Tenderloin merchant group starts petition to demand tax refund over drug crisis

  • by Eric Burkett, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday December 14, 2022
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Several small business owners in the Tenderloin have issued a petition seeking a refund on city fees due to the ongoing drug crisis in the neighborhood that has impacted their venues. Photo: Eric Burkett
Several small business owners in the Tenderloin have issued a petition seeking a refund on city fees due to the ongoing drug crisis in the neighborhood that has impacted their venues. Photo: Eric Burkett

Another merchant revolt is in the works four months after small business owners in the Castro penned a letter to various city officials demanding, among other things, that 35 beds in the city's shelter system be designated for unhoused people in the LGBTQ neighborhood. This time, business owners in the beleaguered Tenderloin are demanding a refund of last year's taxes and fees to help them cover the costs of trying to sustain businesses amid the crime and drug dealing on the neighborhood's streets.

A group calling itself the Tenderloin Business Coalition has issued a petition, stating that it finds "the City of San Francisco to be derelict in its duty to ensure a basic and adequate standard of safety on the streets of the Tenderloin."

According to one of the organization's leaders, Dan Williams, 38, "the drug market controls the sidewalk and it's just not safe to be in the Tenderloin."

Customers aren't willing to come into the neighborhood, said Williams. "We won't survive," he explained.

The petition, which was launched December 5, has so far drawn 80 signatures, but Williams told the Bay Area Reporter he expects that number to rise when the group issues its first news release December 14. The signatures he's collected so far come largely from simply going door to door, talking with business owners individually, he said. In order to overcome language barriers, Vietnamese and Spanish translations of the petition have been issued, as well.

Williams, an ally, is one of three founders of PianoFight, a live entertainment venue and bar at 144 Taylor Street, just half a block from the site of the Compton's Cafeteria riot that was recently approved as a city landmark by the Board of Supervisors. Founded in 2007 in the South of Market neighborhood, PianoFight moved to the Tenderloin in 2014.

Drugs have always been a part of the street tableau, said Williams, and he's gotten used to regular negotiations with street dealers.

"Usually, it's pretty congenial," he said. "We know who each other are and we ask them to move along when we open our business and where I'm at, it's pretty well understood, and we have a good relationship worked out. Other places in the Tenderloin don't have this relationship worked out. In most places, I don't think the business owners feel comfortable or safe engaging with drug dealers, and that's where you'd think the police would come in."

One of the factors that helps, Williams said, is that he's built a working relationship with a number of the dealers who work his block.

"It's a difficult thing," he continued. "I understand people want drugs. I understand there's a market for them. I don't have anything against people who want drugs or people who deal drugs. If it causes such disruptions and such a detriment on the health and safety of residents, and scares away customers, then I don't have a choice but to ask for some help. ... We're talking about the survival of my businesses."

Castro also lodges complaints

Back in August, members of the Castro Merchants Association wrote a letter addressed to various city officials including Mayor London Breed, San Francisco Department of Public Health Director Dr. Grant Colfax, a gay man, and top DPH staffer Dr. Hillary Kunins; Police Chief William Scott; City Attorney David Chiu and Director of Executive Affairs for the City Attorney Luis Zamora; Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing Executive Director Shireen McSpadden, a bi woman; and gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman in whose district the Castro lies.

Although the letter never stated the group's intentions if their pleas weren't met with action, CMA co-President Dave Karraker told the B.A.R. and other media outlets that CMA members would resort to civil disobedience if they had to. Castro merchants could begin withholding the fees they pay to the city until they see action, he said at the time.

The CMA email reminded officials of the numerous efforts the group had made over the years to get help from city leaders and demanded that the neighborhood be made "a priority area for services, given its stature as one of the most visited (and photographed) neighborhoods in the city."

"For the past four years, we have sought city help to address the rising problem of people with behavioral health/substance use disorders taking up residence on our sidewalks, dramatically impacting the quality of life in our neighborhood and the ability to run a successful business," the letter began.

Since then, according to Karraker, who runs the Castro business group with co-President Terrance Alan, the Castro group has had meetings with a number of officials.

"The hope was to get the mayor's attention and I think we did that," Karraker wrote in an email to the B.A.R. this week. "Now, the proof will be in the pudding if her plans and all the action we hear is taking place will actually bear fruit."

While Williams said he had heard of the Castro business owners' efforts, there hasn't been any communication between the two groups. Like the Castro, in addition to the large presence of unhoused people on the street, the Tenderloin is also trying to recover from the effects of the COVID closures. Unlike the Castro, the neighborhood is ground zero for the vast majority of the city's drug arrests and overdose deaths.

Earlier this year, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that "[i]n 2020 and 2021, about 23% of the overdose deaths have occurred in the Tenderloin district and about 18% in SOMA, with many of the deaths occurring outdoors and on sidewalks in front of buildings."

A story published in October by the San Francisco Standard noted that the Tenderloin "has contributed nearly two-thirds of all drug crime reports in San Francisco so far this year," while going on to point out that, overall, drug crimes in the city are down. Nonetheless, there's little argument that drug use and dealing in the Tenderloin is pervasive and out in the open.

Press conference canceled

Members of the TBC had hoped to make their official debut with a news conference December 13 but, "[d]ue to some last minute issues, we were unable to get everything coordinated adequately to follow through with our plans for the press conference," the organization announced in a statement mailed out to various people and organizations that morning.

Instead, they announced they would follow up with a news release by the end of the week. The additional time would allow them to continue to gather signatures and "to refine our strategy for bringing this initiative to city supervisors."

In the meantime, Williams hastened to point out that TBC's efforts are in the early stages. As of yet, they haven't had the chance to reach out to supervisors, for example. An inquiry to District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston's office from the B.A.R. about the group went unanswered, as did inquiries to gay District 6 Supervisor Matt Dorsey, who represents SOMA, and Breed's office. The organization hopes to begin their outreach efforts to city leaders in January. Preston now represents the Tenderloin after the city's redistricting process earlier this year moved it into D5.

The effort the Tenderloin group is leading didn't come together through any of the nonprofits that work in the area. The coalition, Williams said, is a group of business owners who saw the need to organize because they're struggling "without any help from authorities to check the open-air drug market."

"I think that when you have the businesses come together, you know it's pretty serious," said Williams. "It's taking very valuable time from people trying to keep their businesses alive. We really feel like we need some attention from the authorities. There are strategies police are using in Union Square that are working, and business is seemingly booming just a few blocks away."

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