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Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Oakland City Attorney Now Says She Won't Evict Sex Workers Under New Law

Posted By on Tue, Nov 4, 2014 at 12:03 PM

City Attorney Barbara Parker won't go after sex workers
  • City Attorney Barbara Parker won't go after sex workers
Red Light Legal, an advocacy organization that provides legal services to sex workers, has called on the Oakland City Council to repeal new rules allowing the city to force landlords to evict alleged prostitutes.  

Oakland has long enforced its Nuisance Eviction Ordinance, which requires landlords to evict tenants over allegations of drug dealing or weapons crimes. But two weeks ago, the Oakland City Council expanded those eviction powers to include accused prostitutes, pimps, and gamblers. 

Naturally, sex workers aren't happy about this. 

"The [eviction ordinance] threatens the housing stability of people who are already operating at the margins of society," said Red Light Legal in a statement issued Saturday. "It will increase the targeted criminalization of vulnerable populations who face existing profiling and harassment at the hands of an unaccountable police force."

Now, the Oakland City Attorney's Office, which drafted the legislation, is defending the language while appearing to backpedal a bit, saying the city won't actually use the legislation to target sex workers.

"Sex workers are the victims and we have no intention of dealing with them," Deputy City Attorney Richard Illgen says. Instead, Illgen and City Attorney Barbara Parker told SF Weekly they intend to use the new powers given to their office under the expanded law to target motels and hotels frequented by prostitutes.

In an Oct. 30 letter to SF Weekly, Parker said our previous coverage on the issue "fails to address the purpose of the law." She demanded we retract the article and print her letter instead, and told us that at least one other publication that had published a story about the Nuisance Eviction Ordinance had agreed to the same arrangement (we did not retract our story, as we do not believe it to be inaccurate). Here's a snippet from the letter: 
Regarding prostitution offenses, we anticipate using NEO in the commercial context to require eviction of motel/hotel tenant-operators when they use the motel to cater to prostitution or drug dealing. Once the motel/hotel tenant operator is evicted, the property owner can rent the motel to an operator who will manage and operate the property in a lawful manner. ... Our goal is not to shut down businesses or housing, but to stop the criminal activity that deprives tenants or their right to safe and habitable housing and threatens the community.
In her letter, Parker added:
Prostitutes are victims. They are victimized and brutalized by the pimps, Johns, and others who prey on them and force them into that life. They are often former foster children or run-aways who leave unsafe homes and are victims of human trafficking; many cannot escape from the life of prostitution without risking their own lives. We reiterate: NEO does not permit an eviction based on one's status as a prostitute.
Despite Parker's vow to not go after sex workers, the law still leaves the door open — and that has organizations such as Red Light Legal very concerned.

"Some people are coerced into the sex trade unwillingly," said Red Light Legal in its statement. "These people are not sex workers at all, but the victims of serious, reprehensible crimes. The NEO indiscriminately targets these victims along with those who choose sex work freely, further victimizing them by removing what is possibly one of the only vestiges of safety they may have, a roof over their heads."

What's also unclear about the Nuisance Eviction Ordinance is whether tenants must be convicted of a crime or merely accused of one. However, Parker's office confirmed this week that a tenant does not have to be convicted of a crime before the city orders an eviction. An eviction can be based on police reports or arrests alone.

But police don't always notify the City Attorney's Office every time they arrest someone who would qualify for eviction under the NEO. "Most of the time, [information] comes from a tenant," Illgen says. "We look at it and see if there is sufficient evidence for an action." If a tenant has not reported the incident to police, the City Attorney's Office may follow up with police to find out if law enforcement action has been taken.

Parker added that no NEO notices have been issued without a preceding arrest. 

Red Light Legal has called for a protest of the NEO on Wednesday, Nov. 5, in Frank Ogawa Plaza at 6 p.m.

"Instead of providing the police a scalpel that can be surgically used to help people who have been exploited and victimized, the NEO functions as a sledge hammer," said Matt Kellegrew, Red Light Legal co-founder and staff attorney.

The Transgender Law Center has also taken a hard position, issuing a statement that said, "At a time when gentrification and soaring housing costs mean Oakland tenants are in dire need of more protections, the city is taking rights away from some of its most vulnerable residents."




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Kate Conger

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Kate Conger has written for SF Weekly since 2011.

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