The Grid

Demon Dumb
Last June, when S.F. Supervisor Mabel Teng heard that a popular ice cream parlor in her Inner Sunset neighborhood was being forced out of business by a steep rent increase, she reacted as lawmakers are wont to react.

She held hearings.
And in the fine tradition of lawmakers everywhere, Teng also created the appearance of a large problem where only a small one existed -- and then drew a simplistic but politically beneficial conclusion about its cause. In the case of Old Uncle Gaylord's Ice Cream Cafe, Teng decided, there was a culprit, and its name was demon alcohol.

"There was a notice for a liquor license posted on the window," she recalls. "People noticed that property owners were forcing out small businesses. Activists said that fancy, trendy, yuppie restaurants were coming in and offering twice as much rent. That's when I became involved."

(Actually, Teng's assertion has little if any connection with factuality. The ice cream shop did face a 50 percent hike in its rent. But the shop had operated without a lease since 1992; the rent increase was meant to make up for inflation and five years of flat lease rates. But such pesky financial realities apparently never entered into Teng's calculations.)

Having latched onto a media-friendly cause and come to a wrongheaded estimation of the underlying problem, Teng was ready to become truly hazardous. All she needed was a little help from her friends.

And her colleagues on the Board of Supervisors, who knew better, were more than ready to accommodate.

Teng swung into action early in September. Borrowing from strategy used to fight a real alcohol-and-crime problem in the Mission District, Teng began creating the illusion of a similar problem in the Inner Sunset by railing at state alcoholic beverage regulators. She alleged the bureaucrats in the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control had allowed an overconcentration of liquor outlets in the Inner Sunset, which in turn had led to street crime increases, which now were threatening the neighborhood's civility.

To buttress Teng's alleged point, a loyal mayoral staffer and neighborhood Democratic club player, Andy Olshin, was shuffled to a hearing where he testified about being accosted by a drunk as he passed an Inner Sunset bar.

Oh, the horror.
Once the official alcohol horror hearings had gone on at sufficient length, Teng was ready to offer her solution to the problem of crime in the Inner Sunset: a moratorium on new liquor licenses for bars and restaurants there. Choosing collegiality over common sense, the other supervisors agreed to Teng's moratorium plan on March 3.

And that's a stupid shame.
It's a stupid shame because the moratorium won't help the owners of the ice cream parlor, a Cambodian immigrant couple who had scratched and saved for 10 years to buy the business, way back in 1989. No, Koy Hour Ly and her husband, Chi Kong Ly, closed up shop, and they are not coming back.

Also, it's entirely uncertain whether the liquor license ban will have any effect whatsoever on crime. The police cannot document that alcohol sales are a major factor in Inner Sunset crime statistics.

But Teng's moratorium will help someone.
The moratorium will give aid and comfort to some 38 bars and restaurants that already hold licenses to sell booze in the newly minted Inner Sunset Alcoholic Beverage Special Use District. Unless the law of supply and demand is repealed (and even Mabel Teng would have difficulty rounding up the votes for such a measure), these 38 businesses and the liquor licenses they own will now increase in value, because there is a limited supply of such licenses -- by government fiat.

And the moratorium also seems awfully likely to help Supervisor Teng herself.

In coming years, Teng can look forward to pleasant dealings with, and regular support from, a highly solicitous corps of Inner Sunset tavern owners and restaurateurs. And why shouldn't they be solicitous? During the next two years, Teng and company will decide whether the moratorium becomes a permanent fact of Inner Sunset life. And if it does become permanent, guess which 38 businesses will compose a government-enforced monopoly that will all but qualify as a license to print money?

There were plenty of warning signs that Teng's moratorium was phony or misguided, or both. In fact, the other supervisors should have seen those warnings from a mile away.

But never underestimate the logrolling and back-scratching capabilities of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Other supervisors had to know that the Mission District liquor license moratorium was based on a situation far more severe than anything seen in the Inner Sunset, no matter what Mabel Teng said.

With one liquor license for each 87 residents, the Mission is all but overrun by bars and liquor stores -- and the type of street crime that seems, intuitively, to be linked to a skid row atmosphere. The liquor license situation in the Inner Sunset cannot be considered even statistically similar, unless one ignores the fact that the population of that area effectively doubles each weekday, when University of California at San Francisco Medical Center employees arrive at work.

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