An AIDS prevention nonprofit has sued The City in federal court for allegedly violating its civil rights, after it was barred from relocating one of its pharmacies because of San Francisco's chain store regulations.
Last year, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a nonprofit that runs a pharmacy specializing in HIV and AIDS drugs, applied for city permits to move a short distance within the Castro.
That move — from 100 Church St. to 518 Castro St. — was plodding along through the planning process, seemingly without opposition, until the beginning of 2014.
That is when the foundation's permits were suspended after community groups and activists appealed the project, arguing that the store was a chain and banned under city law from opening a new location in the Castro. Those groups contended that the new facility, which planned to operate under another name, was still the same organization trying to circumvent formula-retail rules.
The Board of Supervisors, led by the district's supervisor, Scott Wiener, agreed and passed legislation that closed what Wiener called renaming loopholes in the law.
In response, the AIDS group filed a federal lawsuit Friday charging that its civil rights were violated and that it was targeted in a discriminatory manner.
“At the behest of San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener, The City rammed through, at lightning speed, an interim zoning law specifically targeting AIDS Healthcare Foundation,” claimed Laura Boudreau, chief of operations for AHF. “The clear and sole purpose of that action was to discourage the organization from relocating and opening a nonprofit safety-net clinic and pharmacy in the Castro.”
But City Attorney spokesman Matt Dorsey called the civil rights violation charge “absurd.”
“AHF is asking the court to find a constitutional right to build whatever it wants wherever it wants, and that's just not something courts have allowed,” Dorsey said.
Boudreau claims the motivation for The City's actions came from the foundation's position on PrEP — an HIV treatment drug which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others have advocated for as a preventative tool, but which the group opposes as a widespread HIV prevention tool, arguing its efficacy is debatable.
While a local HIV activist said the AHF's position on HIV prevention is not popular among many in San Francisco, he and Wiener point out that the main issue with the group, which has 33 locations nationwide, is that it operates a chain.
The city's formula retail rules define chain stores as any with 11 or more locations.
“AHF tried to game our formula retail law by tweaking its name and then claiming it wasn't actually formula retail,” Wiener said. “Under AHF's approach, any chain store could come into San Francisco, tweak its name, and claim that it isn't formula retail.”
But the AHF says it was just following the process as explained by the Planning Department, which said if it operated under a different name, formula retail regulations would not apply, said Michael Weinstein, president of AHF.
Race Bannon, an HIV activist who opposed the move, said the group was not blocked from relocating because of its position on PrEP. Instead, the “Walmart of HIV pharmacies,” as Bannon dubbed AHF, was challenged for being a predatory operation that would put established HIV pharmacies out of business, he claimed.