Many businesses across the city boarded up their front windows last March as they faced an uncertain future and an extended period of forced closure due to the pandemic. Many have pulled down that plywood and reopened in some capacity, but over the past year they've been victims of petty vandalism and theft during nights when few police appear on patrol, and some say they want the city to compensate them for damages.
The Castro is hardly the only neighborhood dealing with rampant crime in recent months. Home and garage break-ins have been reportedly skyrocketing in previously quiet parts of town like Bernal Heights and the Richmond District, and a rash of vandalism in Hayes Valley and the Haight led to Supervisor Dean Preston and DA Chesa Boudin spearheading a financial relief fund for District 5 businesses last fall.
But the Castro Merchants association put out a survey last week and they've collected data on an estimated $120,000 in damage from 64 separate incidents of vandalism. As Hoodline reports, these incidents have included broken front windows at Cliff's Variety, Crossroads Trading Company, the newly open Double Rainbow Ice Cream, and restaurants Fable and Willkommen, among others.
And while it might seem like these are minor crimes, the sheer numbers make it seem like there's been little law enforcement presence at all — and the outlay of cash to make these repairs is hardly something that most of these businesses can afford after the year they've had. Castro Merchants President Masood Samereie explains to Hoodline that claims like these make insurance premiums go up, and many insurers simply stop paying for such vandalism after one or two incidents. "Most of these businesses don't claim it and it comes out of their pockets," Samereie says.
Encouraged to do so by District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, Samereie says that he hopes the survey data will prompt the city to create a program similar to the one in District 5, which currently allocates $1,000 in relief grants for damage to businesses that gross less than $25 million per year.
Mandelman tells Hoodline that he believes such random incidents have increased over the last two years. "Partly I think it's the randomness and senseless of — it doesn't necessarily appear to be connected to people trying to burglarize," he says. "Sometimes it's just windows are getting smashed by someone who walks by and thinks that it's a good idea at that moment."
Some of these incidents have been captured on surveillance video, and do involve petty theft. Nate Bourg, co-owner of the private club and barbershop The Academy at 2166 Market Street, posted Nest cam video on Facebook on February 2 of a suspect smashing the front window of the barbershop with a crowbar, and crawling through the hole in the glass to steal a small speaker. "I’m glad we have cameras and a full alarm system, but it won’t change the fact that this is a very big problem," he said.
To be clear, some of this vandalism and criminal activity predates the pandemic, and some blamed it simply on widespread vacancies in the neighborhood, and less foot traffic at night. The Castro Merchants' survey goes back to January 2020, so it includes almost three months before pandemic lockdowns began.
Dave Karraker, co-owner of MX3 Fitness in the Castro, has personally penned some draft legislation that he is challenging the Board of Supervisors to take up. Calling it "an obvious dereliction of duty" for the city to continue collecting taxes and fees while not providing adequate law enforcement or treatment for the homeless and addicted, Karraker proposes a citywide reimbursement program for smashed windows at businesses.
"The City’s policies and approach towards the unhoused mentally ill and drug-addicted residents have made owning a small business in San Francisco, during the most challenging times in our nation’s history, untenable," Karraker said in a statement.
Mandelman sounds hopeful that the city will step in and help businesses that have dealt with vandalism like this, but he cautions that it could be difficult given the budget crisis the city is currently in.
"At a time when small businesses are facing truly catastrophic conditions, this would be an excellent way for the city to show its support for small business," Mandelman says, speaking to Hoodline.