Mission Bodywork Businesses May Receive Reprieve From New Law

An amnesty measure delayed the expulsion of massage therapists from the Mission’s ActivSpace, but a citywide crackdown may be on its way.

Last week’s threatened eviction of nearly 50 massage therapists from a Mission District building has been temporarily averted, thanks to a proposed 30-day amnesty measure from Sup. Hillary Ronen. If passed, the legislation presents a glimmer of hope that the San Francisco Department of Public Health (DPH) will refrain from cracking down on a zoning conflict that prohibits dozens of small massage therapists from practicing at their current location, the office complex ActivSpace at 18th Street and Treat Avenue.

The Mission District location is home to an eclectic collection of some 300 businesses, ranging from massage therapists to psychologists to hairstylists. ActivSpace is a chain that operates similar shared spaces in Berkeley, Portland, and Seattle, where small businesses can rent space at a much lower cost than the market value in those increasingly priced-up cities.

“I can be a woman business owner in San Francisco, doing what I love,” says Helen Hickman, who’s been practicing structural bodywork at ActivSpace since 2009. “Rent is not astronomical. It’s something I can work with and not have to overcharge my clients.”

But ActivSpace’s massage therapists and tattoo artists received a Jan. 22 letter from the DPH demanding they “within 40 days of the date of this notice, discontinue all massage, including foot massage, at 3150 18th Street.” The letter notes that “new massage uses were no longer permitted” in neighborhoods zoned for production, design, and repair (PDR).

That PDR zoning was specifically changed in 2017 to prohibit massage uses as part of a larger effort to ban tech offices from the neighborhood and prevent the displacement of blue-collar workers and communities of color. PDR spaces are disappearing from San Francisco, no doubt. But that change brought the unintended consequence of preventing any non-industrial businesses from setting up shop in the area.

This recent crackdown on massage practitioners comes in the wake of former Sup. Katy Tang’s anti-sex trafficking legislation, which granted the DPH broader powers over small massage businesses. In a bizarre twist, the ActivSpace venue is represented by attorneys at Farella Braun + Martel — the very law firm that just hired Tang.

Thus far, the 44 massage practitioners and seven tattoo artists who received DPH letters have not secured legal representation. But less than 48 hours before they were required to give move-out notice, Ronen held a meeting with the imperiled tenants to announce her plans to work with the City Attorney, the DPH, and a number of agencies to get the massage therapists a reprieve.

That meeting resulted in an amnesty proposal Sup. Ronen introduced to the Board of Supervisors Tuesday. Under the ordinance, anyone operating at ActivSpace as of Jan. 15 was essentially grandfathered in to continue legally for another 30 days, and can remain at ActivSpace as long as they file “applications for all appropriate permits” during that 30-day window.

“Closing nearly 100 small businesses on the same block, all at once, would be an economic crisis for the Mission,” Ronen said in a release. “The ordinance that I have authored will prevent the displacement of these businesses by providing amnesty to them under the Planning Code.”

“It will allow the businesses currently operating in ActivSpace to be considered legal non-conforming uses and thus allow them to remain in the building as long as they file all appropriate permit applications within 30 days.”

According to many of the massage therapists, ActivSpace never informed them that their businesses were prohibited under the PDR designation. Some therapists have been practicing there for more than 10 years.

“They were 100-percent misled,” says Candace Combs, owner of In-Symmetry Spa and president of the Mission Creek Merchants Association. “It was only ever supposed to be light industrial with a little retail.”

Nevertheless, attorneys for ActivSpace say they’re optimistic that Ronen’s legislative fix can keep the businesses operating there.

“We are eager to work with our valued tenants and the city to craft a solution that will allow them to continue to pursue their small business enterprises at ActivSpace,” Farella Braun + Martel attorney Steven Vetter tells SF Weekly.

The near-crisis with ActivSpace’s clients does not bode well for bodyworkers across the rest of the city.

“It’s not just about massage. It’s about acupuncture, it’s about chiropractors,” Combs tells SF Weekly. “Right now, massage has been served [eviction papers]. But the way the building is zoned, anyone who’s not light industrial is going to get kicked out.”

And the news was shocking to many of the primarily women-owned small businesses at ActivSpace, who felt blindsided by the situation.

“ActivSpace never brought to my attention needing permits, or anything like that,” Hickman tells us. “They never said, ‘You’re going to need this to practice here.’ ”

Communication about the new zoning laws was obviously inadequate. While ActivSpace should have known something was up, action wasn’t taken until a Jan. 14 complaint to the DPH (signed incognito by “a concerned citizen”) listed more than 300 massage businesses across San Francisco allegedly operating without licenses. Many of these operations were actually licensed by the DPH, but an investigation was still initiated and the ActivSpace massage evictions were set in motion.

Only around 20 of the 325 massage businesses named in the complaint do business at ActivSpace. This indicates that massage practitioners across the city could soon face similar ousters, even if they are fully licensed.

The results of the new zoning are already having a negative effect. After the first batch of DPH move-out orders were issued to massage therapists at ActivSpace, a number of affected businesses decided they didn’t want to fight and are moving out.

Ronen’s proposed legislative fix would require remaining massage businesses to apply for DPH permits, with no guarantee that their costly applications will be approved. 

Some are staying put for now, holding out hope for that this compromise works.

“I’m keeping my office,” Hickman tells SF Weekly. “I really feel that Hillary [Ronen] is going to be able to make a difference.”

Regardless of whether Ronen can successfully keep massage tenants at their current digs, the controversy could have ripple effects on bodywork practitioners in every neighborhood across the city.

“I really hope that this is going to open San Francisco’s eyes to the fact that massage therapy is health care,” Hickman continues. “It’s not sex trafficking. People are using this as health-care treatment.”

It’s likely we’ll see a lot more legitimate bodywork practitioners ensnared in a dragnet designed to shut down underground massage parlors. But at least for now at Activspace, the mass evictions of businesses practicing massage is tabled.

NOTE: This article has been updated to note that massage business can remain at ActivSpace beyond the 30-day amnesty extension  period, provided that they have filed appropriate permit applications within 30 days.

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