On Wednesday, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee considers legislation to prevent irresponsible liquor stores from wrecking the quality of life in low-income communities.
Sponsored by Supervisor Sophie Maxwell, the proposed law will finally enable the city to impose financial penalties on liquor store owners who allow their premises to be used for nuisance activities. While most people who live or work near these rogue businesses will greatly benefit from the new law, past experience shows that owners will turn out in force to derail this long-overdue legislation.
San Francisco has a double standard when it comes to its neighborhoods. Nuisance activities outside liquor stores in the Tenderloin, Bayview and other low-income communities are tolerated while the mere hint of a person publicly drinking on Union Street brings immediate police action.
A decade ago I represented a diverse group of Tenderloin residents, business owners and landlords fed up with nuisance activities surrounding two stores at Turk and Leavenworth Streets. Despite the owners’ protestations that they had no control of what went on outside their stores, the widespread drug dealing and drinking near the businesses curiously ceased after the onset of litigation, and it has not returned.
Near these problem stores were two stores that also sold liquor, and yet had no nuisance activities near their premises. The contrast clearly showed that liquor store owners can stop their customers from engaging in illegal activities outside their businesses— if they care.
But too many liquor store owners do not care, and it only takes one bad owner to ruin the quality of life on an entire block.
While the strategy of having residents, owners, and businesses filing suit against offending store owners has proven successful, it requires too much time and money to be feasible for most low-income communities. That’s why Supervisor Maxwell’s legislation to regulate offending liquor stores is so critical.
Under the legislation, liquor stores will have to satisfy certain performance standards to ensure they are not contributing to nuisance activities near their store. Violators will be subject to administrative penalties from $500-1000, with the potential for revocation of their liquor license. No penalty or condition can be imposed against the business until after an Administrative Hearing, and owners may then appeal these rulings to the Board of Appeals.
A $264 annual fee on liquor stores will fund the hearings; the legislation will not burden the city’s general fund.
Supervisor Maxwell clearly drafted this legislation to give offending stores every opportunity to resolve their problems prior to being hit with penalties. Only ongoing offenders will see their operations impacted.
Despite the obvious need for this legislation, past history shows that liquor store owners can be a potent political force. The upcoming hearing will likely see owners raising fierce opposition to any restriction on their “right” to destroy low-income communities.
For example, when I handled the Tenderloin suit described above, our campaign against the liquor stores got largely favorable media. But The Recorder legal newspaper attacked our action, claiming it was unfair to punish store owners for what happens outside their premises.
Count on this line being regularly repeated at the February 1 hearing. So will, “We can’t control our customers after they leave our store,” “We also don’t like what’s happening on our street, “ and the favorite, “It’s the police department’s job to stop drug dealing on the street, not ours.”
This latter argument is wrong for two reasons.
First, in the case of the Tenderloin stores, the police constantly arrested drug dealers around the premises who were back from jail within hours or quickly replaced. Ongoing arrests did not improve the situation, and were a waste of police resources.
Second, using police resources to stem the harm caused by a private nuisance means that taxpayers are paying a cost that should be borne by the offending business.
Rather than make the police solely responsibility for addressing nuisance businesses, Maxwell’s measure also gives the Planning Department, Health Department, Building Inspection Department and any member of the public the ability to request that the City Attorney initiate the administrative process against an offending business. The involvement of the City Attorney’s office as a screener of complaints should eliminate concern that business competitors or others will use the new law to harass law-abiding establishments.
Many if not most of the liquor store owners/corner groceries that will be impacted by Maxwell’s legislation are first generation immigrants, and in the past this has led to charges that attempts to hold these businesses accountable are “racist.” (We were accused of this in the Tenderloin even though our lead plaintiff and many others were African-American). Supervisor Maxwell can hopefully quickly put this argument to rest should it be raised on Wednesday.
The hearing on Maxwell’s legislation is specially set for 4:00 pm on Wednesday in City Hall, Room 250. The 1st of the month is a hard day for those living in low-income communities to attend hearings, but the importance of this legislation will hopefully give the committee the backing it needs to move the legislation to the full Board.
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