Tender Box

Inflamed by crime, drugs, and rising rents, Tenderloin residents are now launching lawsuits to clean up the city's dumping ground

But it's not as if teenage girls on Eddy Street have a monopoly on Tenderloin drug trafficking, a highly lucrative pursuit that lures persons of every age, race, sex, and nationality. They sell methamphetamine on Mason Street, heroin on Hyde, pills at Eddy and Jones, crack on Ellis, O'Farrell, and Turk.

Police say it takes a staggering amount of resources to make a single arrest, and that many cases are never prosecuted. The District Attorney's Office says cases from the Tenderloin often involve small amounts of drugs and it would swamp the system if all were charged. Both departments say they are overwhelmed.

For whatever reasons, past efforts to eliminate drug sales in the Tenderloin haven't worked. One thing that is working, sort of, is Adopt-a-Block, a neighborhood group formed in 1994 when efforts to clean up the Leavenworth corridor were undermined by ongoing drug activity at certain properties.

When some business owners were apathetic to suggestions that they keep drug dealers off their property, Adopt-a-Block began organizing residents and others from the area to file group small claims lawsuits.

Adopt-a-Block's goal is to raise the issue of accountability: namely, whether business and property owners can be held responsible for drug sales or other objectionable behaviors that occur either with their permission or through neglect.

The group first tries to persuade property owners to take care of problems on their own. If that fails, Adopt-a-Block tries to hit the property owners where it hurts -- the pocketbook -- by invoking state laws that say any property used to sell or store drugs, or which interferes with the enjoyment of life, constitutes a nuisance for which damages may be recovered.

"The whole idea behind it is to give the community a sense of empowerment by using small claims court," says Neveo Mosser, whose family owns the Central Towers apartment complex at 455 Eddy. Mosser helped co-found Adopt-a-Block when his tenants complained of not being able to walk past certain properties.

"The idea is to move building by building and block by block ... to get everyone on their block to operate in a proactive manner and say there are types of activity and behavior they don't want to tolerate anymore," Mosser says.

Over the past five years, through lawsuits and other means, the group has chased drug activity away from a handful of properties, though much of the activity has since moved to surrounding blocks.

In 1995, for instance, the group sued the owner of 425 Eddy, an abandoned building that was being used as a crack house. The court awarded $82,000 to 17 plaintiffs, and the building is now a drug treatment center.

Now, 42 plaintiffs have filed suits -- asking for up to $5,000 each -- against the Doba Cafe and Deli at 403 Eddy. According to police reports in a similar lawsuit filed in May by the city attorney, officers have, over the last year-and-a-half, arrested a man in the process of breaking up crack on the cafe's counter, arrested another man for selling crack out of the cafe's doorway, and claim to have seen a clerk selling narcotics.

Police call the cafe a "safe haven" for drug dealers, and have confiscated a box containing 32 suspected crack pipes, copper scouring pads cut into small pieces (often used as filters), and 16 bags of small balloons (often used to package narcotics) on the premises.

The Doba Cafe isn't the only property Adopt-a-Block is targeting: 35 suits have been filed against Service Employees International Union Local 87, which owns a parking lot at Turk and Hyde where homeless persons line the sidewalk selling secondhand goods and where, according to residents, drug sales occur regularly.

The group has also filed 31 suits against T&D Auto Repair across the street from the union lot, which nearby residents say attracts drug use, drug sales, prostitution, and violent behavior, and is often used as a toilet by persons wandering through the area.

The targets of the lawsuits universally argue that they are doing nothing wrong. Though the owner of the Doba Cafe, Tawfiq Elmuflihi, has been out of the country, his brother, Mahdi Elmuflihi, says any problems have been taken care of, and that Adopt-a-Block plaintiffs are unjustly targeting the business for their own financial gain. Karen Trinh, whose parents own the property and are also being sued, responded similarly.

But Adopt-a-Block Project Director Ana B. Arguello says drug activity continues at the Doba. Besides, she points out, past suffering and emotional distress are enough to justify damages against the cafe's owners.

Richard Leung, president of SEIU Local 87, argues that his organization is not responsible for activity on the parking lot's adjoining sidewalk, and says it has no legal standing to ask people to move along.

Khang Tran, owner of the T&D Auto Repair shop, acknowledges that there have been problems on his property, but says he is installing a fence, and has requested that a pay phone neighbors have complained about be removed.

Arguello, however, says the shop should have taken action years ago, when residents began complaining of harassment and assaults by persons using the property. "They should be compensated for what they've had to endure," she says.

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