Friday, September 12, 2003

New bylaw fuels fears of home-based prostitutes

Select areas downtown for home-based firms to include escort agencies and massage parlors

A controversial new bylaw in Vancouver allowing operators of escort agencies and massage parlors to work from their homes in select areas of the downtown core is creating fears that prostitutes will try to get in on the act.

The bizarre possibility emerged from a council decision Tuesday night when it voted 4-3 to allow people operating businesses downtown to live where they work.

With 80,000 people now living in the downtown core — and 40,000 more expected to move there in the next decade — council was under pressure from residents to permit home-based businesses in the area.

A staff report outlining where those businesses would be allowed said escort agencies, massage parlors and exotic-dance agencies should not be permitted as home-based businesses.

But the COPE majority on council dismissed the staff concerns, saying it didn't want to discriminate against those businesses — and expressed glee that they might be able to help improve the safety of sex-trade workers.

Councillors Anne Roberts and Peter Ladner, who are opponents on council, both said the new bylaw won't allow prostitutes to work from their homes.

So did Mayor Larry Campbell, noting the Criminal Code forbids it.

"It's illegal, for starters," he said. "There's a federal law that makes it illegal to run a bawdy house, which is effectively what we're talking about here."

Said Ladner: "It doesn't mean you can have a brothel there. It means for a dating service, you can have your computer and your phone and your business cards — but you don't have the dates right there.

"What we're trying to do is adapt to the changing workplace," he said. "A lot of people are working out of their homes now, a lot of people are buying places to live downtown. And you put those two together and you think, 'Well why can't I just have an office where I live?'"

Said Roberts: "It just means the people … can live in the place that they operate the business."

Landlords and the police both raised their eyebrows at the move.

At the B.C. Apartment Owners and Managers Association yesterday, members were "shaking their heads" at the prospect, said chief executive Lynda Pasacreta. "You now are compromising the safety and security of the tenants in the building," she said. "Strangers are coming in."

Vancouver police spokeswoman Const. Anne Drennan said police "would have a problem" if prostitutes began working from homes in the designated areas, a handful of specific retail/residential strips downtown.

"Police have to take action when they get complaints."

Others applauded the move.

Mary Wreglesworth, who runs The Wish Drop-in Centre that caters to some 450 prostitutes, argued they are "survival sex workers" who sell their bodies to pay for drugs, live in seedy hotel rooms and have no chance to escape their ruts.

"If these women could move into a nice suburban neighbourhood, they would not be selling their bodies," Wreglesworth noted.

Simon Fraser University criminologist John Lowman said governments act hypocritically by licensing escort services while banning bawdy houses, noting 150 prostitutes have been murdered or disappeared in B.C. since the 1980s.

Mark Jette, a veteran criminal defence lawyer in Vancouver, said "there's a risk that city council will stray into issues of criminal law. Vancouver City Council may have crossed the line into federal responsibility."

Licensing rules require the home business be at ground level and have a separate business entrance.

COPE councillors Tim Louis, Roberts, David Cadman and Ellen Woodsworth voted for the change, while COPE Coun. Fred Bass and NPA councillors Ladner and Peter Sullivan were opposed.

Ladner said some of the COPE "council has a tendency when they get their ideological passions on a boil, they kind of lunge into things."

"I would have preferred a little more cautious approach to this."

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