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ADA compliance help headed for small companies in South San Francisco | Native Information

South San Francisco businesses, some facing threats of Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuits, could get some financial relief to make accessibility or other improvements with a newly established grant program offering payments up to $25,000.

The City Council this week agreed to use $500,000 from its reserves to aid the small business community following a wave of litigation threats made by a Southern California law firm targeting shops and restaurants with facilities like restrooms or seating options that are not ADA compliant. Legal fees and required changes can cost hundreds of thousands and cause businesses to shutter.

“I am happy that we are moving somewhat quickly in terms of trying to provide some sort of assistance,” Mayor Mark Nagales said of the new program. “The fact that we’re still in the middle of COVID and now they’re getting hit with these lawsuits, I can understand the frustration.”

More than 15 businesses in the city are facing litigation, and several others were south last year, according to Ernesto Lucero, acting deputy Community Development director, who said the program intends to help at least 20 businesses, to be chosen from a tiered lottery next month.

While priority will be given to those planning ADA compliance upgrades, the grants will be available to all small businesses in the city, some of which could use money for facade upgrades if they are already compliant. The funds could also be used to pay off construction costs from upgrades made in the last year.

“There was a feeling we should not exclude people who have perfect ADA facilities, and they’ve invested the funds to be perfect,” City Manager Mike Futrell said.

Eligible businesses are those that are in operation, have a business license and employ no more than five employees or a minimum of three employees who make less than $102,000, the county’s median income. The city previously administered a similar program that used federal funding, requiring a more arduous application process.

Lucero emphasized the new program will be easier to apply for and be administered quickly, as many businesses need immediate relief. Businesses that have received lawsuit threats generally have 21 days to respond, either by agreeing to pay thousands in fees to settle through a compliance process or by taking the matter to court.

Councilmember Mark Addiego said he had heard from a business owner who had received a litigation threat despite being ADA compliant but was considering paying the fees simply to avoid litigation.

“That’s very disturbing,” he said. “They’re just throwing those lawsuits out without ever stepping on the property or knowing the exact violation.”

City Attorney Sky Woodruff said the district attorneys in San Francisco and Los Angeles counties have filed a lawsuit against Potter Handy, the San Diego law firm responsible for the wave of violation notices in the city and throughout the state.

“The wheels of justice grind slowly, as they say, but it may be of help to the community to know that there is a lawsuit that was filed,” he said. He recommended business owners try to delay their case as the lawsuit could have an outcome in their favor.

Burlingame, San Mateo, San Carlos and Redwood City have been hit with similar waves, among other local cities. Businesses with parklets have often been targets.

“We’re stepping out as leaders here in South San Francisco to do this,” said Councilmember Eddie Flores, who added he was unaware of any other city in the county offering a similar program. “This is not something that other cities have done with their general fund money … this council is committed to not leaving these businesses behind.”

Those who apply will need to indicate how the money will be spent. Once a business is selected, city staff will work with the applicant to determine needs and amount to be granted. While the program is expected to be oversubscribed, the city manager indicated another round of funding was a possibility.

Online applications will be open April 20 to May 13, and the lottery will be held May 18. Lucero said help with applications, including in Spanish, will be provided at the city’s economic advancement center. Go to ssf.net/EAC to apply.

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