Mass Massage Therapist Eviction Threatens Far More S.F. Businesses

First they came for the massage therapists, but hundreds of hairstylists, tattoo artists, and counselors could also be forced from Mission complex ActivSpace.

Joe Kukura, SF Weekly

More than 50 massage therapists at the office rental collective ActivSpace (3150 18th St.) received notices from the Department of Public Health last month that “all massage operations shall cease,” as first reported by Mission Local. But SF Weekly has learned that hundreds of other tattoo artists, hairstylists, and licensed therapists renting at ActivSpace could also face eviction, as those businesses are not allowed under ActivSpace’s production, distribution, and repair (PDR) zoning.

“It’s not just about massage. It’s about acupuncture, it’s about chiropractors,” says Candace Combs, owner of In-Symmetry Spa and president of the Mission Creek Merchants Association“Right now, massage has been served [eviction papers in ActivSpace]. But the way the building is zoned, anyone who’s not light industrial is going to get kicked out.”

Massage therapists face the most immediate crisis, most of whom have received orders from the Department of Public Health to vacate the premises. They ask supporters to contact San Francisco Planning Commissioners or contact Sup. Hillary Ronen’s office, both of whom are considering action before the Feb. 10 deadline that massage therapists face for submitting their move-out plans to ActivSpace.  They’ve also started an online petition to change the zoning of the ActivSpace neighborhood.

“Its awful, and I will do everything in my power to make sure they can continue their operations at ActivSpace,” says Ronen, in whose district ActivSpace is located.

ActivSpace is a West Coast building complex chain where individual small businesses can rent office space at a relatively low cost. The company has locations in Portland, Seattle, Berkeley, and here in San Francisco at 18th Street and Treat Avenue. That Mission location is zoned for PDR usage, a designation intended for manufacturing. The designation also has a few exceptions for retail, child care, and pet care.

That designation does not include massage services, but ActivSpace has rented units to massage therapists since at least 2014. Several massage therapists tell SF Weekly that ActivSpace rented to them knowing full well that massage was not permitted in their zoning.

“They were 100 percent misled,” Combs tells us. “[ActivSpace] was only ever supposed to be light industrial with a little retail.”

ActivSpace did not not respond to request for comment for this post. But SF Weekly has obtained a San Francisco Office of Small Business analysis of ActivSpace tenant business registrations, which shows that fewer than 30 percent of ActivSpace’s renters are allowed under PDR zoning.

That assessment is incomplete, and only contains 175 of ActivSpace’s some 300 possible tenants. But anecdotal reports from business owners within the space tell us that ActivSpace tenants are overwhelmingly not production, distribution and repair businesses. Further, Craigslist postings from as recently at yesterday contain only the slightest description of the relevant zoning restrictions.

Massage therapists were the first to receive the Department of Public Health orders to vacate, though SF Weekly has confirmed at least one ActivSpace tattoo artist has received a similar letter. Planning Department documents show an “Alleged Unauthorized Massage Use” complaint opened on Jan. 23 that prompted the orders.

The massage therapist community is the most vulnerable to these complaints, thanks to then-Sup. Katy Tang’s 2018 anti-sex trafficking legislation that applied rigorous new licensing and zoning restrictions on massage practices. While intended to combat illegal underground massage parlors, the laws have also ensnared legitimate massage, reiki, and acupuncture practitioners.

“Only 32 percent of the city can have massage in it under this legislation,” Combs tells us. “It doesn’t stop human trafficking. All it does is hurt small business. The end.”

Indeed, a recent San Francisco Police Department assessment shows human trafficking increased by 170 percent last year.

Recent changes to PDR zoning were intended to protect small businesses from skyrocketing rent costs fueled by venture capital-backed tech startups. The effect, though, is driving out sole-proprietor massage and tattoo businesses, with tax preparers, family therapists, and nail salons possibly next on the chopping block.

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions, that’s San Francisco,” Combs says. “They never think about the impact it’s going to make on anyone. But if you’re a big business, you can sustain this. I can’t, I’m a small business.”

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