The city of San Francisco requires property owners to remove graffiti.

When the owner of a dry cleaners in the Mission District received graffiti notices from the city, it never occurred to her to ask her landlord to take care of the tagging. Fixing property damage was not part of her lease agreement, but the letters were directed to her business name, so she assumed she was responsible.

What the owner never understood — a confusion among the majority of small-business owners interviewed recently in the Mission District — is that the landlord, not the business owner, is responsible for cleaning graffiti.

The assumption, owners said, comes from the official letters they receive. Mission Loc@l also found that the confusion is underscored by ambiguous information on the website for the Department of Public Works.

“I’m tired of painting,” said the owner of the dry cleaners, who asked not to be identified.

She’s had the business for seven years and said lately her store gets tagged every week. And every week she paints the wall.

She assumed she had to, but with graffiti complaints growing — they jumped 148 percent in District 9 in 2008 — she said the responsibility and cost of taking care of it has become too much.

Roberto Jimenez, office manager of Caldera Castillo Enterprises, a notary business between 21st and 22nd streets, also assumed incorrectly that the store was responsible. “The business receives the notice from the city,” he said in an effort to explain why.

Tags are all over the place.

Since 2004, the city’s Graffiti Removal Ordinance has required property owners to remove graffiti or request a hearing within 30 days of receiving a letter from the Department of Public Works. If the owner fails to comply, the city initiates proceedings to clean the graffiti, for a minimum of $500 plus attorney’s fees.

Christine Falvey from Public Works said that even though the ordinance makes the property owners responsible, “in many cases, the ground floor merchant is obligated to maintain the property via their lease agreement.” If the lease doesn’t require it, the landlord has to fix it.

However, many tenants said they made no such agreement but nevertheless received the letters and assumed responsibility.

The confusion over who is responsible doesn’t stop with the letters. Business owners also get conflicting information from the department’s official site.

The Public Works website has useful information, and clearly states the ordinance and the landlord’s responsibility. But click through for more information and this brochure turns up, stating: “If you own or manage property or operate a ground-floor business that has been graffiti-tagged, you are legally responsible for removing the graffiti.”

The ordinance includes the word “etched” and “buildings,” but as Falvey said, does not “specify that windows are included.” And, as a matter of course, “we do not send property owners notices of violation for etched windows,” she added.

Gris Savedra, an employee at the Fat Greek Store, said store owners are having a hard time keeping their businesses open in this economy, and graffiti notices stress him out. “The graffiti on the windows is impossible for me to clean,” she said. Both she and her employer assumed they were responsible for cleaning it.

Jimenez, the office manager of Caldera Enterprises, said he too was sure the law required him to replace an acid-etched window.

A Mission restaurant owner who preferred to remain anonymous said the problem isn’t just the lack of clarity around the ordinance. “Even if small businesses aren’t required by law to remove tags, they are going to do it out of fear that their landlord will not renew the lease,” he said.

Some business owners said their landlords willingly stepped in to take care of business. “The landlord paints the graffiti every day and every night they do it again,” said Arif Rana, owner of Best Center, a gift shop at 2317 Mission St. He noted the freshly painted wall next to his store.

Store owners who agree in their lease to take care of graffiti have the same rights of appeal as the owner. If they get vandalized frequently or they don’t have the means to remove the tags, they too can ask for a hearing, according to Public Works.

Some business owners said San Francisco should try New York’s methods: In 1999 former mayor Rudy Giuliani started a free graffiti-removal program called Graffiti Free NYC. In New York, they said, neither landlord nor tenant are responsible.

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Veronica Moscoso

Veronica Moscoso, is an Ecuadorian storyteller who narrates through radio, video, and short stories. She lived in the Middle East, South East Asia and now in California.

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  1. It should be up to individual property owners and renters whether or not they want to remove graffiti, not a legal requirement. There are far too many laws, rules, and regulations punishing businesses and landowners for things that they are not responsible for and over which they have little control.

    The main photo of this story is somewhat unusual, in that it shows graffiti on a fairly nice looking building. Most graffiti is done on plain or ugly surfaces. I think this is because many people see graffiti as making otherwise depressing urban environments more beautiful, colorful, or interesting.

    Thus perhaps the most effective way of preventing unwanted graffiti is to make your property beautiful, colorful, and/or interesting to begin with, so that it won’t present such an inviting canvas.

    One solution is to find a muralist to paint an attractive mural on your building. My observation is that murals are less likely to get “tagged” than plain surfaces, all else being equal.

  2. Drew, It costs upward of 2k to fix one set of windows that have been etched. How do you call that lazy, not wanting to fix it!

  3. People and businessowners should have enough pride in their neighborhood to want to clean painted graffiti. Stop the laziness, people. I clean the graffiti off monthly, and happily.

  4. Wondering if anyone knows the official policy on tenants/homeowners when it comes to graffiti removal in the Mission. I’m under the impression that the owner is responsible for cleanup, but after reading this I’m not sure.