San Francisco small business owners may only agree on one thing: Our city leaders don’t care about us. All the evidence is there.
In the past decade, the City has crushed us. They raised our taxes, often by taxing commercial landlords who immediately “pass throughed” the expense directly to their small business tenants. They increased our death-by-a-thousand-cuts fees: There’s a fee for having a heat lamp, and another for having one table on the sidewalk. There’s a fee for having candles in your business, and even a fee for having a nude model in an art studio. They passed one comically onerous employee mandate after another, forcing small business owners to do the work of Fortune 500 HR departments. They never asked us how their “progressive” measures might kneecap our businesses, ruin our Yelp scores—“$18 for a burger!? Shame on you!”—or force our customers to look online for cheaper prices. And it gets worse…
While suffocating our jobs, the City stopped doing theirs. Organized criminals smashed our windows and grabbed our cash registers and goods. Gangs dealt drugs openly and without consequence on our sidewalks. People slept in our storefronts, leaving piles of human waste and used needles—literally—on our doorsteps, and making it our responsibility to clean. Good luck getting a police officer to care. Meanwhile, the bureaucracy grew so complicated that even opening an ice cream shop became a Herculean feat that only the wealthy and connected can accomplish. And this all happened before COVID!
Thus the logic goes: City leaders don’t care about us. But I have a hard pill for us small business owners to swallow. It’s our own fault, not theirs.
Our leaders don’t care about us because we don’t show up. We don’t flood public comment. We don’t email Supervisors and the Mayor, en masse and on message, let alone raise money for candidates. Instead we complain on Facebook, write an occasional angry letter, and make up lame excuses: “wE’RE tOo BuSy RuNNinG oUr sHOpS.” For a group of people known for our plucky, can-do attitude, we’re pathetic.
Luckily, we’ve begun to wake up. Gym owners, grocers, tattoo artists, independent venues, bar owners, the recently formed SF Small Business Alliance—all of us seem to have realized at once that unless we engage in the proven steps of advocacy, nothing will ever improve. And though it’s YEARS late, the timing is perfect. Why? Because it’s budget time!
Later this month, SF departments will submit scaled-back budget proposals to the Mayor and Board of Supervisors that take into account a projected $650 million shortfall over the next two fiscal years. Between March and June, negotiations and planning around how best to allocate the City’s diminished budget will ensue. The revised budget will be presented to the Board in June.
Any savvy advocate knows that budget time is the time to get in front of your elected leaders and make the case for why your cause, whether affordable housing, homelessness, or culture & arts, should have a place in the City’s budget. But the small business community has never participated meaningfully in this advocacy. According to one Supervisorial Aide during budget time last year, their office received 700 defund the police calls in a single week—and zero from small businesses.
This year is different. With thousands of businesses closed or on the verge of closure, and the pandemic lurching toward the one-year mark, we’re fighting for our lives—literally and figuratively. This year, we have a list of demands, and we won’t take no for an answer.
Our budget asks are straightforward, practical and aligned with the priorities of the City to revitalize our neighborhoods, grow jobs, and build a stronger, diversified economy with opportunities for all.
$20 million dollars to augment the Mayor’s small business relief fund. This fund includes grants and zero- to low-interest loans to stabilize small businesses, including larger “anchor” businesses that employ many people locally.
$20 million dollars to fully fund the Shared Spaces Program so the newly built parklets can be managed effectively by City Hall. Many of us invested in these spaces to weather the pandemic, and the ability to keep and manage Shared Spaces will give small business a boost and keep corridors lively.
$20 million dollars for grants, distributed by SF's Office of Economic and Workforce Development, for merchant associations and neighborhood groups to improve the health, safety and aesthetics of our beleaguered merchant corridors.
The SF small business community only has ourselves to blame for our predicament. But this is the year that we flip the script. Good things will follow.
-Ben Bleiman is a small business owner, President of the San Francisco Entertainment Commission, and founder of SF Bar Owner Alliance