July 16, 2024

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The Rising Cost of Clean Clothes

The Rising Cost of Clean Clothes

Sara Williams is one of those rare people who actually loves doing laundry. The 24-year-old San Franciscan jovially lugs her clothes uphill every week to hang out for around three hours in her local laundromat, where she journals and paints as her clothes spin and bubble. 

“I really like the idea of sitting at the laundromat, waiting for it. It’s the one time I can force myself to journal or do anything slow for myself,” Williams, a Buena Vista resident, said. “Coming back isn’t my favorite. One time, I rammed my cart into a crack in the sidewalk, and all my laundry sitting on top fell off.”

Sara Williams flips through her journal at Oak Street Laundry. | Source: Juliana Yamada for The Standard

City dwellers without in-unit washers and dryers like Williams are increasingly having to trek farther to do their washes. Dozens of laundromats have closed in recent years as the laundry industry folds to the same challenges facing small businesses across California: rising rents and utility bills, inflation, shifting housing markets and dwindling foot traffic. And for many people, doing laundry today is just a different experience altogether, especially post-pandemic.

Particularly in a city of steep hills, San Franciscans “really need a laundromat in close proximity, which is why there used to be a laundromat on almost every corner,” said Deanna Caprini-Fusch, owner of San Francisco laundromat chain Tons of Bubbles. 

But in the early 2000s, laundromats across the city started to quietly disappear. In 2018, at least 10 laundromats closed; 31 more shuttered between 2020 and 2021 at the height of the pandemic, according to data from the Treasurer and Tax Collector’s Office. More dire estimates from the SF Public Utilities Commission say that 1 in 3 laundromats shuttered between 2011 and 2021.

Sara Williams carries her clothes up the steps to her home after doing laundry. | Source: Juliana Yamada for The Standard

The State of Laundry in San Francisco 

San Francisco laundry history dates back to the city’s earliest days: Some of the most important U.S. civil rights and racial discrimination cases played out over laundry laws, when city officials in the 1880s placed restrictions on Chinese-owned laundromats that limited where they could operate and required special approval from the Board of Supervisors to operate. 

But in the decades that followed, the number of laundromats swelled in San Francisco. The city now has 148 laundromats, according to data from the Treasurer and Tax Collector’s Office.

Laundromats are particularly important in San Francisco, where nearly half of the city’s housing stock was built before 1940, according to city records. Older buildings may not easily be retrofitted for in-unit laundry, and research from Supervisor Aaron Peskin’s office in 2021 showed laundromat locations are strongly correlated with high-density neighborhoods—such as the Tenderloin or Chinatown—that are made up of mostly smaller, older homes. 

“A big part of the problem is quite simply the greed of landlords. Laundromats don’t have the capacity on a monetary level to suffice a very substantial rent,” Caprini-Fusch said. “That’s why you’re seeing laundromats being displaced with a coffee shop, a restaurant, a wine bar—and while that might be great to some extent, then there’s no laundromats. Where are all these people going to go?”

Dave Fahey, a member of San Francisco’s local plumbers’ union, says laundry retrofitting is possible in most San Francisco housing but potentially too costly for landlords.

“If you go into an older building that doesn’t have any washing machine provisions, you’d have to drill the infrastructure. There may not be the electrical capacity, which is tough to add after the fact,” said Fahey, whose family has been in San Francisco’s plumbing business for over a century. “If you’re just trying to incorporate and add washer-dryer units that were never there before, that’s a big cost. It’d have to be burdened by the owner of the building, and it would be super disruptive.”

Today, many of San Francisco’s laundromats are concentrated in the Mission, Tenderloin and Nob Hill—the neighborhoods boasting some of the oldest homes in San Francisco.

A photo of the Golden Gate Bridge hangs above the machines at Oak Street Laundry in San Francisco. | Source: Juliana Yamada for The Standard

“The amount of revenue that you can generate from a laundromat is within a pretty small band,” said Art Bender, owner of wash-and-fold service SF Wash and a handful of local laundromats. “If someone raises the rent tremendously, there’s not really much you can do as a laundromat owner to make up for that.” 

Caprini-Fusch says she’s seen plenty of laundromats shutter in her almost 20 years in the business. Her North Beach laundromat was almost evicted by a landlord hoping to replace her 700-square-foot spot with an Accessory Dwelling Unit—a plan that was ultimately struck down by city officials.

Rent and Utility Hikes, Rising Wages Cut Into Profits

When Caprini-Fusch’s landlord threatened to evict Tons of Bubbles from its 998 Filbert St. spot in 2020, more than 100 community members rallied behind the laundromat to highlight its necessity for nearby low-income and senior residents.

“Covid did a number on a lot of people, and although laundromats were protected and we stayed open the entire time, business still dropped because people stopped going out,” Caprini-Fusch said. “For a lot of owners, especially those that have been doing this a really long time, they came to a point where they were just tired.”

People do laundry at Oak St. Laundry in San Francisco. | Source: Juliana Yamada for The Standard

Bob Tillman, a prominent San Francisco developer, was once a laundry magnate. Tillman previously owned 18 laundromats, with 10 in San Francisco and another eight coin-wash spots in Albuquerque. 

“Laundromats are a very simple business: It’s highly localized, and it’s very possible for multiple laundromats to exist close to each other if there’s enough demand,” he said.

