Alouette Massage on University Avenue, one of three Berkeley massage parlors under scrutiny by the City of Berkeley. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The City Council will consider revoking the use permits of two Berkeley massage parlors that are suspected of operating as prostitution houses, and a third has relinquished its permit after the Zoning Adjustments Board recommended in late April that the Council scrutinize the establishments’ operations.

Crystal Massage on Shattuck Avenue voluntarily relinquished its permit and was given 120 days to leave its premises after signing a consent form. Acupressure Health Center and Berkeley Alouette, both on University Avenue, have vacated their properties.

The Council will take up the matter before late July, according to City of Berkeley spokesperson Mary Kay Clunies-Ross.

The three establishments are subjects of dozens of explicit reviews on myRedBook and Rubmaps, online guides to prostitution services and strip clubs in the Bay Area. The reviewers detail a variety of sex acts that occurred between male patrons and female employees at the massage parlors, and rate the employees based on their physical characteristics.

Reading the reviews was “shocking and saddening for some of us not immersed in that world,” said Sophie Hahn, member of the Zoning Adjustments Board and candidate for City Council in District 5.

Crystal Massage on Shattuck Avenue has voluntarily relinquished its permit and needs to vacate its premises. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

At a public hearing on April 26, the attorneys representing the owners of the three massage parlors called the reviews “hearsay.”

“There is no direct evidence,” said Richard Hall, representing Berkeley Alouette. “There have been no citations, no arrests. My clients are not prostitutes.”

“It is disturbing that the city only relies on unfounded, malicious online reviews,” said Henry Hu, representing Acupressure Health Center. The reviews are all posted under pseudonyms, and Hu said the writers could have ulterior motives, such as personal grudges, or may be business competitors.

City representatives at the public hearing said that the sheer quantity of reviews over the span of several years makes that argument flimsy. Posts on the websites are reviewed for accuracy, and reviewers on Rubmaps must pay a membership fee before posting, said Code Enforcement Officer Gregory Daniels.

Additionally, both Acupressure Health Center and Berkeley Alouette advertise on the websites. Berkeley Alouette’s myRedBook advertisement reads, “We want to get our hands on RB gentlemen. Please mention Redbook so we will know to give you the special services you deserve.”

“We’re not a court of law, but the evidence was very persuasive,” Hahn said. “The lawyers were hammering on the fact that there was no proof for prostitution, but there were enough other small things anyway.”

When Code Enforcement officers investigated the businesses earlier this year, they discovered employees who had not been listed on the Establishment Permits working at each of the three parlors, in violation of city code. None of the massage parlors produced massage therapy certificates for the unlisted employees, though state law and city code require that certificates be publicly displayed in the establishment.

Joseph Morehead, the attorney representing Crystal Massage, said the revocation of the permits would put the women who are listed on the establishment permits, all of whom do have massage therapy certificates, out of work.

“They are licensed masseuses. They will lose their jobs without any kind of due process,” he said.

An attorney representing Acupressure Health Center said  city is relying on “unfounded, malicious online reviews”. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
An attorney representing Acupressure Health Center said  city is relying on “unfounded, malicious online reviews”. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Hahn said the Zoning Adjustments Board was aware of these consequences.

“What we can do is very, very limited,” she said. “We understood that it meant workers would be displaced, and there was concern that they’d have access to health services and employment. Shutting down an establishment is good for getting them out of Berkeley, but that isn’t necessarily going to protect or provide opportunities for the women involved.”

Hahn said she doubts the employees made independent decisions to prostitute themselves.

“There are owners and managers, and it’s impossible that these people don’t know the full range of services being provided and presumably making some profit for them. It didn’t appear that these were independent operators,” she said. “It’s not our place to get into free will or choice, but everyone on [the Zoning Adjustments Board] was concerned for their well-being.”

A May 29 amendment to the chapter of the Municipal Code concerning massage establishment permits will make it a challenge for the parlors to reapply for permits if theirs are revoked. The amendment includes a new provision allowing the Department of Finance to deny an application for a permit if an establishment’s previous permit was revoked or voluntarily relinquished.

The owner of Crystal Massage declined to comment on the board’s recommendations, and representatives from the other two parlors were unreachable.

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Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...