Lincoln Tan

Lincoln Tan is the New Zealand Herald’s diversity, ethnic affairs and immigration senior reporter.

Brothels: Sex in the suburbs

Neighbourhood brothels have become commonplace since prostitution was legalised. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Neighbourhood brothels have become commonplace since prostitution was legalised. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Just after nine on a Wednesday morning and a woman dressed in a white tank top and jeans hops out of a taxi, dashes across the street - nearly bumping into a young pram-pushing mother - before walking up a flight of stairs to an apartment on Brown St in Ponsonby.

Another woman lets her in, and the business day has begun at Firecats Escorts. Within the hour, its first client arrives - a middle-age European man, in polo top and bermuda shorts - who seems to know the drill. He spends a good half hour in the apartment before leaving.

Brown St - home to apartments, a primary school and preschool, offices, restaurants, cafes and traditional villas- is like many other streets in Auckland's inner suburbs. Next door to the brothel, screened by trees, children at Richmond Rd Primary School play and study.

Two bespectacled Asian men arrive in a Mini and go to the brothel. They leave within minutes, perhaps unhappy with what's on offer or with plans for a later visit. They head across the street for lunch at a cafe.

Half-past twelve, and another taxi arrives, dropping off a young Asian woman with hair dyed red and wearing a pink-floral mini skirt who heads straight for the first floor apartment. Over the next half-hour, at least three Indian and Polynesian-looking women also arrive at the apartment.

Neighbours say the comings and goings from No. 51 follow the natural rhythm of daily life. There's a frisky morning start, a lunch-time spike and then a lull before a late-afternoon surge. At night, when business is in full swing, many residents draw their curtains and are less conscious of the sex trade in their midst.

But they wonder the new term will bring when parents dropping off or collecting children from school compete for scarce parking with Firecats' clients.

Jen, a regular at Cocoro Japanese Restaurant opposite the brothel, says parking "has become a nightmare" since it started operating late last year.

Some business operators who say they tried to "reason with" the brothel were met with either threats or abusive language.

Brown St is just the latest suburban flashpoint in the nine years since the Prostitution Reform Act was passed, decriminalising the sex trade in a bid to make it safer for participants.

From main centres - notably Auckland, Tauranga, Wellington and Christchurch - to small town Dannevirke, the legalisation of prostitution has felt the lash of moral panic. It may be legal but most people want it to remain out of sight - particularly in areas where they live.

In Auckland, neighbours have revolted against brothels in their backyards in Greenlane, Mt Eden, Birkenhead, Mt Albert, Remuera, Henderson and elsewhere. Street workers in downtown Auckland, Papatoetoe and Christchurch have angered residents and businesses, who tell lurid tales of indiscreet activity and associations with drugs, alcohol, urination, and worse.

Landlords and property managers in upmarket apartment blocks have reported problems evicting tenants operating home sex businesses.

Each public furore brings calls to revisit (or tear up) the Prostitution Reform Act or to ban the industry from residential areas. But is the legislation to blame or is it the way councils (and other agencies) have dealt with it?

The act made it clear that councils could use bylaws and land zoning controls to guide the location of brothels, limit offence to the general public and preserve "existing character". But for busy councils with limited income sources, the additional monitoring and enforcement responsibilities were not exactly welcomed. Nor were they simple to apply.

The act created an evocative new acronym - Soobs (rhymes with ...) - to distinguish between large commercial brothels and small owner-operated brothels. Soobs are venues where no more than four people work, and those people must work for themselves.

This allows people to work from home under the "home occupation" rules which most councils have in residential areas. The category caters for many sex workers who would rather not - or could not - work in commercial brothels or on the streets.

Full-scale commercial brothels, in most areas, are classed as "entertainment facilities" and restricted to commercial or industrial-zoned land - unless they obtain resource consent for a departure from the rules. The operators also need to be licensed.

The industry's third sector, street workers, is its least regulated - and its less responsible traders hinder the wider industry's bid for acceptance. In post-earthquake Christchurch, public concern about street workers in residential areas led last month to a police crackdown and 14 arrests.

It's the industry's intersection with suburbia which has garnered most media attention since 2003 - several high-profile clashes have focused on Soobs. The idea was that Soobs would slip discreetly behind the suburban mesh curtain and offer greater safety to individual sex workers.

