of approval from all committee members, except Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3). This happened despite D.C. Chief Financial Officer Jim DeWitt’s objection, as outlined in a June letter to council Chair Phil Mendelson (D).
In the more than two decades since the Gerimas opened Sankofa Video Books & Cafe, named after their highly acclaimed film of the same name, more than 100 District-based businesses, a number of which had Black owners, shuttered because of rising operational costs in a gentrifying city. Within that same period, D.C.’s Black population fell by 30 percentage points, inciting anger and anxiety about where Black people stand in future plans for what was once known as Chocolate City.
In May, Council member Trayon White (D-Ward 8), a business and economic development committee member, introduced a tax exemption bill for Players Lounge on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Southeast. During Wednesday’s meeting, Council members Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7) alluded to their efforts to help businesses by writing legislation that lowered the property tax burden by 20 cents per $100. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) also spoke about conversations he had with bookstore owners in his jurisdiction, and recently materialized $5,000 tax relief for small businesses.
Even with such overtures, some business owners like the Gerimas have struggled to make a profit.
On several occasions, Shirkiana Gerima said her increasing tax burden has taken funds away from major renovation projects. During a small business roundtable on Friday night, she thanked her local officials for yielding to the public outcry but acknowledged the need for widely distributed reliefs for other businesses that have long accentuated D.C culture.
“Let’s stick to the abatement idea and find a way to create some protections for legacy Black businesses,” Gerima told audience members during the June 21 roundtable, which also featured Stacie Lee Banks of Lee’s Flower and Card Shop on U Street and local realtor Ryan Butler.
“If we have the ear of the city, let’s figure out a way to say that there are certain things we need in place to protect businesses and make that the reason that D.C. is on the map,” she said. “It’s a city that protects its businesses. We’re a Black government mostly, and we have a history of Black institutions and intellectuals. Let’s put our minds together and do better.”