Supervisor Hillary Ronen calls the ouster “an economic crisis” for small businesses in the Mission


More than 50 massage therapists, acupuncturists and other body workers in the Mission are facing the prospect of losing their office spaces after the San Francisco Department of Public Health notified them in January that their workspaces are illegal.

All of them rent offices in ActivSpace, a massive complex at 3150 18th Street near Treat Ave., where entrepreneurs can lease a roughly 100-square-foot office for less than $1,000 a month. However, ActivSpace is zoned only for businesses classified as PDR — production, distribution and repair — and not for personal service-oriented businesses, said Carolina Morales, an aide to District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen.

Candace Combs, a longtime massage therapist in San Francisco and president of the Mission Creek Merchants Association, accused ActivSpace’s management of misleading its masseuse tenants about the legality of running their businesses out of the building. She’s rallying the displaced bodyworkers to fight back against the city. ActivSpace representatives didn’t respond to requests for comment. Morales said the building’s owners aren’t communicating with city officials, either.

The situation dates back to a series of city laws approved over the past several years. While they were designed to crack down on sex work and human trafficking, they often took aim at massage businesses overall. One of those laws restricted where massage therapists could set up shop, including an attempt to keep them away from PDR zones, Morales said.

In a memo from the Department of Public Health, dated Jan. 22, 2019, all body workers in the ActivSpace building were notified that they had 40 days to obtain a health permit that would allow them to continue operations, or to discontinue their services at that location.

“Beginning in May of 2017, new massage uses were no longer permitted in the City’s industrial PDR-G-1 zoning districts,” said the memo, signed by city health inspector Rochelle Veloso.

DPH sent the notices after receiving a complaint “regarding possible illegal massage establishments at this location,” said DPH spokesperson Veronica Vien. “Any enforcement would be the result of investigating the complaint.”

Massage therapist Jae Greenman said she’s one of 52 people now looking for new digs after receiving the notice. She began co-leasing an office in ActivSpace last summer, and said there was no indication from the building’s management that bodyworkers weren’t allowed to operate there.

“As far as I knew, I was legal. I have a business license, insurance, I’m above board on everything,” Greenman said. “This blindsided us.”

As of Friday, the website for ActivSpace’s Mission District location says, “Unfortunately, we can no longer lease space to massage therapists due to zoning usage restrictions.” However, a copy of the website viewed at archive.org, which was last archived on June 23, 2018, does not feature this language.

And, on the building’s “frequently asked questions” page today, it says, “Most all activities that are not prohibited by law or ordinance are allowed at ActivSpace. … Specifically prohibited activities include, but are not limited to, residential use, welding, motor vehicle repair and storage, cannabis-based businesses, barbershops and salons, spray tanning booths, brewing/distilling and mass production activities.” Massage and bodywork are not mentioned.

Combs noted that the city’s move puts dozens of small businesses at risk — many of them owned by women. ActivSpace’s offices are one of the last affordable city options for entrepreneurs like Greenman; one tenant who was recently seeking someone to take over his ActivSpace lease said that he was paying $840 a month for a nine-by-13-foot office.

Finding suitable space elsewhere in the city is prohibitively expensive, as is permitting, which costs $1,200 up front and another $600 a year, Greenman said. While massage therapists can often find work with spas and other wellness services, they often make a lot less money than when they work directly with clients, she said.

“As a result of these notices, I am moving out of the building. Presently, I cannot perform massage in San Francisco and have to tell my clients that I will be unable to provide service for two or three months,” said massage therapist Wendell JaL Andrus. “The process for getting approved to practice is also costly. For the next few months I will have to figure out how to live with no income and no way to earn a living.”

Ronen is meeting with displaced tenants next week to brainstorm some ways of keeping them at ActivSpace until a longer-term solution can be arranged. But that solution will take time, because so many city departments — including DPH, Planning, the Office of Economic Workforce Development, the Office of Small Business, and even the City Attorney — are involved, Morales said.

“Hillary’s position is that is an economic crisis in the Mission if we close 50 businesses at the same time,” Morales said. “She’s not for that, regardless of what the law is right now. We need to work together around the immediate reality of the business. And also think long term.”