San Francisco Supervisor Asha Safai speaks about a proposed rent relief fund for small business owners struggling to pay back rent outside of Manny’s Cafe at 3092 16th St. in San Francisco, Calif. (Daniel Montes/Bay City News)

With the statewide commercial eviction moratorium ending next week, San Francisco Supervisor Ahsha Safai is calling on the city to provide rent relief for the city’s small businesses struggling with unpaid back rent.

Safai first introduced the COVID-19 Commercial Rent Relief Fund back in July, which would provide financial support for landlords or certain commercial tenants who were unable to pay rent because do the pandemic.

The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the ordinance at Tuesday’s board meeting on first reading.

Safai said he is currently in negotiations with Mayor London Breed over the fund.

Safai is hoping the fund will be able to provide grants ranging from $25,000 to $35,0000 to cover commercial back rent, impacting some 1,000 businesses. The grants would require rent forgiveness for tenants as part of lease negotiations, as well as minimum three-year lease extensions.

“We believe that this is the right way to deal with this crisis right now — and it is an impending crisis,” Safai said during a rally on Thursday outside of Manny’s Cafe at 3092 16th Street.

“I know the mayor has put tremendous energy into protecting our small businesses in loans and grants, but moving forward, we need to make sure that we are able to add additional dollars for grants now. We need to make sure that we have the resources to help these businesses survive,” he said. “No one wants to drive around our city and see empty storefronts. No one wants to see thousands of people laid off.”

Safai estimates the total of the commercial back rent owed in the city to be about $600 million.

“Just because a business survived the pandemic does not mean that it’s doing okay,” said Ben Blyman, president of the San Francisco Entertainment Commission. “Do not mistake a business that’s currently open for one that’s healthy and one that’s going to remain open.

The biggest factor that will decide whether or not businesses stay open is what they’re going to do about their back rent, which is why this (fund) is so, so, so important.”

Steven Lee, owner of several businesses, including the famed Sam Wo Restaurant in Chinatown — which has been around for more than 100 years — said the drop in customers since the pandemic has created significant challenges for the legacy business.

“We probably owe $50,000 in back rent, although we’ve been paying fifty percent (of rent) all this time,” Lee said. “We’re on a hill. We don’t have outdoor parklets, so Mr. Ho, the original owner there for forty years, has been cooking by himself with a few helpers and his daughter has been helping. So, we went from 23 employees down to four.”

Lee added, “We thought we would actually open indoor dining in September, but because of the variants, it’s been hard to get workers.”

Safai acknowledged that although the need is great, if ultimately approved by Breed, the fund may not reach all of the city’s small businesses.

“This would be a strong first step,” he said. “We don’t believe that we’re going to be able to help everyone, but we don’t want to sit back and not do anything,” he said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom initially implemented a commercial eviction moratorium back at the start of the pandemic, and he eventually extended it through September 30, 2021.