S.F. Poised to Require That Stores Accept Cash

Now with 10 co-sponsors, legislation is likely to pass in order to prevent exclusion of the unbanked.

Signs on the open door at cashless restaurant Organic Coup in the Financial District. (Photo by Kevin N. Hume)

Cashless stores may be few in number but San Francisco is looking to reverse the trend.

Legislation to require brick-and-mortar stores to accept cash moved ahead to the full Board of Supervisors after approval from the Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee on Thursday. With the latest addition of Supervisor Catherine Stefani, the ordinance has 10 co-sponsors and is expected to pass.

San Francisco would be the first jurisdiction in California to take the step, joining New Jersey, Philadelphia, Massachusetts.

“In the last major study of the unbanked in San Francisco, as many as 50 percent of African American and Latinx were unbanked,” said Supervisor Vallie Brown, who introduced the legislation in February, earlier this month. “We also know that denial of access to good and services shuts out the young people who have not established credit.”

Factors include not having enough to keep in an account, distrust of banks, high fees, privacy, and fears of the federal government. That tends to leave out immigrants, seniors, unhoused folks, and victims of ID theft. 

“In this reality, not accepting cash payment is tantamount to systematically excluding segments of the population that are largely low-income people of color,” reads the ordinance.

The police code change wouldn’t apply to online stores, mobile food trucks, pop-ups, or otherwise temporary businesses. Stores may still reject large bills, like $50 or $100 as some do now. Earlier this month, Brown added amendments that allow stores to refuse cash for transactions about $5,000 but prevents them from charging customers a fee for paying in cash.

Businesses that are online-only, operate from a mobile space like food trucks, or temporary ones like pop-up shops are exempt.

Most stores that currently fall under the category — Bluestone Lane, Eatsa, and The Organic Coup, to name a few — are situated where several customers with disposable income are, like the Financial District. That matches the argument of needed equity that Brown and the legislation’s supporters are sending out.

Amazon Go, perhaps reading the tea leaves, will start accepting cash at an unknown date. Steve Kessel, who runs Amazon’s physical stores, was reportedly responding to a question about addressing “discrimination and elitism” when announcing the change at an internal meeting in March, CNBC reported.

But the last month, the company also reportedly attempted to block Philadelphia from becoming the first major American city to require stores to accept cash. New Jersey followed suit while Massachusetts has had a similar law for decades in an East Coast-led movement.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation will release its National Survey of Unbanked and Underbanked Households in 2025. Brown’s legislation would require the Treasurer’s Office to submit a report to the Board of Supervisors by December 2026 on those findings and may include recommendations on next steps for the law.

“The Legal Rights for Legal Tender Ordinance is a law I wish we did not have to have on the books,” Brown said earlier this month. “I hope this ordinance is not necessary in the future.”

A vote is expected for the ordinance at the next regular Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday.

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