New City Law Sends Laundromats Spinning

(Photo by Peter Chu via World Journal)

[World Journal published a story about the city’s new regulation governing licensing of laundromats, and an additional article about Chinese laundromat owners gathering signatures for a petition asking the city to reconsider the requirements. Excerpts from both stories appear below.]

With reform of the nail salon industry attracting a lot of public attention, a new law aimed at the laundry industry was quietly enacted in January. The new laundry licensing law, passed by City Council last year, requires the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) to tighten up the regulation on licensing of laundromats. Specifically, it requires businesses to file a certificate of occupancy issued by the Department of Buildings (DOB) when they apply for license renewal. More than a hundred Chinese laundromat owners who may not be able to renew their license because of the lapses of their landlords have signed a petition in the past week to ask for mercy from the city. They said they may have to shut their shops and will lose income. Attorneys representing this industry said the new law is disastrous to the businesses. Some law-abiding owners of laundromats which have been in business for decades may be without a license on New Year’s Day 2018. They called on businesses to fight back and take legal action if necessary.

Leyun Chen, an immigrant from Wenzhou, China, purchased a laundromat at a street-front space in an apartment building in Astoria, Queens, in 2006 with her husband. Since then, the couple have renewed their license every two years without any problem. In August, she received a letter from the DCA, asking her to file documents including a surety bond, and a “certificate of occupancy” or “letters of no objection” before Dec. 31 in order to renew her license.

Chen said her laundromat doesn’t have a certificate of occupancy, nor an automatic sprinkler system, which is also required. Her landlord has a few outstanding violations with the DOB because of issues on the installation of the boiler. So she is not able to get a permit to install the sprinkler system. The landlord doesn’t seem to be interested in fixing the problems at all. “The yearend is approaching. How can I possibly clear all these hurdles to be able to renew my license in time?” Chen said.

When he received a similar letter from the DCA in August, Guodong Hu, who has been running a 54-year-old laundromat in Jackson Heights since 2007, immediately went to the DOB to apply for the “certificate of occupancy” or “letters of no objection.”

“I also provided them the pictures of my laundry machines and dryers. And I was told to go back in three weeks,” said Hu. “But when I went back, a clerk told me they made a mistake and were missing a document of mine. And when I went back again for the third time on Oct. 4, they told me my application was denied.”

Hu found out later that the laundromat had never received a “certificate of occupancy.”

“My lawyer said this shop has no problem at all, we should be qualified for ‘letters of no objection,’ and the DOB shouldn’t give me so much trouble,” said Hu.

According to the DCA, there are about 3,000 laundromats in the city. Sonia Dixon, a paralegal in Queens who worked for the DOB before, said that many old buildings before 1974 don’t have a “certificate of occupancy.” When a space was purchased, the new owner could convert it into a laundromat based on the land use guidelines. And the DCA didn’t require documents from the DOB for licensing purposes. So businesses didn’t know there was a problem until the new law was enacted. “Each business should be considered as an individual case. They should seek help from professionals, and maybe the DCA can offer them a grace period of a year,” said Dixon.

Michael Shapiro, an attorney who has been representing laundromats for 35 years, said the DCA held a town hall in Sunnyside, Queens, in August to explain the new policy to businesses. When they were told they had to renew their license on an annual basis and had to provide a “certificate of occupancy” or “letters of no objection” for the renewal, audible sighs arose throughout the entire meeting room. “The representatives from the DCA told people to blame the DOB,” said Shapiro.

Shapiro said businesses never had to file documents from the DOB to renew their license before, and the new policy will lead to havoc. “Many businesses have been smoothly operating for three or four decades, and they are perfectly legal. How come the city suddenly changed the rules and will push them out of business by New Year’s Day?” Shapiro said.

He said the cost of purchasing a mid-size laundromat is $600,000 to $700,000. If the DCA won’t renew their license, the business owners will lose their investments. Even if they are able to get a grace period of a year, they may still not be able to get a “certificate of occupancy” or “letters of no objection.” So business owners need to fight to the end, and even to bring the city to court.

A few dozen Chinese laundromat owners gathered at the Wenzhou Township Association on Nov. 2 to sign a petition initiated by the organization to call on the city to help them out of the dilemma. Jiannan Lin, one of the organizers of the petition, said there are more and more Chinese-run laundromats. Many of them purchased the shops with money borrowed from relatives, banks or the underground loan system biao hui. The prices of laundromats range from $500,000 to a million dollars. He said there could be close to a thousand Chinese-run laundromats in the city. And hundreds of them are affected by the new law. “If they cannot renew their license, they have to shut down,” said Lin. “It’s not only the owner’s family [who] will lose income, more than a thousand workers will lose their jobs. So we have to fight to the end.” He said the petition will be handed to City Council member Peter Koo who will then hand it to the city.

Koo said on Nov. 2 that it is hard to run a small business. His office has contacted the DOB and the Department of Small Business Services after it received complaints from business owners, and asked the city to help business owners renew their license. Koo also called on business owners to work with the city and prepare required documents for the license renewal as soon as possible.

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