Mom & Pop Crackdown

A city task force is aggressively suing business owners, some of whom are facilitating crime in their neighborhoods. And some of whom are just making donuts.

The city also used the number of calls for police service and police incident reports to show that the Chaos allowed criminal activity to occur at Magic Donuts. The city produced four incident reports of assault or narcotics possession by independent third parties in the store in the past three years. But one, a March 1997 police report, listed Magic Donuts as the "victim," when 20 gang members stormed the store to attack three customers. The front window of the doughnut shop was broken when someone threw a milk crate through it.

Curtis Dowling, the attorney for the Chaos' landlord, notes that many of the calls to police used in the lawsuit were made by employees of the doughnut shop trying to get help removing troublemakers from the area.

But faced with mounting legal bills, the Chaos ultimately paid the city and settled the case. "We're stuck now," Lin says sadly. "We can't sell because no one will want to buy it because we have a three-year probation. And we still have to pay the court fees."

The way the city attorney's office sees it, Lin and Roger Chao (above right), are responsible for some of the mayhem at Mission and 20th streets because they haven't done enough to keep criminals out of their Magic Donuts shop (above left). The Chaos disagree, but paid a fine to get the city off their backs.
The way the city attorney's office sees it, Lin and Roger Chao (above right), are responsible for some of the mayhem at Mission and 20th streets because they haven't done enough to keep criminals out of their Magic Donuts shop (above left). The Chaos disagree, but paid a fine to get the city off their backs.
Lin and Roger Chao's Magic Donuts shop
Bobby Castro
Lin and Roger Chao's Magic Donuts shop

Since the lawsuit, the Chaos have demanded to meet with Mission police Capt. Suhr because they don't want to accidentally violate their court injunction and end up paying more money to the city.

"As soon as the owner is under an injunction, they take control," Deputy City Attorney Carrera notes. "It's a wake-up call."

But Suhr, who is on a first-name basis with the Chaos, says that in cases like Magic Donuts, public nuisance lawsuits sometimes enter into an uncomfortable gray area. "We know that there is a story within a story here," Suhr admits. "But let me ask you one question: Why shouldn't [Roger and Lin's] store be worth as much as a doughnut shop in West Portal or Noe Valley? If code enforcement makes the Mission District a thriving commerce corridor so that people are itching to get in here, people like Roger will benefit. Because whatever they spent on code enforcement would be pennies compared to what they could make.

"I wish that there was a more palatable way to do this thing, but I'm at a loss," Suhr continues. "In the long run, it will bear itself out, and the fruits of their labor will surpass this momentary discomfort. But I do feel bad for Magic Donuts."

Since January 1997, when the Code Enforcement Task Force was reinvigorated by Louise Renne, about 100 businesses and commercial property owners have been slapped with joint public nuisance and unfair business practice suits for everything from allowing drug dealing to tolerating loiterers.

Attorneys for some of those sued say the city often files sloppy, form-letter actions that fail to recognize the complexities of running a small business. Attorney Curtis Dowling calls many of the city's suits "smoke and mirrors."

"They're thin cases," Dowling says. "In the Mission and the Tenderloin, these tenants are faulted for the general blight of the neighborhood. The idea is that if they get rid of the [businesses] then the scumbags on the streets will go with them."

A popular argument among storeowners is that the crime existed before their businesses did, and that policing neighborhoods for criminal activity is the job of the police. "Forty-five years this has been going on," Roger Chao says of the fencing at the corner in front of Magic Donuts. "If they know it, then why is there no action? But now, there is a new law to clean up the street. I don't know what the law is, but I feel that it is unfair to me."

Though the city does warn businesses before filing suit, attorneys for the storeowners point out that it is often impossible for a storeowner to abate the nuisance to the city's satisfaction. Suits are often based on police incident reports or calls to the police for crimes to which the business has no direct link, Dowling says.

When it sues a store or business owner, the city also typically goes after the commercial landlord who rents out the storefront. Dowling, who has represented three landlords in nuisance cases brought by the city of San Francisco, theorizes that suing the landlord is a strong-arm tactic to get the landlord to evict the tenant.

"They bring the landlord into this so that he will have to succumb to the economic pressures of the city and evict the tenant," Dowling says. "In the end, the city is trying to put the tenant out of business, however it can be done. And if they have to put economic pressure over the landlord to accomplish it, then their attitude is, so be it. But it's not fair, and it's not right."

Small-business owners say they can be financially devastated by the lawsuits, which they often settle because they can't afford to go to trial.

But the City Attorney's Office says it is very thoughtful about its claims of nuisance. "No suit we undertake is done lightly," says Deputy City Attorney Slavin. "We don't sue a business owner unless they are repeatedly warned and they have done nothing to comply. We make sure we have evidence when we go to court. We think we are doing a great service to the city by cleaning up these blighted businesses."

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