San Francisco has made strides to help the hundreds of small businesses that have been hit with lawsuits for Americans with Disabilities Act violations, but now a budding effort to help Excelsior district entrepreneurs appears to be in trouble.
The Excelsior Action Group launched a pilot program in January to help neighborhood businesses meet ADA requirements to avoid lawsuits. After having some success, it's now running short on cash and is asking The City's Office of Small Business for a $40,000 grant.
That money would further help nine businesses that already got free inspections receive free or low-cost ADA-compliant construction, such as wider pathways, doorways and modified door handles.
Though The City has reached out to help small businesses manage ADA compliance, the Office of Small Business said it had to focus limited funds on the most heavily litigated neighborhoods: Chinatown and the Richmond and Sunset districts.
The $40,000 would help those nine Excelsior businesses, but more than 20 others would remain vulnerable to legal action. Funds to help those businesses have yet to be identified, according to the Excelsior Action Group.
San Francisco small businesses have been rocked by ADA lawsuits in the past few years. They often are settled out of court for upward of $30,000 — a price tag that's unmanageable for many owners, said Nicole Agbayani, a community organizer who runs the action group.
"It's just been a shocking and jarring experience," she said.
Lawsuits in December and January proved to be a wake-up call for the neighborhood's small-business owners even as they have made progress in bringing restaurants up to code, she said.
And the Excelsior is not alone, as businesses citywide have been subjected to lawsuits. Opponents say the so-called "drive-by litigations" focus on easily visible compliance problems such as restroom accessibility or the width of doorways and pathways.
One way The City has stepped up to help is through the Americans with Disabilities Act Small Businesses Assessment Program, which arranges free inspections and educates communities on compliance.
The program is the first of its kind in the state, said Regina Dick-Endrizzi, executive director of the Office of Small Business, which started the program. And though it has been successful, she said, "a very high percentage" of businesses citywide are still vulnerable.
The lawsuits are largely filed by San Rafael attorney Thomas Frankovich, who said that while he's not disabled he wants to help protect what he considers the most vulnerable class of people.
Frankovich said in the past year he's filed at least a hundred ADA lawsuits in San Francisco alone.
"I wear the badge — the sheriff is in town, that's me and that's just the way it is," he said. "I'm going to take you by the scruff of the neck to the watering trough. San Francisco has been more compliant because of litigation."
The City focuses its compliance program on what it considers the most vulnerable districts where language barriers and unfamiliarity with ADA law are more prevalent than other neighborhoods.
One longtime Excelsior restaurant owner seeking help from the action group said he is concerned about the future of his business, which he said has operated since 1980.
"I've already had some disabled people come and see my bathroom is upstairs and they get upset and leave," said the owner, who wished to remain anonymous. "This is a nightmare. I can't close the restaurant [for repairs], the bills surmount every day."
As of July 1, state law requires disclosure of ADA compliance by property owners in all leases and rental agreements. If you are a small-business owner who needs help with ADA compliance issues, contact the San Francisco Office of Small Business at (415) 554-6134 or find information online.