Small business owners can seek county grants

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By Alfredo Santana

Contributing Writer

HUNTINGTON PARK — Retail shops like Valentina Boutique’s await a stream of customers to stay alive while people slowly venture out from their pandemic isolation and into Pacific Boulevard, wrestling out fears of virus transmission.

And owner Karla Beltran hopes a $10,000 grant program for apparel stores like hers created by Los Angeles County in coordination with the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, or LISC LA, would bring relief to a battered micro business that closed for five months last year because it was labeled non-essential.

Operated with her mother, Daisee, the clothing store, which specializes in women blouses, dresses and hair products, suffered a near fatal blow when Beltran’s previous landlord evicted her, allegedly for unpaid rent from April to August 2020.

That occurred despite a county moratorium banning commercial evictions due to mandated closures or sickness caused by the pandemic and harassment by landlords.

Now, the disgruntled landlord has threatened to sue the Beltrans in small claims court to recover $6,200 in back rent.

“We have not, and did not receive any aid from the city, nor from any other entity,” Karla Beltran said. “We heard that only five businesses got money, but that was all.

Last October, Beltran agreed to a lease with another commercial landlord in the main business segment of the city, with the caveat to pay a percentage of rent with a monthly baseline of $2,500 prorated on days the shop remains closed.

Seven recently vacated brick and mortar storefronts facing the street dot two blocks near 7035 Pacific Blvd., where Valentina Boutique’s aims to rebound from economic calamity wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. But sales are still slow and rent, plus the two salaries, is hard to meet.

“We mainly sell dresses and blouses,” Karla Beltran said. “Our prices per unit run from $25 to $50. Today [at 3 p.m.], we just had our second customers. We only sell about 25% of what we sold in 2019.”

The grant program, titled Keep our Shops on the Block: Personal Care & Retail Recovery Grant seeks to bring financial respite to 470 ailing businesses in Los Angeles County outside of the city of Los Angeles, said Tunua Thrash-Ntuk, LISC executive director.

Two funding rounds compose the fund’s $4.7 million program: applications from skin care offices, beauty and hair salons, flower shops, clothing, custom apparel, wedding and quinceañera dresses and party supply stores.

Applications for the next round open are due between April 26 and May 2. The initial round took place from April 5 to April 11.

“These grants will go to support personal care and retail businesses,” Thrash-Ntuk said. “You do have to have a brick and mortar presence in order to be eligible.”

A goal of the funding program is to assist retail shops that can document incurred devastating losses either by loss of income due to prolonged shutdowns in 2021, or because languishing sales and a trickle of customers do not match cash flows experienced before the pandemic started in March 2020.

Restaurants and wholesale distributors do not qualify for the funds. Retail grants should be used to cover expenses incurred from January to December 2021.

Other businesses that can qualify for the grants include bike sale and repairs, wigs and hair extensions, home décor, watch and clock retail and repair, fabric selling and retailing, toys and sunglasses, cosmetic tattoo parlors, locksmiths, health care supplies, towing services and smog inspection sites.

Music instrument sales and repair shops, auto repair, comic bookstores, candle stores, music and movie sale shops, beauty spas specializing in skin care and weight loss, facials and infrared saunas also can apply.

Eligible businesses must have gross incomes of $1 million or less reported in their most recent federal tax returns, should be registered to operate as of September 2019, and must not have received any awards this year from the county’s regional recovery fund.

Undocumented business owners who meet business criteria can apply, but should provide a valid ITIN number, usually assigned for filing income tax forms if they want to qualify.

If an establishment is selected a finalist, the owner would be ask to submit 2020 or 2019 federal tax returns, a certificate of good standing issued by the California Secretary of State and register for a technical assistance meeting with a verified representative from the nonprofit Small Business Development Center.

Emma Kopplenburg, program officer at LISC LA, said that sole proprietors do not need to provide a certificate of good standing, so long as they are not registered as corporations.

Furthermore, entities that received loans issued by the Small Business Administration are eligible for this program, and so are PPP recipients, even if they were awarded a second forgivable loan.

Also, the finalists should sign the grant agreement, and submit a W9 form online along with Automatic Clearing House payment information for a registered bank account to get the money disbursements.

For the veteran retailers, they also should turn in form DD214. All finalists will be notified by email May 7.

Business operators who filed for round 1 and were not selected are automatically entered in the second round and there is no need to reapply.

Selection of applicants will be random, but those located in census tracks with low median income as defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, shops in areas with higher levels of pollution and a combination of  higher unemployment rates with lower educational rates and lower jobs-to-population rates would carry more weight to become finalists.

Shops registered as owned by veterans also are favored in the selection process.

The application must be completed online and in English, Thrash-Ntuk said. Guidance forms are available in 14 languages.

An immigrant from El Salvador, Karla Beltran said that to make things even worse, she along with her mother and three children contracted COVID-19 during the peak of contagions last December.

The illness’ sequels, plus previous existing lockdown measures to stem the spread added to the burdens to fully reopen in January.

Now that most official restrictions to reopen have been removed, the Beltrans want to focus on better things ahead. As the state ordered all counties and cities to book vaccinations for people 16 years and older regardless of occupation, Karla and her mother are about to snare appointments for doses of the vaccine.

“Let me put it this way,” Karla said. “Before the pandemic, we used to sell about 15 garments a day. Now I sell five.

“My hope is that with more vaccinations, shoppers will feel more confident and start to come back. On weekends sales are picking up.”

In fact, Daisee was so busy attending customers on a recent Saturday that she declined to talk on the phone.

Qualifying business owners can apply in the fund’s website at www.lacovidfund.org, where a list of full eligible retailers and additional information is also available.

For more questions, send an email at lacovidfund@lisc.org.