Tillman says operating laundromats involves three main expenses: rent, utilities and paying employees. In California, those factors became more expensive in the last decade. Now, he is no longer in the laundry business, citing the declining profit margins of running a laundromat today.

“What a laundromat is doing is reselling its utilities to its customers,” Bender said. “If that wholesale price goes up, it will impact your profit margin unless you adjust your retail price.

“The cost of labor goes up every year, the cost of water goes up every year, rent goes up every year—so yes, we do have to adjust our pricing,” Bender added. 

He estimated that San Franciscans should be expecting to pay no more than $5 per load at a laundromat. Williams, however, pays $7 to wash a single load at Oak Street Laundry.

Laundromat owners also say that the Bay Area’s rapid push for new housing stock has also changed consumer needs. Most new builds will have in-unit laundry and be constructed with the right electrical and plumbing hookups—but developers face intense hurdles to getting anything built in the city. Rental analysis company Zumper says the pandemic exacerbated renters’ desire for in-unit laundry. 

Sara Williams’s clothes go through the dryer at Oak Street Laundry in San Francisco. | Source: Juliana Yamada for The Standard

“Neighborhoods like SoMa, they built a lot of stuff over in that district, and those buildings probably have [laundry] facilities at this point,” Caprini-Fusch said. “But overall, there is no area of San Francisco that doesn’t need a laundromat.”

READ MORE: How San Francisco Makes It Insanely Hard to Build Housing

In a renter-heavy city like San Francisco, the rise of in-unit amenities contributes to the declining need for laundromats—disproportionately affecting those living in older buildings without laundry or in high-density neighborhoods.

Tillman also understands the competing tensions between housing and laundromats. When he tried to convert his laundromat at 25th and Mission streets into a 75-unit housing complex, Tillman faced years of backlash from local community groups, who raised gentrification concerns. Supervisor Rafael Mandelman’s proposed fourplex legislation in 2021 also received pushback for its plans to replace on-site laundry rooms with ADUs.

Bob Tillman stands outside the site of the former laundromat he owned at 2918 Mission St. in San Francisco on Sept. 12, 2022. | Source: Paul Kuroda for The Standard

As a result, San Francisco officials voted in 2021 to protect laundromats and launched the “Love Your Local Laundromat” campaign. The Planning Commission passed three-year protections on laundromats that year, requiring landlords to get a special permit to replace a laundromat or on-site laundry facilities for some other use. 

Another pressure on the business is public safety. The laundromat owners The Standard spoke with alluded to concerns about local crime and homelessness as some of the top challenges facing San Francisco laundromats today.

“Most laundromats in the city are unattended—they’re small, and they don’t really generate enough money to have an employee there all the time,” Bender said. “But in an unattended laundromat in a city with a lot of homelessness, you’re going to have people wandering in and setting up camp there.”

How San Francisco Soaks Its Delicates Today

Whether you blame the laundromat closures on San Francisco’s high living expenses or housing woes, one thing is certain: The way we do laundry today is changing.

James Joun grew up in the Outer Sunset in a blue-collar immigrant household, where his parents ran a dry cleaning business. Joun followed in his family’s footsteps and now operates a nationwide laundry wash-and-fold delivery service called Rinse, founded in San Francisco in 2013.

“Over the years, I realized that the traditional laundry and dry cleaning business model was struggling to keep up with changing customer needs,” Joun said. “As we shifted to a mobile-first world, consumers were prioritizing convenience and looking for technology solutions to solve their biggest pain points and less favorite chores.”

Rinse washes, folds, dry-cleans and delivers clothing to customers in the SF Bay Area and beyond. | Source: Courtesy Rinse

Joun and co-founder Ajay Prakash offer a type of luxury laundry concierge service that grew popular during the pandemic. But they do business a little differently, pairing with local laundromats and dry cleaners to boost sales from within.

“We work to grow laundromats and dry cleaners,” Prakash said. “They all have machines, this underutilized capacity—we fill that capacity, send them a predictable, steady stream of volume seven days a week.” 

While Rinse aims to boost business for struggling local laundromats, folks in the industry recognize that laundry concierge will not help everyone, especially since these services cost upward of $40 per load.

“The main people who use laundries, historically, are poor people,” Tillman said. “If you look at the demographics in SF, the highest percentage of people moving out were people without college educations.”

READ MORE: Three People Told Us Why They’re Moving Back to San Francisco

San Francisco’s well-documented gentrification and rising living expenses mean that the city is increasingly wealthy, and amenities catering to the city’s middle-income population have struggled as a result. Doing a load at your local laundromat today can now cost as much as $9 for a single load of washing.

In spite of tough economic conditions, laundromats are still operating in San Francisco, and new wash spots continue to pop up across the city.

“While the wash-and-fold and drop-off services are great, those will never monopolize over laundromats, in my opinion,” Caprini-Fusch said. “There are people that will still want to do laundry themselves.”

Sara Williams loads her clothes into a washer at Oak Street Laundry in San Francisco. | Source: Juliana Yamada for The Standard

Perhaps San Francisco’s biggest laundry fan, Williams feels lucky to be able to lug her clothes to a laundromat in her neighborhood. She also knows she’ll always need a nearby laundromat, even if it’s up a hill or two.

“I’ve always kind of known I wasn’t going to be able to afford a place with in-unit laundry, so I never really looked for a place with that,” Williams said. “But I do think that the closing of laundromats could slowly push people out.”

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