New program aims to help San Francisco businesses become ADA compliant

S.F. Examiner File Photo“One thing businesses can do to safeguard themselves from lawsuits is by becoming compliant

To help prevent expensive lawsuits over disability-access violations, a pilot program launched Tuesday offers financial assistance to small-business owners in the Sunset and Richmond districts who want to get certified inspections.

The initiative is a “proactive” effort to address litigation problems, said Supervisor Carmen Chu, who helped launch the program and who represents the Sunset.

“One thing businesses can do to safeguard themselves from lawsuits is by becoming compliant,” Chu said. “This program sets aside money to do free inspections.”

Hundreds of businesses throughout The City and state have been threatened with lawsuits over potential violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Lawmakers have said the lawsuits are intended to make money off businesses, not uphold the law. But many also acknowledged dozens of business are out of compliance.

“Some are legitimate lawsuits. But sometimes they’re doing it as they drive by and find a business that may have access issues,” Chu said.

In San Francisco, businesses in the Richmond and Sunset — as well as in the Geary Boulevard corridor in the Western Addition, and the North Beach and Noe Valley neighborhoods — have received lawsuits or notices of violation that threaten lawsuits.

According to Chu, $150,000 — including $20,000 from her own office — has been set aside to help merchants pay for Certified Access Specialist reports, which show the short- and long-term solutions necessary to bring a business into compliance. A 2008 California law enabled such reports to halt lawsuits to give business owners time to plan and pay for necessary upgrades.

The reports can cost $2,000 or more depending on the size of the business and level of detail of the inspection. But now, qualifying businesses in the Richmond and Sunset can submit a two-page application to be considered for financial assistance.

Mayor Ed Lee praised the initiative.

“This new … program takes a proactive approach to improving ADA compliance for our San Francisco small businesses and provides accessibility for everyone,” he said in a statement.

The program, which could expand to other parts of The City, is not the only attempt by officials to curb ADA lawsuits. Last spring, Board of Supervisors President David Chiu introduced legislation that would require landlords to make ground-floor entrances and exits compliant with ADA regulations, and mandate that landlords inform tenants of compliance obligations. It also would give priority to permit applications for ADA-compliance projects.

akoskey@sfexaminer.com

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