Tackling Illicit Massage Parlors in San Rafael
Sex trafficking first came to the attention of many residents because of the surge in massage parlors and reports of late hours and women being brought in by vans. There are 62 licensed establishments in the City of San Rafael and an additional 31 where registration is pending or the City is in the process of verifying that they should be registered. Many of these are legitimate massage therapists, but many are not.
A letter to the editor (posted October 16, 2014) in the Pacific Sun recounted the experience of one citizen who visited a few parlors and found that more than massages were on offer.
What is the City doing?
In 2013, the City Council approved a one-year pilot program to focus on the enforcement of our local Massage Ordinance with the goal of reducing the number of illicit establishments. The program has been extended through September 2015.
Under this program, the City hired a private contractor to conduct regular inspections, issue citations and build the necessary record to revoke licenses of illicit massage parlors – those that repeatedly fail to comply with the Ordinance requirements.
How is the program working?
During the first 10 months of operation, the City conducted 213 inspections, issued 115 citations for $91,420 in fines and collected $69,593. On September 2, 2014, the first license revocation was issued following two hearings in May and June. (A landlord is barred from renting to another massage parlor for one year when a tenant’s license is revoked.) Five establishments closed voluntarily.
Raffi Boloyan, Planning Manager/Interim Code Enforcement Manager, in the Community Development Department, reports that the Massage Inspection Program has seen other trends as well, which are harder to document or quantify and include: less activity reported at establishments as enforcement has stepped up and fewer inquiries from new operators looking to open or buy businesses and reduced sales price of businesses trying to sell.
The program exposed some loopholes in the Massage Ordinance. For example, the Ordinance does not require that the door be unlocked during business hours, which makes it harder for inspectors to surprise operators. Some of these loop holes are a result of limitations imposed by state law that limit a city’s ability to regulate massage establishments. Changes to the revocation process could make it faster and less expensive for the City to revoke a license.
Why can’t the City use its zoning power to limit massage parlors?
In 2008, the state adopted a law (SB 731) that changed how cities could regulate the massage industry. One of the main changes was that cities could not discriminate in their zoning ordinances between massage parlors and other personal services, like nail salons or beauty parlors. This state law resulted in the proliferation of massage establishments in most communities throughout California.
Massage Therapy Reform (AB 1147) changes that, effective January 1, 2015. Among other things, it allows cities to adopt local zoning and business licensing rules that specifically address massage parlors. The challenge, of course, is to implement new zoning rules that minimize the impact on legitimate practitioners but maximize the impact on illicit operators. The Planning Division will be making recommendations to the City Council regarding zoning ordinance changes.
What about the landlords?
Sadly, it seems that many landlords are ignorant of what is going on in their properties. The Massage Inspection Program is working to change that. It is tracking the leases for these establishments and starting a proactive effort with landlords to reduce the number of lease renewals for establishments that are often cited for infractions. And it is starting a new practice of alerting landlords when their tenants have been issued multiple citations and when the revocation process begins, rather than after a license has been revoked.
Code enforcement is only a partial solution
Illicit massage parlors should be shut down. They bring a dangerous criminal element to our community, they crowd out other businesses and they make it harder for legitimate massage therapists to work in our community. But we need to recognize that shutting them down here will not stop traffickers. They will set up shop elsewhere and trafficking in its many other guises will continue here in Marin. Trafficking is a complex problem that requires multi-faceted solutions, which the Marin County Human Trafficking Task Force is developing and implementing.