Illegal massage parlors skirting city regulations

Police swooped in on the Susu Spa massage parlor in the Tenderloin neighborhood Thursday afternoon and ran a covert operation where they arrested one woman on suspicion of soliciting a police officer for sex.

And two weeks ago, the Department of Public Health shut down the Sunflower Spa, a massage parlor in the Civic Center area where multiple prostitution arrests have been made through the years, according to police.

The aggressive efforts to dismantle illegal massage parlors that are often fronts for prostitution rings and sex trafficking led city officials to close down more than 70 illegal businesses since 2006, when Mayor Gavin Newsom first started cracking down on the problem.

In 28 cases, the massage parlors have reopened after correcting violations, according to the Department of Public Health, which permits such businesses.

But even the increasing numbers are dissatisfying to Newsom, who said he’s frustrated by the growing problem with illegal massage parlors that are now popping up in apartment units. 

“It’s a bit of a whack-a-mole — as soon as you shut down two or three here, they opened up some place else under a different name,” the mayor said.

That’s partly why Newsom’s task force charged with cracking down on illegal massage parlors has drawn up a new report, with recommendations for labor inspectors, more training and expansive housing for victims of sex trafficking. 

Last year, Newsom and Supervisor Carmen Chu passed legislation to expand enforcement, making it easier for health officials to close down illegal massage parlors.

It curbed operation hours for massage parlors to 10 p.m.

While the law has helped health inspectors better surveil massage parlors citywide, it’s pushed some businesses that have closed into apartment units where illegal massage parlors are operating undercover.

“It’s a cause and effect,” Newsom said. “As soon as you shut down a traditional operation, you are creating an impetus for a nontraditional operation that could be more problematic.”

The Department of Public Health does not regulate home-based massage parlors because they are private residences. That has made it even more challenging to eliminate businesses that might be running prostitution rings inside residential units, said Johnson Ojo, chief inspector for the department.

“As we intensify enforcement activities, some of the illegal operations have moved to the residential areas,” Ojo said.

But even if police catch up with those illegal operations at homes, there’s no way to stop a business from shuttering and moving into another rental unit, Chu said.

“Property owners don’t know who they are renting property to,” Chu said.

Massage parlors

19 Permits issued since 2009

20 Shut down in past year

70 Closed since 2006

Massage parlors now must close by 10 p.m.

Source: Department of Public Health

esherbert@sfexaminer.com

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