While San Francisco strives to be the land of self-driving cars and delivery robots, we’re going backward in terms of the basic need of washing one’s clothes. According to a document presented to the SF Planning Commission Thursday, “approximately one-third of neighborhood-serving laundromats” have closed in the last eight years.
“I know of a launderette that just closed in January 2020 because the owner refused to renew her lease,” Theresa Flandrick of Senior & Disability Action told the commission. “This is affecting hundreds of people,” she said, adding that “seniors are taking the bus five blocks in two different directions to try to get their clothes washed.”
The loss of laundry access could become more acute under Supervisor Rafael Mandelman’s proposed four-plex legislation. That bill would add badly needed housing stock in the form of accessory dwelling units (ADUs), but as a recent slate of complaints to the Board of Appeals shows, these ADUs are often built in what had previously been laundry rooms or basements, and the tenants simply lose laundry access that was included in their lease.
Both of these problems were hopefully addressed on Thursday when the Planning Commission unanimously passed legislation protecting laundromats and in-unit laundry machines. In the case of commercial laundromats, the owner would need a special conditional use permit from the Planning Commission if they wanted to replace a laundromat on their property with some other use. In the case of ADU conversions, the landlord would be required to add the same number of laundry machines elsewhere in the building.
This issue was personal for some commissioners. “I myself do not have my own [laundry machine] in my own place, and I rely on the use of a laundromat,” commissioner Deland Chan said.
The protections will only last for three years. “We thought ‘better finite,’ so we can have a more holistic discussion of a longer-term solution,” said Lee Hepner, legislative aide to Supervisor Aaron Peskin. “This is a way to stem the loss, to create a short-term economic protection for laundromats, and to create a little bit more risk for that property owner who is contemplating not renewing a lease for that laundromat. Because they will have to face that moment of public scrutiny if they change the use.”
And despite the new three-year protection, laundromats can still close.
“It certainly, unfortunately, doesn’t mean the business will be solvent,” said commissioner Sue Diamond. “We could still see some closures of laundry facilities and laundromats.”