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 file for the city's nuisance suit against David Johnson's apartment building in the Mission is several inches thick. But it is not stuffed with evidence of Johnson's supposed transgressions. Rather, most of the file consists of motions from Johnson's attorney asking over and over again for the city attorney to cough up the evidence that justifies the lawsuit.

"Where are the evidence and documents?" demands Johnson's attorney, Michael Spalding, as he rises from his desk in his Financial District office. "To this day, I still don't know who complained that the place was a nuisance. [The City Attorney's Office] has stonewalled and misconstrued words that any moron would know what I'm talking about. This is not hugely unusual because attorneys generally don't want to play the game by the rules, but this is far more offensive when it's a public entity doing it."

Johnson's apartment building at 2061 Mission St. is located between 16th and 17th streets, in a busy retail area where shoppers, residents, hooligans, drug dealers, fences, and homeless people regularly congregate. The building entrance is guarded by a wrought-iron gate, and flanked by a smoke shop and a shoe store.

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

In the city's complaint, Johnson's building is described as a public nuisance because it has been used for drug activities and as a dumping ground for discarded hypodermic needles. Loitering, disturbing the peace, and "other illegal and annoying activities" also allegedly take place.

But Spalding says the city never would give him the records he asked for to support those allegations. According to documents that the city did give to Spalding, the suit was based on a Code Enforcement Task Force inspection conducted on April 30, 1998, when various fire, health, and building code violations were found. The violations included a roach problem, broken door latches, and a broken window. Mission police Capt. Greg Suhr characterizes the building as being slumlike, though Spalding has a stack of letters from city agencies noting that all problems were promptly abated.

Deputy City Attorney Carrera was with the task force when it inspected Johnson's building. At that time, she asked Johnson to hire an around-the-clock security guard, saying there were several reports of transients sneaking into the building and hanging out in the common room, doing drugs.

Twelve police incident reports for mostly drug-related crimes from March 1997 to January 1999 were submitted by the city when it filed the nuisance suit against Johnson. The reports showed that nonresidents were cited -- only six were actually arrested -- in the building for possession of drugs or drug paraphernalia. Only one of these arrests, which occurred a few blocks from the apartment building, involved a tenant of the building.

The city was also concerned about the high number of calls for police service to the area, but Spalding points out that according to police-produced reports, a large number of calls came from tenants or the building manager to report the transients who had wandered into the building.

Spalding says that because Johnson could not afford to pay for 24-hour security, he continued to work with the Mission Police Station, and offered a storefront free of charge to the police to use as a substation. Capt. Suhr at one point signed a letter stating that he did not believe the property needed a security guard at the time.

But when Johnson failed to hire a 24-hour security guard, the city initiated its nuisance suit. "There was not enough effort," Carrera says. "If [Johnson] said he was trying to work with the police, then why were the tenants so dissatisfied and so afraid? A lot [of the building code violations] have been abated but we had to file a complaint for the drug activity because the owner refused to comply voluntarily with hiring a security guard. There were families living there. It was really unsafe."

Spalding says that Johnson had, since November 1998, hired part-time guards, and thought that a 24-hour guard would not be necessary since he had the letter from Suhr saying so. But Suhr says Johnson misunderstood the purpose of the letter. "I met with Johnson and he seemed willing to have police help," Suhr says. "Johnson seemed to be under the impression that if he told the Police Department his problems, that the police would adopt his building. We have 125 officers at Mission Station. You can imagine how far that would go."

The Mission Police Station is currently out of compliance with the city charter, and understaffed by 10 officers, Suhr says.

"Maybe if the police had as many officers as it should, the city wouldn't be insisting that private property owners hire private security," Spalding says. "With all the police reports in the past three years, they only got one guy on a warrant. It never triggers prosecution of the criminal, but on the other hand, they want to get hundreds of thousands of dollars out of Dave Johnson.

"We have no philosophical problem with the suit if [the landlord] is not keeping the place up," Spalding continues. "And the Code Enforcement Task Force may have done good things, but they're divorced from economic reality."

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