.Oakland’s Threat to Sex Workers

A new eviction policy broadly targets prostitutes, and while the city argues that the law will help fight child trafficking, there's no data or evidence to back those claims.

On October 21, the Oakland City Council unanimously voted to expand an existing law that allows the city to evict private property tenants who have become a “nuisance” to their communities. The original “nuisance eviction ordinance,” which the council adopted in 2004, permits city-led evictions of both residential and commercial tenants who have been involved in illegal drug activities or violence on their properties.

The revised policy, proposed by City Attorney Barbara Parker, added a number of other “nuisance activities” to the law — the most controversial being “pimping, prostitution, pandering, and solicitation.” The council approved the additions with little fanfare or debate, and sex worker rights advocates only learned about the ordinance after it was too late to oppose its passage. Now, sex workers, civil rights activists, and tenant advocacy groups are arguing that the addition of prostitution to this law is deeply problematic and could carry a number of troubling consequences for Oakland renters.

For starters, critics say, the overly broad language of the law enables the City Attorney’s Office to force sex workers out of their homes in a wide range of circumstances without giving them meaningful opportunities to contest the accusations. The law also empowers residents to make complaints about neighbors they believe are involved in sex work while incentivizing landlords to evict tenants they suspect may be prostitutes — or possibly avoid renting to them in the first place.

And given the number of vague clauses in the policy, activists say its implementation would likely reflect existing law enforcement biases and profiling patterns — meaning that low-income tenants, transgender residents, and people of color would most likely be targeted.

Beyond all those concerns, sex worker advocates are questioning why the city is further criminalizing prostitution. This push by Parker, they say, represents a politically conservative view of sex work. And critics contend that the policy likely will waste limited resources on a nonviolent crime, and do more harm than good by forcing vulnerable sex workers further underground — or out on the streets.

“It’s legislation of hysteria that doesn’t have any basis in reality,” said Maxine Doogan, a San Francisco-based organizer with the Erotic Service Providers Union. “I just don’t see the need for this kind of explicitly discriminatory piece of legislation.”

In the face of a fierce backlash — including a heated protest at last week’s city council meeting — the City Attorney’s Office now says that it plans to apply the law very narrowly and that the revisions were not meant to target adult sex workers. Parker and her aides have recently argued that the city would not seek to remove a tenant due to his or her status as a prostitute and would only launch a eviction proceedings if there was clear evidence that involvement in prostitution on the property had created a nuisance.

The City Attorney’s Office has further argued that the revised ordinance does not eliminate existing tenant protections and that, in city-led evictions, tenants have greater opportunities to contest the action than they do in standard eviction proceedings with landlords. Officials have also said the city would primarily use the law to target hotels and motels.

But this framing of the law — which Deputy City Attorney Richard Illgen presented to activists last week at a tense, impromptu meeting at City Hall — does not match the actual language of the ordinance. And even if city officials are sincere about their intentions, their response has not addressed potential consequences of the law outside of the city’s control — that is, the possibility for increased discrimination against sex workers by landlords because this anti-prostitution law is on the books.

Activists said that one of the most troubling aspects of Parker’s and Illgen’s defense is their contention that expanding the city’s authority under this nuisance ordinance would somehow give their office a new tool to fight child sex trafficking. According to activists, sexual exploitation of minors is a problem that elected officials and law enforcement agencies often use to justify new strict laws that, in practice, only punish adult prostitutes.

“The pimps who are trafficking minors in Oakland often use hotel rooms or apartments as a base of operations,” said Alex Katz, chief of staff for the City Attorney’s Office, in an interview last week. “These girls are raped. They suffer horrific violence and all kinds of abuse. … We are talking about human trafficking, which is really a form of slavery in many cases, not adult sex workers who are choosing to do this job.”

Katz also argued that the newly approved revisions to the nuisance eviction law allow the city to target pimps, as well as motels that are enabling trafficking. “You need to have a place to conduct this type of crime. If we minimize the number of places … it can reduce the number of places that pimps have available to them to conduct this kind of child abuse.”

