Joe Donohue was working his regular dinner shift as manager of Mission District Mexican restaurant Gracias Madre last month when one of his staffers alerted him to a commotion outside.
He watched in shock as dozens of people in a flash-mob-style group tagged up the neighboring building with cans of spray paint, recording their activities with cell phones and flipping off security cameras meant to deter vandalism.
“I mean, I’ve seen a lot of stuff in my day, but this was on another level,” Donohue said, alluding to his restaurant’s own periodic struggles with graffiti on the storefront and parklet space.
The incident is an extreme example of what many business owners and city leaders say is a worsening issue in San Francisco, and many are now calling for a new approach to dealing with graffiti and vandalism.
Supervisor Myrna Melgar announced at last week’s Board of Supervisors meeting that she is working with the city attorney to draft legislation that would create a two-year graffiti abatement pilot program targeting the city’s major commercial corridors.
“I think we can all agree that vandalism has become much more visible in San Francisco. In every neighborhood, residents are fed up,” Melgar said at the meeting. “In my own neighborhood, visitors have taken it upon themselves to walk around with paint buckets because it has gotten so out of hand.”
The initiative, which has the support of Mayor London Breed, would allow businesses to opt-in to a free program managed by the Department of Public Works (DPW) to clean up graffiti on private property. Melgar said she plans to work with the Laborers Local 261 union to staff up the program. The hope is to launch the pilot by the end of June after going through the legislative process.
Melgar said that the "huge rise" in graffiti prompted her to introduce the measure as well as the overall effort to make the city a more welcoming place for both residents and tourists as it recovers from the pandemic.
"If our commercial corridors are not looking good. If they're not hospitable and if people are not feeling safe, that affects our bottom line as a city," Melgar said in an interview.
DPW has submitted a budget initiative that would add additional funding for labor, supplies and equipment to remove graffiti on private property. Still, it’s an open question whether those resources will be funded through the normal budget process.
“We certainly understand the desire to relieve private property owners of the burden to remove graffiti,” DPW spokesperson Rachel Gordon wrote in an email. “Public Works will be able and willing to take on this added work, as long as we have the adequate resources to deliver.”
She added, “At the same time, we would like to see graffiti vandals held to account for the crimes they commit, whether that means paying fines, providing restitution or performing community service to help undo the harm they did in blighting our neighborhoods.”
After a pandemic-era pause, city officials have moved to resume fines and violation notices to property owners who fail to clean up graffiti on their property. The Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee signed off on the proposal, moving it with amendments to the Board of Supervisors that will require DPW to notify local community benefits districts of violations and provide updates to city officials.
Roughly 11,000 cases of graffiti have occurred on private property in the city during the pandemic, but property owners were not given notices or enforcement actions because of the pause, according to DPW. Over that same time, the department has worked to remove some 29,000 instances of graffiti on public structures.
Melgar said the new pilot program and penalties for violation can work together in a "carrot and stick" fashion.
"This is a carrot we can hand out for a couple of years to help our small businesses as they continue to recover," Melgar said, adding that there's a potential for the program to become permanent if the pilot bears fruit.
While notices of violations and fines for failing to clean up graffiti are meant to be directed at property owners, lease terms often mean small business tenants are responsible for cleanup and potential punishment, said Sharky Laguana, president of the city’s Small Business Commission.
"I’d argue that instead of having 50,000 points of accountability it would be more efficient to have a single point of accountability, which is that the city should simply take care of it,” Laguana said.
The disconnect has led to instances where city crews will clean graffiti on public property while leaving adjacent storefronts untouched.
“My problem is that when I call the city to clean up the public streets near the business, they fail to do it—but at the same time, they’ll give me a fee for not cleaning my own business hit with vandalism,” said Donohue, manager of Gracias Madre. “It feels like you’re adding more fees over something you have no real control over.”
Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who is spearheading efforts to restart graffiti abatement enforcement, said the goal isn’t to be punitive and gather revenue. He noted only around 3% of those hit with violation notices apply for a hardship exemption.
“When people get a notice, generally within a month’s time, somebody goes out there and cleans up the graffiti. That notice has proven to be quite effective,” Peskin said. He added that most graffiti violations are on vacant or abandoned properties or those with out-of-town owners.
Laguana said most responsible business owners will hurry to clean up their property regardless of enforcement because of vandalism’s potential impact on business. However, he argued, if the ultimate goal is effective and speedy cleanup of graffiti, the current system just doesn’t make sense.
“In cases where a fine is instituted, the graffiti is not being abated for weeks,” Laguana said. “But if we had just sent a paint crew out there, it would already be over and done with.”
Kevin Truong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org