A view of a sign for massage therapy, Monday Oct. 22, 2018.
Two massage parlors have been closed for criminal or other violations since 2017, according to the San Antonio Police Department. Credit: Edward A. Ornelas for the San Antonio Report

San Antonio City Council will soon consider changes to its decades-old massage parlor ordinance that would target parlors that have been cited for violations related to sex, violence, or drug crimes, City officials said Tuesday.

Most of the 110 permitted massage parlors in San Antonio are legitimate businesses, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus told Council members Tuesday, but there are “about 15 establishments that garner the lion’s share of complaints.”

Most massage parlors are located in strip malls along commercial corridors, according to the San Antonio Police Department. Credit: Courtesy / SAPD

The existing ordinance, established by City Council in 1988 as an attempt to combat onsite prostitution, requires all parlors to get a special City permit, prohibits parlors from being open between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m., and includes rules for sanitary equipment and supplies.

The new ordinance would require only those businesses that break the law, repeatedly are caught letting people sleep there, or fail to post a state massage license to get the $75 permit, McManus said.

Since 2017, SAPD has carried out 28 investigations that resulted in 48 citations, 19 arrests, and the closure of two establishments, McManus said, adding that resident complaints, internet research, and sting operations have played a part in closing those cases.

Other proposed changes include increasing from $200 to $500 the penalty for operating without a permit, enabling the City to revoke a permit due to criminal violations and pull its certificate of occupancy if violations continue, and prohibiting sleeping quarters and metal doors in massage parlors, according to City documents.

City Council’s Public Safety Committee voted in favor of sending the proposed changes to a full Council vote later this year.

“The commercial environment has changed since the late ’80s,” said Deputy City Manager Erik Walsh.

Now many larger, corporate establishments like hotels have spas that offer massages but are not technically massage parlors. That has led to uneven enforcement of the permitting rule across the city, he said. The changes would allow for a “surgical, precise tool” for SAPD to focus on those that are breaking the law.

It is similar to the absentee property owner permitting model, Walsh said, that targets owners who allow their properties to decay or renters to rack up code violations.

Councilman Cruz Shaw (D2), who chairs the Public Safety Committee, praised the changes because, saying they will give SAPD and the Development Services Department, which issues permits, the ability to “target just those bad actors,” owners who allow illegal activity to take place on their property.

The changes came about after a local attorney, who has a business near a massage parlor, started asking questions about how SAPD could better catch these bad actors, Shaw said.

The new rules also will allow SAPD to close cases faster, said police Lt. Jimmy Sides, and “make it faster for me to close down a problem location.”

Previously, the City had to wait for six cases related to criminal activity in order to file a lawsuit against a business to force its closure. Now, permits can be revoked more quickly.

Sides estimates that the process to shut down a business could take between two months to six months under the proposed ordinance.

“The sooner we get in there and take are of those business [that are breaking the law,] the better we’re all going to be,” Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) said. “Ramp it up and take care of it.”

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org