But when neighbours are affected by all-day parking problems and noise in their quiet cul de sac, it often means the "home business" has blossomed into a fully-fledged brothel. Because Soobs don't need permits, councils, medical officers of health and other agencies usually don't know they're there.

Even where brothels are known or suspected to be operating in the wrong place, gathering hard evidence is another matter.

"It can put enforcement officers in the position of having to go in and apply for services in order to prove something," says Auckland Council planning manager Penny Pirrit. "If they are not overtly obvious or advertising as a brothel, how do you establish they are one? It can take a lot of monitoring of traffic and visiting the site and all sorts of things before there's proof of an entertainment facility operating in a residential zone."

Neighbours' complaints (with the media on board) have led to closures where Soobs are in breach of council rules. But most Soobs stay within the rules and neighbours may indeed be blissfully unaware.

A Parliamentary review of the Prostitution Reform Act in 2008 rejected calls to make the list of even certified brothels (held by the district court) available to council officials and agencies other than the police.

Supporters of the status quo - including the Prostitutes Collective and academics who have looked at the health and safety impacts of the 2003 law change - maintain the location battles distort perceptions of a reform which has been largely positive for sex workers.

"Sex happens in houses all over New Zealand," says Dr Gillian Abel, an Otago University senior lecturer in public health. "The only difference is they are charging for it - whether it's opposite a church or a school, there's no difference.

"Maybe residents in certain areas are not happy - the answer is not to criminalise or move people off into a dark corner where it's dangerous to work. We need to come up with something both sides can live with."

But in the current environment, sex is just another industry where entrepreneurial types can exploit the slow fuse of bureaucracy: they will try anything on if they can get away with it.

Pirrit says most complaints which reach the council relate to street prostitution (whose impacts are more visible) and brothels on land zoned for "mixed use", where business and residential buildings intermingle - such as the current case in Brown St.

Firecats set up shop in breach of council rules: the apartment was within 30m of a residential zone and therefore needed to seek resource consent. The first the council knew of it was when it received a complaint in November, a planning official told the local board.

The council issued an abatement notice on December 12, giving the operator until January 12 to cease operation. But the operator appealed and the abatement notice was stayed pending a court decision. The operator has since applied for resource consent and the council is seeking further information.

Pirrit says it's usual for the courts to stand back while councils process resource consents. Presumably, residents will be given a say.

Another obstacle confronting opponents is the dim view the courts have taken of some council efforts to restrict the location of brothels. In 2004 the old Auckland City Council introduced a bylaw effectively banning brothels from residential areas and within 250m of schools, churches and community centres. But a High Court challenge from an Epsom brothel saw the bylaw thrown out on grounds it was too restrictive and undermined the intentions of the Prostitution Reform Act. A similar bylaw in Christchurch was also overturned.

The 2008 Parliamentary review also cautioned against using zoning to confine Soobs to areas such as industrial land because of the increased risk of assault and robbery facing small operators. Yet a Hamilton City Council bylaw restricting the sex industry to the CBD and an industrial belt has survived since 2004.

Does it solve the problems? In the year to November 30, the council received complaints about alleged brothel activity at six private residences, three commercial premises, and seven motels. A council spokesman said none of the alleged bylaw breaches were substantiated.

And a Waikato Times investigation late last year raised concerns about health and safety practices at four "black market" brothels around the city. The council responded that it had limited powers to investigate, and the Medical Officer of Health was unaware of their locations.

After a lull caused by amalgamation, the Auckland Council is finally developing a sex industry policy to replace Auckland City's failed bylaw and create a level playing field across the region.

The draft policy supports a combination of planning and bylaw controls and "non-regulatory" approaches. Though it acknowledges most local boards want brothels out of residential areas, it stresses that regulations need to be enforceable. "There is a sense that the industry can move underground relatively easily and any regulation needs to be legitimate and have the ability to be enforced."

The council has also "picked up" a local bill drafted by the Manukau City Council which, if passed by Parliament, will give it more power to restrict the location of street workers.

The Christchurch City Council is looking at supporting the bill, which could then go national. But one critic, Victoria University senior law lecturer Dean Knight, maintains the legislation is unnecessary.

Councils can use existing powers to regulate trading in public places, protect the public from nuisance and minimise the potential for offensive behaviour in public places, Knight says. "Moral outrage isn't a good enough reason to try to chase prostitutes out of town - forcing the sex trade underground has its own adverse effects."

- NZ Herald

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