Vancouver police not keen to crack down on Airbnb pop-up brothels

By Drew Penner

For those of us raised on school films that took us through skid row, and fictional mayor Dominic Da Vinci’s introduction of a red-light district on CBC, we realize Vancouver’s a city with unique problems requiring innovative solutions. Watching the rise of Airbnb and the use of former rental housing as pop-up brothels in some cases, the Vancouver Police Department is maintaining a harm-reduction style approach to dealing with sex work.

“We’re very tolerant of the day-to-day sex workers,” said VPD spokesperson Jason Doucette. “We’re trying not to push people into the back corners.”

Airbnb doesn’t allow prostitution via its platform, even in jurisdictions where it’s legal, but there’s nothing specifically in its terms and conditions to indicate this [1]

Yet the pop-up brothel phenomenon is being discussed around the world.

But Vancouver police say the introduction of new tech doesn’t change the way the department approaches the subject.

Const. Doucette points out all officers undergo sex worker de-escalation training, and says they take action against sex workers only in cases that are deemed “high risk,” such as when sexually exploited children, gangs or human trafficking are involved.

In other words, don’t expect a crack down on the sex trade at the hands of the VPD in order to free up housing supply.

“If there is an issue the first thing we’d look at is the safety of those involved,” Doucette said, describing how the department approaches prostitution-related complaints. “Public safety and safety of sex workers is number one.”

Different cities take different approaches to legislating sex work. Victoria has bylaws that have allowed brothels to flourish and let escort agencies make introductions for short-term connections[2]

While police point out that brothels are still illegal in Vancouver, the city is stained by the legacy of serial killer Robert Pickton, who preyed on Downtown Eastside sex workers.

The VPD now has a sex industry outreach worker, and says these days they are trying to operate with sensitivity, aware that prostitutes may be victims of larger criminal entities.

Websites like make it clear to potential visitors that, while illegal, sex work remains a vital part of Vancouver life[3]

“You won’t find any of the European or Australian style palaces with beautifully decorated rooms and a lineup of stunning prostitutes to choose from,” it reads, noting some go into business together to split the cost of private rooms. “These studios and apartments are particularly common downtown where businessmen can come and go as part of their workday.”

The guide also describes the easy-availability of full-service massages, although it talks down the city’s service quality when compared with what’s available elsewhere.

“Many of Vancouver’s erotic massage houses could also be classified as brothels given the extras that are exchanged there,” it reads. “But again, they will not have the same brothel style services, like waiting rooms, or any of the luxuries seen in countries where the bordello has become a spa-like retreat.”

Last fall, the UK launched an investigation into pop-up brothels, which have been flourishing there due to the rise of short-term accommodation sites.

Prostitution is legal in England and Wales, but running a brothel isn’t.

In Vancouver, some have wondered if criminal organizations might buy properties as investments and run illegal businesses, such as brothels or massage parlours, while the property appreciates.

Realtor Elliot Tan says that’s not an issue affecting his business in any way.

And Vancouver police say it’s not something that’s appeared on their horizon.

But, Const. Doucette points out the game has been changing for sex workers. He explained that the primary way it’s come up is when they tell officers how short-term rental sites have made their work safer. Airbnb and other platforms have helped them leave the dangerous street environment, and when they’re found out they just move to a new location, he said.

“With short-term rentals that’s definitely starting to come on our radar over the past few years,” he said, but qualifies that it hasn’t been a particularly hot-button issue. “It’s just a part of the business.”

[Photo Credit: Scott Beale / Laughing Squid]

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