How San Francisco can support small businesses in a time of crisis
By Myrna Melgar and Patrick Maguire
Link to opinion piece on Medium
San Francisco is several months into shelter-in-place and for many of us, the initial shock is beginning to wear off. We are sadly growing accustomed to wearing protective masks and connecting with loved ones and friends digitally as we observe social distancing. In this “new normal,” we must also direct our attention to preserving and restarting our local economy, specifically the small locally owned businesses, their employees and the customers that rely on them. To preserve neighborhood restaurants, salons, hardware stores and markets, we need to reexamine what we can do for small businesses and what we already ask of them.
The increasing income inequality in our city has affected residents and small businesses alike. In the Westside, like in the Mission, Chinatown, Bayview, and other neighborhoods, small businesses are an integral part of our feeling of place, our childhood memories, our community roots and sense of belonging. The increasing costs of doing business in San Francisco has displaced smaller mom and pop enterprises, which have been the entry into the middle class for so many. High rents, strong but costly social safety net policies, and a complex web of regulation make it harder for small businesses to thrive in good times, let alone in a pandemic. Increasingly, only highly capitalized chains have the resources to compete, while smaller less sophisticated operations are closing. This does not serve our neighborhoods well, nor does it support our policy goals of providing economic mobility and employment opportunities to the folks who make up the small business community, which disproportionately includes immigrants and women.
Our community has fought to ensure that businesses provide a living wage, universal health care and paid time off, and as income inequality has risen, these programs have become ever more important. To ensure the survival of small businesses and our neighborhood commercial corridors, we must also ensure these costs are proportionately shouldered by the big corporations and large businesses that can not only better afford it, but who have fueled much of the income inequality in the first place.
On the Westside of our City, businesses have different needs than those downtown. They are often not in “destination” corridors, and primarily serve the residents of their local neighborhood. They often have a smaller ecosystem and rely on the surrounding businesses and transit for foot traffic. That foot traffic has been decimated by this pandemic, and our public transit options cut back. The price point for goods and services in the neighborhood commercial corridors is tied to its customer base: neighborhood people. It is not possible nor is it desirable for a local business to sell $15 avocado toast when your working class customers are barely making ends meet.
At the outset of this crisis, considerable attention was given to providing temporary rent relief through residential and commercial eviction moratoriums, giving individuals and businesses impacted by this pandemic a little room to breathe. While this is a good first step, this rent is ultimately still due, and it is not a solution to months of quarantine. We can and must do more.
Two months of closed or drastically reduced business and many small business owners are concerned about paying their next month’s rent. San Francisco should look at providing monetary incentives to landlords to renegotiate leases and keep rents stable. For commercial leases, the City should offer tax breaks in exchange for rent forbearance or forgiveness. An equivalent reduction to business or property taxes would be the most simple and direct incentive city government could offer.
Even as we see moderate reopenings, businesses city wide will have to work with limited customer capacity while retraining or rehiring their staff. Those businesses can only hope that customers will return despite distancing restrictions and necessary safety precautions. Temporarily suspending fees and easing the application process for sidewalk seating, and allowing sharing of a single application by more than one business could help with space constraints.
If businesses are to overcome this crisis, city officials will need to allow more flexibility in space usage and streamlined permitting. The City’s Community Business Priority Processing Program exists to streamline the Conditional Use review process, yet it still takes far too much time and effort to get new projects permitted. A temporary suspension of the CU process for some uses like restaurants and entertainment in Neighborhood Commercial Districts would remove bureaucracy from the equation and support innovation and entrepreneurship. San Francisco businesses should be supported to host pop ups and cultivate experimentation and creativity.
Recently, Supervisor Raphael Mandelman proposed that San Francisco legalize performance and music in our restaurants and cafés. That is exactly the kind of creativity that we should be encouraging from our small business community. The Westside of our city has an incredibly talented population of artists and performers that we should celebrate in both our public and private spaces, especially when it can be both lucrative for local businesses and beneficial to our collective mental health. The City’s wise investment in the arts should be distributed equitably so neighborhood commercial corridors are enriched by them in the same way as downtown.
Lastly, as parents of school aged children, we must stress the importance of childcare for a successful business recovery. Before the pandemic, childcare slots were in short supply, and their closure, along with the closure of schools, has left many employees unable to come back to work. Childcare centers and home-based childcares are small businesses that receive subsidies from the State and local government. Those supports should be continued and strengthened because parents rely on childcare to work, and if schools are reopened with social distancing measures and modified schedules, childcare providers will be a crucial component of a new infrastructure to support workers’ families and businesses.
In the wake of this crisis, there is the opportunity to rebuild. We have the power to come together as a community, care for our neighbors and advocate for each other. San Francisco’s small business leaders are speaking out and telling us what they need. We must take the time to listen to them.
Myrna Melgar is the former President of the SF Planning Commission, Executive Director of Jamestown Community Center and candidate for District 7 Supervisor. You can learn more about Myrna on her campaign website www.MyrnaMelgar.com
Patrick Maguire is a District 7 resident, founder and owner of the iconic Java Beach Cafe in the Outer Sunset. For more information, please visit www.javabeachcafe.com