César López stands amid a 16-square-foot fortress made from display cases filled with cellphones and reinforced with towering drawers full of parts and accessories. You could say he has found his niche.
Looking out to the street, his face barely rises over the glass case in front of him. He waits for customers to come inside the space at 2865 Mission Street, where he runs Compüsync in a space that he shares with five other businesses. “You have to share a small shop to pay affordable rent,” he said.
López, who repairs cell phones and computers, is one of the Mission’s 8,836 recorded residents who are unable to vote — either because they are legal noncitizens or undocumented. That figure represents 22 percent of the Mission District’s adult population. Despite paying taxes and running a business here, López and five other merchants interviewed for this article will have no say over the measures on November’s ballot.
A rent-control measure like California Proposition 10, for example, could help López’s customers stay in the Mission. San Francisco’s Prop. C, which would add to the homeless and housing budget, could make the streets in front of his business more inviting to customers.
Despite being unable to vote on those measures, López has a proposal of his own. “They should extend rent control to small businesses,” he said.
Ricardo Peña, who owns Colibrí Corazón de la Misión on 24th Street between Alabama and Florida Streets, agreed.
“As merchants we would like to have rent protections, but I know it’s difficult to do this for businesses,” he said.
Peña, a three-decade Mission resident whose family has been in business for 14 years, wants Calle 24, a neighbor and merchant community council, to help with this issue. “They should push the city and the supervisors to put through laws that protect small businesses,” he said
Erick Arguello, president of Calle 24, called commercial rent control “a big lift.”
“There’s huge pushback from the real estate industry and big business,” he said. “It’s a big fight.” For him it’s necessary to find the right politician that will take on the issue. “Somebody who is willing to take a big political risk.” So far, no one has stepped up.
However, earlier this month, the Planning Commission moved closer to adopting measures to curb gentrification in the Mission by setting a cap on the number of eating and drinking establishments at 167 and outlawing brewpubs. Both measures, however, have yet to be approved. This is an effort by the commission to meet the goals of their Mission Action Plan 2020 that addresses the issues of displacement and gentrification in the Mission. The plan proposes solutions that include eviction protections, preservation of affordable units, and economic development for arts, manufacturing/industrial and small business.
Other business owners, like Morena Martínez from Morena’s Fashion on 24th Street, wants the city focus on affordable housing for her clients.
“If the city could do something to keep Latino people from leaving the Mission, that would be fantastic. They need to keep people from leaving this area. These are my clients who are leaving!” she added.
Martínez’s fear of a dwindling clientele is not unfounded. A 2015 study from the city’s budget and legislative analyst found that between 2000 and 2013, the Hispanic/Latino population dropped by 27 percent.
That population dropped from 50 percent in 2010 to 46 percent in 2016, according to the 2016 American Community Survey.
The city’s study projected that by 2025, the same group will drop to only 31 percent of the neighborhood.
Merchants like Gabriela Carbajal and Benjamín Romero belong to the group of Latinos who left the Mission. “We used to live nearby,” said Romero. “Three years ago, we paid $1,500 dollars for a two-bedroom apartment, now we pay $3,000 in South San Francisco,” added Carbajal.
Carbajal and Romero, a married couple who sell tamales out of a grocery cart at the 24th Street BART Plaza, have seen their bottom line impacted by housing prices. “We have to sell 90 to 100 tamales a day to make enough for rent, food and gas,” said Romero. “We pay too much rent and that is keeping our business from growing,” said Carbajal, “I would like to get help in finding a place to live where I pay less rent.”
Carlos Batz, who also operates from the sidewalk on Mission Street selling watches and cellphone accessories, wants the city to provide financial support. “I would like for there to be a fund that people could use to expand their business,” said Batz, who added that this fund should have strong control and oversight by the city. He’s not asking for much either. “I have one table,” he said pointing at a card table with stacked products, “but I would like to have two,” he added.
Martínez from Morena’s Fashion on 24th Street, who supplements her income by working at Walgreens, agreed with Batz. “I’m not able to expand my business. If the city provided financial support for small businesses, I could increase sales,” she said.
She added that she was unaware of any programs that could help her business but admitted she hasn’t looked into it. “I have two jobs, I don’t have any time to get involved.”
Arguello said that Calle 24 offers small loans. If they’re not able to help, he said, “we have our business liaison who will connect them with resources.” As an example, Arguello shared that small loans provided by Calle 24 through a grant have helped Latino businesses make necessary improvements to become compliant with the American for Disabilities Act.
Moreover, he said, Calle 24 offers Latino business owners on 24th Street guidance on accounting, marketing, rebranding, and help on registering for legacy business status which protects businesses who have been on 24th Street for 30 years. “We basically become a case manager for them,” he said.
And while the city and the Mission Merchants Association appear to be working to promote the Mission through their San Francisco Mission Street campaign, some Latino merchants in other parts of the neighborhood don’t have their own ‘go-to’ person like Arguello. “There is no support that I know of,” said César López from Compüsync. “Here everyone looks out for themselves,” added Batz.
“It’s not easy being a merchant, but it’s harder to stand by with your arms crossed,” said Romero.