After holding on through a pandemic that all but decimated her business, Wendy Leigh—a 60-year-old massage therapist with more than two decades of experience—finally has her eyes set on a studio to set up shop.
Really though, it’s more of a room: a 9½-by-13-foot space on the second floor of a commercial building on Mission Street. The only amenities to speak of: a heater and two closets.
The layout may be simple, but occupying it requires wending through a byzantine bureaucracy.
Though City Hall has an Office of Small Business whose dedicated goal is to “equitably support, preserve and protect small businesses in San Francisco,” Leigh has felt anything but equitably supported. Instead, she says her attempts to open a studio in the city where most of her clientele lives has put her in a legal limbo.
At this point, she says she’s considering giving up entirely.
“This is a viable way to make a living and a service that’s really helping people,” Leigh said. “I want to be above board and do the right thing—but I am being forced to reconsider everything.”
In addition to the struggles faced by any small business owner in a costly city like San Francisco, Leigh says she’s up against a longstanding bias against massage therapists. Industry advocates say City Hall has been hard on people working in the field because of its association with illicit activities like prostitution.
“This has been what we’ve been screaming about the entire time: massage has it worse than nearly anyone,” said Candace Combs, owner of In-Symmetry Spa and the president of the San Francisco Massage Community Council. “It shouldn’t be this hard for a solo practitioner to start operating in a small room.”
Especially one as experienced as Leigh, who spent 22 years building up a local clientele— those last two during the trying times of the pandemic.
She’d just moved to a new location in March 2020 when Covid hit, prompting a slew of restrictions that forced her to shut down. When she started seeing clients again nearly a year later, the chiropractor’s office where rented space had to downsize, leaving her with no room to do her work.
The next arrangement didn’t end so well either.
A suitemate who refused to get vaccinated forced Leigh into some temporary digs in Bernal Heights, where she bided her time for months until the opportunity in the Mission emerged. For the first time in a long time, she felt optimistic.
“It was finally a spot where I could stay awhile and control my own destiny,” Leigh recounted.
The feeling was short-lived.
“Instead,” she continued, “it’s just been a really alarming and stressful experience for me. Every place I turn people are saying, ‘You can’t do that.’”
Last December, the Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance that began regulating massage businesses like other health-related professions and was meant to streamline the process for independent operators like Leigh to work above board. The law also targeted bad actors by prohibiting massage businesses at places that were shut down because of health code violations.
The ordinance was partially inspired by a 2019 incident where dozens of massage therapists and other bodyworkers were threatened with eviction from ActivSpace—a coworking complex in the Mission—for failing to adhere to zoning rules. Leigh was one of the scores of workers who got a cease-and-desist letter from the city during that time.
The law spearheaded by District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen was meant to reverse city policies that associated massage services with crimes like prostitution and human trafficking. In the past, the San Francisco Police Department kept a close eye on the industry, and Leigh remembers going to the station to get fingerprinted in exchange for her operating permit.
Under the new planning code, sole-practitioner massage establishments are considered health services, putting them in the same category as psychiatrists, acupuncturists and chiropractors.
However, the city told Leigh to apply for a conditional-use permit to move into the space she’s now trying to secure—and that could take months to complete. After some back and forth between different departments, she was then told she would require a much less onerous change-of-use permit in addition to fees for licensing, application and inspections.
Compounding Leigh’s difficulties is the prospective location on the second story, which means she is ineligible for city programs like The First Year Free, which waives fees for ground-floor businesses.
After Leigh jumped through most of the permitting hoops, officials with the city’s Office of Small Business cautioned her about the risk of getting sued for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a federal law that requires certain levels of accessibility. Leigh said her sister has suffered from medical issues that have made her depend on a wheelchair, so she is sensitive to those concerns. But she said she hasn’t yet served any clients whose accessibility needs weren’t met.
Finding space for a massage therapist, according to Combs, is extraordinarily difficult—especially in San Francisco.
“You’re not only looking for a place to do massage, but you’re looking for a place you can afford to do massage,” Combs said.
Massage therapy may have the reputation of a luxury service, but the people doing the work earn an average of $54,000 a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Combs said the issues that Leigh has run into in trying to open her business goes to show why so many practitioners have decided to operate underground.
Leigh has already been forced to move out of her home in San Francisco after more than 30 years when a new owner bought her building and evicted her. She now lives in Oakland, but says all her clients remain in San Francisco.
“I was priced out of living in San Francisco and now I feel like my work is being priced out,” she said.
As much as she loves her clients, she said she’s not sure how she’ll maintain those relationships if she can’t secure her studio space.
“I’ve paid my dues,” she said, “and frankly, I don’t have it in me to start over again.”
Kevin Truong can be reached at email@example.com