Saturday, September 13, 2003

Frances Bula

Council retreats on home-based escort zone

Angry public feared prostitution in residential areas

CREDIT: Vancouver Sun files
Councillor Jim Green says he knows from experience how difficult it is to live next door to a sex business.

Faced with an unprecedented outpouring of public anger, Vancouver city councillors decided Friday to overturn a decision to allow escort services and massage parlours to operate in a new downtown "live/work" zone.

In a move almost never seen in local politics, Councillor Anne Roberts said she and Councillor Ellen Woodsworth will make a motion to reconsider the decision at next Tuesday's council meeting.

All four councillors who originally voted in favour of not excluding the controversial services, which are allowed in all other city office zones, said will change their votes.

"There's just too much confusion," said Roberts. "There's been so much misinformation flying around and our staff felt we didn't really get all the information. And everyone was a bit surprised how the media interpreted it."

Since councillors voted on the issue late Wednesday night, city hall has been inundated with public and media criticism about a move they worried would in effect open the door to prostitution in residential areas.

Roberts said she'll move to pass the original bylaw that staff recommended, with those services excluded for now, so that anyone who is waiting to go ahead with a development won't be held up.

The new zone will cover only 16 parcels of land in Yaletown and near the central business district that haven't been developed yet. The new live/work rules, which will allow home-based business operators to have customers on site and small signs advertising their businesses, will also be limited to street-level townhouses in those developments.

Roberts said she also plans to ask for a staff report detailing the implications of allowing escort and dating services into the new zone. She will consider whether to introduce a bylaw amendment to allow them after she gets that information, she said.

In the meantime, Roberts' political colleagues who were absent from the meeting where the decision was made expressed dismay about the conduct of their Coalition of Progressive Electors teammates.

"I'm not very happy with the way things have gone. It brings all of us into question," said Stevenson, who said he was one of several people who went to the mayor's office Thursday to ask that the issue be reconsidered.

Councillor Jim Green also said he was disappointed with the way the matter was handled.

"I presume that on the spur of the moment they thought they were doing a good thing. It was very well-intentioned, but they just didn't think it through. It's inappropriate to change the nature of the city like this."

Green said he's lived in an apartment where someone was selling sexual services next door and he knows firsthand how uncomfortable it made life for him and his two young daughters.

Green said he was also surprised that the four COPE councillors who voted in favour of the change at the meeting, knowing that almost half their colleagues were away and would want input on such a controversial decision, didn't simply defer it to another meeting.

The bylaw was passed in a narrow 4-3 vote at a meeting that Mayor Larry Campbell and Councillor Raymond Louie did not attend because of illness and which councillors Stevenson and Green did not attend because they were away on other business.

The only COPE councillor present who voted against the move was Fred Bass, who sided with two NPA councillors in saying it was a complex issue that council needed to get more information on before deciding anything.

Roberts said she and her colleagues didn't see what they did as controversial.

All they were doing was saying that a type of business that is normally allowed in an office zone should be allowed in the new zone, since it was also an office zone, albeit one combined with residences.

The city currently licences 28 social-escort agencies, 22 dating services, and 68 health-enhancement services (therapeutic touch massage parlours), which are allowed to set up business in any commercial office zone. City licence inspectors say they routinely get calls about agencies that appear to be operating more as on-site prostitution operations than dispatching agencies. Two operations have been shut down by the city in the past several years because of those kinds of complaints.

Roberts acknowledged the issue got confused because councillors were also talking about safety for sex-trade workers and their vote followed a presentation by the city's most vocal advocate for legalized prostitution, Jamie-Lee Hamilton.

Roberts said that to clarify everything, she'd now prefer to simply go ahead with the zoning as staff recommended it and try to work on other initiatives to protect women who work on the streets.

"I would like to think about things we can do, like a safe centre 24 hours a day where women can find a refuge."

NPA Councillor Peter Ladner called the whole episode another example of "COPE jumping in, blinded by their ideological passions."

"People on council, no matter how new, should know better than to jump into something like this that made Vancouver look like the laughing stock of the nation."

The move generated concerns from a wide range of average citizens and community agencies.

Stevenson said many people living in apartments called, fearing the bylaw would apply to their buildings. Police and downtown Vancouver business associations were surprised council hadn't consulted them about the possible implications.

And agencies involved with landlord-tenant issues also expressed concern.

Tenant security would be compromised if Vancouver had gone ahead with its plan to allow escort services and massage parlors to operate out of the new live/work zone, said B.C. Apartment Owners and Managers Association spokeswoman Lynda Pasacreta.

"Right now we're dealing with the problem of a growth in marijuana labs and now this," said Pasacreta, whose association planned to make a complaint to the city voicing its concerns against the new bylaw.

Tenants Rights Action Coalition chair Linda Mix suggested before the news of the reversal that council would need to get a sound legal opinion on what it was proposing because she didn't think it was a workable concept.

"I don't know where the city bylaw would fit in with the Residential Tenancy Act. Under the act, if a tenant is engaging in activities that disturbs other tenants they could be evicted," Mix said.

"At the end of the day, we need to see people safe in their houses and in their businesses."

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Created: September 13, 2003
Last modified: April 22, 2004
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