I can’t speak to all areas of the country or even here in the Bay Area, but I’ll share what I know about zoning and my practice so that you don’t make the same mistakes I did.
First a little background.
City Zoning For Mental Health Practitioners
In the Bay Area there are at least 3 cities (San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley) that require a business license in addition to a state license to practice psychotherapy. I assume that most cities have this requirement but I’ll leave this up to you to verify. Here, these cities also require that your office location, i.e., where you’ll provide your psychotherapy services, is zoned properly, before they will issue your business license. Usually there is a small fee for the license and the planning department’s approval of your location of practice.
In 2014 I sublet an office as an employee of my supervisor. I didn’t look into the zoning as the building was already full of psychotherapists and the tenant I was subletting from was also a psychologist. I practiced for over a year at this location without any issue. Then in September of this year I got licensed as a psychologist (!!) and went to go get my own business license. When I spoke to the Berkeley City’s Planner I was told that the building I was in (and was negotiating to renew my lease) was not zoned for psychotherapy on the ground floor. This was very confusing to me, as I said, there were already psychologist there practicing. So I asked the planner about this and was told that I could petition the city to issue a Special Use Permit, but this would be both expensive and time consuming. I was told to expect nearly $5000 in fees and up to 8 months of waiting before a public hearing could be held to discuss the Special Use Permit. Clearly this would not work with my practice being full.
At this point, I had already signed a new lease and was awaiting the signature of the building owner to have it go into effect. My lease was a complicated document and it was unclear to me if the zoning issue would be grounds for breaking the agreement. After consulting with a commercial real estate expert I was advised to speak with the broker who had managed the lease and point out that this had been his responsibility to disclose prior to any signing of the lease, and failing to do so, was negligent. This gave me a solid reason for getting out of the lease, but this created another problem.
I had already told my patients that I would be staying in the current building, but changing suites. I had given nearly a month to discuss any reactions they might have. Unfortunately, the zoning issue was only discovered 2 weeks before my current sublet agreement was terminated, and so I had to find a new location quickly, and handle the issue with my caseload.
I wanted to keep my office nearby and I wanted it to be easy to get to. My current patients relied heavily on public transportation, so being near to BART was important.
In navigating this complicated zoning issue, I came across some ethical dilemmas. I spoke to numerous psychologists who suggested I ignore the zoning and city licensing laws saying that they had done so with no ill effect. This felt risky, not only because of the potential penalty from the city if I were ever caught, but also because of the potential disruption this could cause to my practice. For me personally, the idea of practicing in a way that made my ability to care for my caseload limited felt dishonest and ethically wrong. I felt to be truly available for my patients I had to know that my office, license, etc. were solid.
Ultimately, I found another location and I’m very happy with it. The zoning and business licenses are appropriate to my practice and my caseload was able to make the transition. If I were to do it all over again, I would visit the City’s zoning website before going to look at a potential office. Failing that, I would call the City Planner and confirm that the building and suite was suited to my needs.