Violent crime may be down nationwide, but the petty variety plagues many small businesses, trapping them in an endless battle with vandals and vagrants and saddling them with costs they can ill afford, according to a survey conducted by The Times and USC's Marshall School of Business.
Southern California business owners who responded to the survey said opening shop often means facing fresh graffiti, rousting the homeless from doorways or hosing down parking lots that double as toilets. Etched windows, chronic shoplifting and loiterers who scare off potential customers are also among the litany of complaints.
And government officials and community activists say there's no sign these problems are abating.
Small-business owners surveyed in the six-county region ranked crime low on their list of priorities, citing taxes, regulation and the dearth of skilled labor as more pressing. Still, 42% said graffiti and vandalism were a problem, while 34% complained about drug sales or loitering. Even those reporting only one or two incidents a year found the problems burdensome and costly.
Law enforcement officials generally do not tally nuisance crimes against businesses, but the Southern California Business Climate Survey showed troubles were most pronounced in the city of Los Angeles, followed by Riverside County and the remainder of Los Angeles County.
But the complaints are widespread. Even in areas far from any urban core--from Tujunga in the San Fernando Valley to Lakeside in San Diego County--loiterers and vandals are taking a toll on merchants and manufacturers. Frustrations have prompted some to relocate and others to consider doing so, raising the specter of a domino effect that could accelerate neighborhood degradation.
"In poorer areas, businesses now have so many difficulties," said USC's William B. Gartner, who conducted the survey for The Times. "They're in areas where people have less money to spend. They also have to pay for safety and security equipment like barred doors and fences. They're paying every way.
"If your communities aren't safe, business is going to be down," he said. "And if you don't have local grocery stores and areas to shop, it really kind of kills the neighborhood."
Who's Responsible for Fighting Problem?
The findings underscore a perennial question: What can be done to turn troubled business districts around and whose responsibility is it? Government and law enforcement have responded with a checkerboard of programs, including free graffiti paint-out, donated vines and cactuses, and technical assistance to steer business owners to products such as protective film for windows. But in some pockets of the region, programs are thin or entrepreneurs are oblivious to them. Others complain that efforts are futile: While they regularly summon law enforcement and request graffiti paint-out service, core problems persist.
Police and sheriff's officials stress they cannot solve them alone. While the survey showed only 11% of respondents had attended community meetings over the last year to discuss crime and safety, that type of involvement is key to the success of community policing, law enforcement officials said.
In fact, government is increasingly encouraging business to take on tasks that the public sector can't handle, urging entrepreneurs or property owners to form self-assessment districts to pay for private security, street cleaning and more. Five such Business Improvement Districts have been added in Los Angeles since August, bringing the city's total to 17, and 27 more are on the drawing board.
"Government resources are limited. Police resources are limited," said Barry Glickman, spokesman for L.A. City Councilman Rudy Svornich, who is working with the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce to form a Business Improvement District there. "In the old days, business owners took responsibility for what happened in front of their businesses."
But struggling merchants often view the problem differently.
"Most of the owners believe [these services] should be paid for by our tax dollars," said Ben Rodriguez Jr., who with his father runs El Pollo Lico and the Rodriguez Bar and Pool Hall on Avalon Boulevard.
Rodriguez said trees go untrimmed, trash cans that once dotted streets are gone, and fliers from a nearby supermarket cover the sidewalk. A car lot that recently closed is attracting graffiti and vandalism, and Rodriguez saw a homeless man defecating on the sidewalk last month.
Overall, only 6% of the survey's 1,670 respondents called graffiti and vandalism "critical" problems, and 5% said so of drugs and loitering. Those numbers shot up in lower-income neighborhoods and are reflected in these statistics: Ten percent of respondents in the city of Los Angeles, 8% in Riverside County and 8% in the rest of Los Angeles County called graffiti and vandalism critical problems.