Make the Vandals Pay

There is a long list of reasons why San Francisco and cities around the country are working to fight against graffiti vandalism. The unlawful markings damage the appearance of buildings and public spaces, add to blight and crime in our communities, depress property values and cost American taxpayers an estimated $12 billion every year. The annual cost of graffiti in San Francisco now stands at over $20 million.

Unlike other property crimes, property owners can be cited for graffiti abatement. Under current law, local property owners are required to remove graffiti within 30 days or face fines ranging from $267 to $500 per reported incident – placing the onus of abatement on the victim rather than the vandal. For businesses repeatedly vandalized, the costs of both removing graffiti and complying with the city’s laws can be significant.  The city’s Budget Analyst estimated that local property owners spent in excess of $3.3 million on graffiti abatement last year alone.

Supervisor London Breed recently took a step forward in helping to prevent graffiti vandalism and shift city policies to penalize vandals, rather than victims. The proposed package of legislative reforms will empower city workers and residents to report graffiti and help populate a database of evidence that can be used by the City Attorney to pursue vandals in civil proceedings, thus forcing them – not their victims – to pay for damage caused. The legislation also bans the possession of spray paint and other graffiti tools in parks and on Muni, and provides additional resources for crime analysis and police support.

These sensible actions can go a long way in preventing graffiti and holding vandals accountable. Similar policies are already having great success in other cities. In Pico Rivera, graffiti removal by public works crews declined from 300,000 square feet to 137,000 square feet in the four years after it rolled out a similar program. In San Diego, court-ordered restitutions for graffiti rose from $170,000 to more than $780,000 the first year after the city expanded its web-based Graffiti Tracker system.

San Francisco is a historic and beautiful city. Unfortunately, current policies are not effective in preventing graffiti and do not hold vandals accountable for their actions. The Chamber applauds Supervisor Breed for taking the first steps necessary to engage everyone in the fight against graffiti. It’s time to shift the onus of graffiti vandalism away from businesses, city agencies and taxpayers and on to the vandals where it belongs.