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Residents and businesses inundated with SF say the city is taking a tougher line on payments and they're unhappy with it


When heavy rains flooded Cleto Gonzalez’s Mission District upholstery business three years ago, an investigator from the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office quickly assessed the damage and helped fund tens of thousands of repair dollars.

But on Tuesday, the same investigator told Gonzalez the city would no longer foot the bill for damages to the Folsom Street business, even those caused by the city’s sewer capacity limitations.

“The city will no longer be responsible for helping you,” Gonzalez recalled, the investigator telling him earlier this week, after waves of sewage flooded his upholstery shop, flooding rolls of fabric.

For years, San Francisco home and business owners like Gonzalez have received compensation after suffering flood-related damage linked to the city’s sewer system. On numerous occasions, residents have successfully filed claims with the city attorney’s office. In rarer cases, when these claims are denied, residents have sued and then settled with the city, sometimes for substantial payments.

But a little-known local ordinance passed three years ago could drastically limit such settlements, with city officials now warning residents of vulnerable areas that they should no longer expect compensation for flood damage. by its overwhelmed infrastructure.

Balthazar Perez (left) and Javier Romero help build a makeshift barrier outside Hilde Brand Furniture in the Mission District on Tuesday.

Balthazar Perez (left) and Javier Romero help build a makeshift barrier outside Hilde Brand Furniture in the Mission District on Tuesday.

Salgu Wissmath / The Chronicle

The city attorney’s office did not directly respond to questions about whether its approach to compensation changed as a result of the 2019 order, but said in a statement it was evaluating claims for property damage “on a case-by-case basis” without applying an “overarching strategy other than…to save the city’s money.

City Attorney spokeswoman Jen Kwart added that “just because the city’s infrastructure is pushed beyond its capacity by an extreme weather event does not mean the city is liable for damages. resulting from this meteorological event”.

Affected residents and business owners disagree — and they have legal precedent on their side, said Mark W. Epstein, an attorney at San Francisco law firm Seiler Epstein, who has represented more than 50 owners seeking damages from the city.

“There is a well-documented history of the city acknowledging that its sewage system cannot handle the volume of water during major storms,” Epstein said. “It’s expensive to fix the system, but it’s the City’s obligation. Either fix it or compensate flood victims, as the California constitution requires you to do.

Epstein said more than three dozen people had sought his legal advice over the past week after city officials announced they would no longer carry out deep cleanups and may not compensate flood victims, as has happened following previous sewage system failures.

“The city is failing in its responsibility to prevent citizens from bearing this unreasonable burden,” Epstein said. “This is shocking and untrue.”

The apparent policy reversal comes amid widespread damage to low-lying areas of the city following destructive storms this week – the first major test of the sewer system since 2019, when authorities stepped up efforts to encourage proactive measures to prevent flooding and to notify residents of severe flooding. risks.



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