The ongoing disappearance of small businesses in San Francisco is illustrating the vulnerability of mom-and-pop shops, while showing how important they are to the communities they serve.
Take, for instance, Chameleon Cafe, a modest Russian Hill coffeehouse located at the corner of Pacific Avenue and Leavenworth Street.
In 2004, when the local economy was in the dumps, owner Melody Hsu and her husband moved to the neighborhood and took a business risk by putting her savings toward opening a coffee shop at what was then a sleepy intersection. Hsu named it Chameleon after a pet chameleon she once owned.
Like a chameleon, the business would exist as a “space that changes, evolves” — but, of course, also survives.
Now, however, Hsu is being evicted.
“I feel like my business is being taken from me,” Hsu, 35, told The San Francisco Examiner. “Landlords are sitting on their properties. They are sitting on them like [a] commodity and not really being concerned or feeling responsible for the neighborhood.”
It’s evident just by looking in the windows that Chameleon’s eviction is unpopular. The glass is covered with artwork, notes and photos lamenting the loss and hoping for some saving grace.
“A place like this is an anchor for the community and cannot be replaced,” nearby resident Judith Hirt wrote. Hsu created “a haven for people in this neighborhood, all people, all ages, a pleasant and safe space to meet friends, read, study and meet neighbors,” Hirt wrote.
Another note said, “This is the best café in S.F. Everything changes, but not always for the better.”
Hsu apparently has achieved the goal she had at the outset: “I wanted to build community.”
The business grew over the years, becoming a “living room” for a diverse clientele from families with infants to senior citizens on fixed incomes, she said. Hsu also had two children of her own.
“We built something there that really was beginning to create an identity for what we call the Russian-Nob Saddle,” Hsu said, referring to the Pacific Avenue corridor that connects Polk Street to Chinatown and North Beach. Today, she has on staff six part-timers, but has employed more than 40 altogether.
In 2013, Hsu’s lease with the landlord expired and her tenancy became month-to-month. Then in April, she received the eviction notice.
Chameleon has to leave by May 30, and there is a farewell party planned for May 22.
The building’s landlord, Marsha Low of the Jimmie G. Low Trust, referred questions to attorney Evan Chan, who in an April 22 letter to Hsu criticized her for not going quietly. The letter said it’s not greed prompting the eviction, but “ownership dislikes the way you run your business.”
Among the criticisms cited in the letter were hosting a food truck that led to obstructing crowds outside Chameleon, along with children drawing on the sidewalk with “slippery” chalk.
Hsu lamented her lack of options when it comes to the eviction, saying that if the landlord “isn’t happy with something she can just kick me to the curb.” Many in the community want the business to remain, but the issue strikes deeper than that.
“Do you really own the property if everyone else is making a decision on your behalf?” Chan told The Examiner in reference to private-property rights in the state.
Protections for small businesses have long been a contentious issue in California. Scott Hauge, a small-business advocate, recalled that rent escalations were an issue in the 1980s and went all the way to Sacramento. In response to Berkeley adopting rent control for commercial property, the state Legislature in 1987 prohibited such protection throughout California.
Hauge said San Francisco is “grappling with that right now — what to do with increasing rents.”
Since the ongoing tech boom took off in 2011, more and more small businesses have faced steep rent hikes and in some cases closed down.
“This isn’t to throw stones at tech, but tech has a lot of money,” Hauge said, referring to the tech sector’s economic impacts, including ability to pay higher rents. Supervisor David Campos recently passed legislation aimed at creating protections for San Francisco companies that are more than 30 years old by allowing The City to nominate them as legacy businesses. Part of the initial proposal was to offer tax breaks if they could buy their own commercial space, but that component remains under debate.
If Chameleon cannot be saved, Hsu hopes that maybe her experience could help others.
“I’m really hoping we can at least be the catalyst for some kind of change in policies,” Hsu said. “We are losing some legacy places at an alarming rate.”