A South Bay lawmaker wants to help small businesses become accessible to people with disabilities by extending a program that funds inspections and building grants.
Assembly Bill 2164, authored by San Jose Assemblyman Alex Lee, would allow local governments to continue collecting a $4 fee attached to permits and licenses to fund disability compliance programs. Cities can use these fees to pay for compliance inspectors and grants that help small businesses build improvements to improve accessibility. San Jose also uses the funds to offer businesses grants of up to $8,000 to make physical improvements to their shops.
The Assembly’s judiciary committee this week approved the bill, sending it to the appropriations committee.
Lee told thecupertinodigest.com his legislation would remove a 2023 expiration date on this program, allowing it to continue indefinitely. He noted that some small business owners in his district struggle with understanding the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires businesses to be physically accessible to people with disabilities. That puts them at risk of being sued by law firms that specialize in ADA violations—and San Jose has more of these claims than any other city in the state, according to Lee.
“Most jurisdictions don’t even know about these funds,” Lee said. “It’s something that’s very under-utilized.”
ADA lawsuits are a growing concern in Santa Clara County, where hundreds of businesses have been sued during the pandemic for alleged violations. Some, including Crema Coffee and Time Deli, had to close as a result. Last October, Lee attended the San Jose Small Business Advisory Task Force to discuss possible solutions for dealing with serial litigants. Some in the business community have even pushed for legislation to curb frivolous suits.
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Sameer Shah, a co-owner of Voyager Coffee in San Jose, said he’s used the city’s version of this initiative — known as the certified access specialist program — also called CASp, to have inspectors evaluate his business.
“CASp is a great program—their findings are very thorough, and the specialists are very good,” Shah told thecupertinodigest.com. “It’s a pretty comprehensive survey and I think it’s beneficial for every businesses.”
Shah noted that many local businesses have shut down due to ADA lawsuits in recent years, which he sees as proof that Lee’s bill is critically needed in the business community.
Derrick Seaver, CEO of the San Jose Chamber of Commerce, told thecupertinodigest.com the program is popular with many of the chamber’s members.
“It sends inspectors out to small businesses and actually gives them a report and rundown of how they are in or out of compliance with the ADA,” he said. “A lot of those expenses are out of reach, and they’re made far more accessible by that grant program.”
Eric Harris, director of public policy at the advocacy organization Disabilities Rights California, supported AB 2164 during Monday’s hearing on the bill.
“Disabled people are customers and employees and want to be able to enjoy the businesses in the cities they live in and visit,” he said. “We all understand anyone can develop a disability at any time—it is critical we strive to be a more inclusive state for all people with all types of disabilities.”
San Jose sponsored Lee’s bill. Vice Mayor Chappie Jones expressed hope the bill will make the city more accessible to residents with disabilities.
“Ultimately, we have to ensure our built environment is accessible and inclusive to all of our residents,” Jones said.
While Lee’s bill will potentially increase the physical accessibility of more buildings in San Jose and across the state, it’s no perfect shield against lawsuits. Shah knows this firsthand: he had to pay a five-figure settlement to end an ADA lawsuit that was filed after his café had already been inspected through CASp.
“We’re a business who’s been very mindful about doing things by the book,” he said. “But even we weren’t able to avoid it.”
Contact Eli Wolfe at firstname.lastname@example.org or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.
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