Friday, September 12, 2003

Frances Bula and Amy O'Brian

Escorts okayed to operate in live/work zones

Council says it wants to be fair to legal businesses

A spur-of-the-moment decision by Vancouver city council to allow escort services and massage parlours to operate in a new, downtown home-based-office zoning threw city hall into an uproar Thursday.

While city staff tried to figure out the implications of the decision, politicians spent the day telling reporters the move does not mean street prostitutes will be able to set up business in any house in the city.

Instead, said the surprise motion's main defender, Councillor Anne Roberts, the decision means councillors chose not to discriminate against one group of businesses that already exists legally in the city when it approved a new kind of live/work zone at a public hearing late Wednesday night.

"We already license and permit all of these businesses. We asked, 'Why would you discriminate?' and staff couldn't really provide us for reasons why they would do that."

With Mayor Larry Campbell and three other councillors absent, council voted 4-3 to not exclude dating, escort, entertainment and "health enhancement" services as it approved the new zoning, which was meant to create a new set of rules for "live/work" units yet to be built in Yaletown and near the central business district. The rules will apply only to the street-level townhouse units of 16 pieces of land that haven't been developed yet.

The vote came after a presentation from the only member of the public who appeared on the issue, the city's most colourful advocate for legalized prostitution, Jamie Lee Hamilton.

Councillor Ellen Woodsworth expressed her concerns about making the city safer for sex-trade workers.

According to a CBC radio report, she said she believed it was important to give prostitutes the option to work out of their homes, although the zoning change the councillors voted for does not in fact give them that option.

"Having worked in the Downtown Eastside for the past 10 years, I have seen so much violence against people working in the sex trade," she said.

"And many of them are on the streets because they're not able to live and work in their residences."

Campbell was away with the flu and a group of councillors who normally vote with him — Jim Green, Ray Louie and Tim Stevenson — were also absent. The motion was supported by councillors David Cadman, and Tim Louis, along with Roberts and Woodsworth.

Council's two opposition councillors, Peter Ladner and Sam Sullivan, voted against it, as did Coalition of Progressive Electors Councillor Fred Bass.

They said the public hadn't had a chance to say what they thought of it and that staff hadn't had a chance to tell councillors what all the possible consequences might be.

A senior city licensing inspector, Guy Gusdal, said he's concerned that having dating, escort and "health enhancement" services in a quasi-residential zone will create even more problems for city inspectors in an already difficult area.

Gusdal, who was not at the meeting Wednesday and only heard the news about the change late Thursday, said the licensing department had recommended excluding those types of businesses because they're hard enough to deal with in the commercial zones where they're already permitted.

"We receive numerous complaints about the social-escort businesses, especially," said Gusdal. People frequently call to report that the businesses, which are supposed to act as dispatch services, seem to be operating more as bordellos.

"We do inspections of the offices and have to say, 'You've got futons in here. This is not an office.'"

Those working in neighbouring offices often don't like what's happening because the businesses that start offering on-site services create a lot of traffic and noise, as well as attract a clientele that makes them uncomfortable.

That's on top of the complaints he has to deal with about prostitution services that operate out of condos and apartments.

Gusdal said that if the licensed services operate out of spaces that are defined as residential, they will be difficult to monitor.

"If we muddy the waters, it gets real difficult."

He said that, while inspectors have relatively free access to inspect commercial spaces, they are required to give more notice when they're entering people's homes. That could mean that they'll have more problems getting evidence that a business is violating the terms of its licence if it is operating out of a home.

The city currently has 28 licensed social-escort agencies, 22 dating services, 68 health-enhancement or therapeutic-touch services and 232 entertainment services. Entertainment services include everything from writers and editors to hypnotists, stuntmen, TV stations, face painters and dance promoters.

The four councillors who voted in favour of allowing escort and dating services did stipulate that those businesses should have to sign a good-neighbour agreement. That's a contract that cities sometimes require controversial operations to sign with neighbours in order to identify potential problems that might arise and specify the consequences if those problems get out of hand.

Rezoning planner Phil Mondor said there are a number of details to work out about what those good-neighbour agreements will include and how they'll be monitored and enforced.

In the meantime, people outside city hall were taken aback by the news of the decision.

Sergeant Doug Lang, head of the Vancouver Police Department's vice squad, confirmed that many of the city's so-called massage parlours are fronts for illegal bawdy houses.

"Yes, some massage parlours are heavily involved in the sex trade," Lang said. "Not all of them, but some."

Lang said he was not familiar with the bylaw amendment and said council should have consulted with police before it made the changes.

Kathi Thompson, president of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, was hesitant to comment on council's amendment, but said she was stunned that council had not consulted with her and her members before making the decision.

"I'm surprised that we didn't hear anything about this," she said. "This is just coming right out of the blue, and we have a good relationship with the council."

Thompson said her association's mandate is to work toward a vibrant, healthy and diverse downtown and that the bylaw amendment could put a kink on those plans.

"Let's be honest, escort agencies and exotic dancers to me, from what I've read, certainly lead to prostitution, that's my feeling," she said.

"If exotic dancers and escort services are covers for prostitution, I don't see how that can be a healthy environment for businesses to thrive."

The decision still has to go through the formality of a final vote several weeks from now, when council approves the legal wording of the new bylaw. Councillors could change their votes at that point, although they almost never do.

Roberts said she's not inclined to change her position.

"If it becomes a problem, then we will go ahead and modify the zoning. But to exclude a category in advance, that's just not fair."

Most massage parlours in Vancouver have licences to operate as "health enhancement centres," for which the city outlines specific restrictions.

In order to get a licence, a health enhancement centre must prove that a manager of the operation has an "understanding" of at least one type of therapeutic touch technique. The list of recognized techniques includes reflexology, shiatsu, hellework, polarity, reiki, rolfing or the trager approach.

Anyone who is hired to perform the massages must be "qualified" in a recognized form of touch therapy and can never have been convicted of a prostitution-related offence.

No one under the age of 19 is allowed to work at a centre and the business can only operate between 8 a.m. and midnight.

The final portion of the licence bylaw states that any act of prostitution on the premises is strictly prohibited.

Deputy chief licence inspector Barb Windsor said the city has shut down two escort services in recent years because they were operating prostitution services on site, one at Arbutus and Broadway and the other in the unit block East Broadway.

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Created: September 12, 2003
Last modified: April 22, 2004
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