Activists, however, question how an eviction ordinance could possibly provide any benefits to child victims of trafficking. “Instead of providing police with some kind of tool to help people who are specifically being exploited and victimized, the nuisance eviction ordinance … will lead to further harm against sex workers and victims of exploitation,” argued Kristina Dolgin, founding member of Red Light Legal, an Oakland-based sex worker advocacy group.

What’s more, the revised ordinance, along with Parker’s four-page memo urging the council to support it, does not include a single mention of human trafficking or child victims. On the contrary, Parker’s memo argued that prostitution-related nuisances depress property values and harm the city’s businesses by discouraging families from shopping in Oakland. The ordinance, she wrote, is “part of the [c]ity’s efforts to eradicate … prostitution from Oakland.”

The revised ordinance specifically allows the city administrator or city attorney to require a landlord to evict a tenant who “engages in prostitution, pimping, pandering, or solicitation on or connected to the rental property,” Parker explained in her memo. It also permits the city to issue citations or penalties against a landlord who fails to evict tenants after the city has required it.

“It begins to get pretty close to, ‘We are going after you because of what you do or what we think you do,'” said Tim Iglesias, a University of San Francisco law professor and expert on housing discrimination.

Despite Illgen’s contention that his office would not seek an eviction without clear evidence, the nuisance eviction ordinance has long stated that “a [t]enant need not be arrested, cited, or convicted of the conduct to justify removing the [t]enant from the [r]ental [u]nit.” Illgen and Katz both said that the city would typically rely on police and arrest records before seeking an eviction due to prostitution — but advocates noted that even if they do depend on that kind of documentation, the law could still be applied in an inequitable way.

For example, advocates argued that police disproportionately and unjustifiably target transgender people, especially trans women of color, for prostitution offenses. “Trans women get arrested walking down the street every day, just for walking while trans,” said Jolene Parton, a 26-year-old Oakland-based sex worker (Jolene Parton is the pseudonym she uses for her activist efforts and modeling). “And if they have a condom or if they’re wearing a short skirt, they’ll get arrested for prostitution.”

Parton also noted that residents may call the police on their neighbors simply based on suspicions, creating a record of police activity that the city can then use in an eviction case. For these reasons, the city could easily end up seeking evictions by relying on unproven accusations, she said.

And concerns about wrongful allegations aside, activists emphasized that it’s wrong to target people who are involved in sex work given that they may already be in very vulnerable situations. Isa Noyola, program manager of the Oakland-based Transgender Law Center, noted at last week’s council meeting that trans people are often rejected by their families and face significant job discrimination — some of the many reasons why they may get involved in sex work. “It couldn’t be any clearer that the solution is not to make us homeless for doing what we can just to get by.”

This kind of housing eviction law — one that specifically targets prostitution activities — is very uncommon, if not unprecedented, according to Iglesias. The only comparable laws he could cite were controversial policies placing restrictions on renting to undocumented immigrants. Iglesias further pointed out that there was no clear reason why Parker decided to pursue these changes, arguing that there’s little evidence to support claims that sex work makes Oakland less business-friendly. “I haven’t seen any facts that suggest that prostitution is an impediment, much less a major impediment, to economic activity in Oakland.”

Iglesias also noted that when the city council recently passed a new “tenant protection ordinance” — a law designed to deter harassment by landlords — it relied on specific data on tenant complaints along with extensive reports from advocacy groups. Since the sex worker eviction law passed last month, I repeatedly requested from the City Attorney’s Office any data it had on prostitution-related crimes or complaints that had motivated the change to the eviction law, but officials were unable to provide any statistics.

Katz said the city does get regular complaints about trafficking and prostitution, but said there was no specific database housing this information, and that he didn’t have any numbers readily available. Katz was also unable to cite specific data about child sex trafficking in Oakland, but argued that the problem is pervasive. (According to a California Department of Justice report, there were 52 human trafficking convictions in Alameda County between January 2008 and September 2012.) I also asked a spokesperson for Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, who has led anti-trafficking efforts, if she supported the Oakland ordinance. She declined to comment.


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