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SF businesses targeted by anonymous complaints could get city help

Awnings in San Francisco's Chinatown | Camille Cohen/The Standard

A new law could give San Francisco businesses a pathway to meet city regulations without being hit with costly fines.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed and Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin are writing the new law after businesses were targeted with a huge number of awning complaints, The Standard has learned.

The anonymous complaints have been targeting small businesses citywide, including in Chinatown, the Richmond and the Tenderloin. 

The complaints relate to unpermitted awnings or iron gates on storefronts. 

Pedestrians stroll through North Beach toward Chinatown. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

This mass-complaint action saw the city issue citations and created confusion with many business owners who have been using the same outdoor design for decades.

The spike in complaints appears to be abnormal. The Department of Building Inspection said 179 anonymous complaints were filed between Nov. 1, 2022, and Feb. 23. During the same period the year before, it received just five similar complaints.

Breed and Peskin are now working on legislation to create an “amnesty program” for existing awning owners who are out of compliance. The inspection department will deprioritize enforcement, except for cases posing urgent safety issues.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin in a suit stands on an ornate staircase in San Francisco's City Hall.
Supervisor Aaron Peskin | Brian Feulner for The Standard

“While it’s important that we address life safety issues, we also need to create a friendly environment for mom-and-pop shops to thrive,” Breed said in a statement, emphasizing complicated compliance issues can break small businesses.

The program will allow the businesses to follow a pathway to come into compliance before any enforcement action is taken and focus on streamlining complex permitting processes.

Lily Lo, a Chinatown activist who has been helping impacted merchants, told The Standard that she has identified about 30 small businesses hit by the complaints.

“Lots of merchants don’t know what to do,” Lo said. “They are already struggling to recover from the pandemic, and now comes the violation notice and potential fines?”

Local businesses were also targeted by legal letters alleging Americans with Disabilities Act violations in recent years.

Peskin, who represents Chinatown, said he’s pleased to work with Breed to provide immediate relief to targeted small business owners, “so they can focus on rebuilding their businesses as workers and visitors return to the city.”

The new law would have to be approved by the Board of Supervisors before it came into force.

Han Li can be reached at