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Frustration mounting as San Francisco sends out code violations for sidewalk planter boxes

San Francisco residents who put out planter boxes getting code violations sent to them
San Francisco residents who put out planter boxes getting code violations sent to them 04:15

For many San Franciscans, planter boxes were the last hope at taking some control over the sidewalks outside their homes and businesses. Now, many are getting notices of code violations. 

The planters they put out to deter encampments are in conflict with various codes. One of those receiving such a notice is a nonprofit medical provider that said the planters were their only option.

"So, this is the problem," explained Viveka Rydell-Anderson of the Pacific Vision Foundation. "Here, they are saying that the width is not wide enough."

For Anderson, the planters were a measure of last resort. KPIX first introduced her last summer, when the encampment situation on Van Ness and Larch alleyway was complicating her work, which is helping underserved patients from across California.

"We have a lot of patients who come for sight-saving care, so it's really important that they can navigate the sidewalk," Anderson said. "So we did what everyone else had done, and it has dramatically allowed us to have sidewalks that people can navigate."

But now, Anderson and many of her neighbors have been notified by Public Works that most of these planters are in various forms of violation. While those sitting along Van Ness do allow for the specified 72 inches for sidewalk accessibility, the planters on the Larch do not.

But as Anderson points out, the sidewalk isn't even that wide to begin with. The notices also reference what is in, or not in, the planters themselves. 

"So, I'm just thinking — I'm a lawyer, and I find this confusing," Anderson said,

Other neighbors have expressed their confusion and frustration. One even responded to the city's notice of violation with a picture showing their planters inaccessible because of an encampment.

"It's not just us," she said of the situation. "It's all around the city. The city allowed for it for many months."

Public Works acknowledges that these cases are investigated based on complaints. Homeless advocates have long considered it hostile architecture. And while no one wanted to speak with KPIX on camera about this, it's no secret that advocates have been filing complaints. The frustration for those like Anderson is that when tents were blocking the entirety of these sidewalks no one seemed to care.

"When there were tents blocking the whole sidewalk, we didn't get any help,"  Anderson said.

"We believe that no one should have to be camping on the sidewalks in San Francisco," Supervisor Rafael Mandelman  said at a rally for greater shelter expansion on Thursday. "And we also believe that no one should be able to camp on the sidewalks in San Francisco."

Mandelman said the answer is expanding shelter capacity to speed up efforts to get people off of the sidewalks. The planter debate, he said, is a symptom of larger problems. 

"It's incredibly frustrating that people who are doing this, taking on themselves to do something that takes care of a problem the city ought to be solving, are then getting these notices," Mandelman said.

"We've had a lot of drugs and a lot of scary threats," Anderson said of the previous problems. "And we know if we remove those planters, the encampments will come back."

Anderson stresses that her planters came from a position of desperation: a nonprofit trying to help those in need but struggling with the city's challenges.

"Again. I want solutions for the homeless," she said. "But I also want the city to work with us. We are downtown, providing critical access to care for people with no insurance. And so we are asking, please, for the city to come out and meet with us. Let's come up with a solution, because removing them will not work."

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