Cheaper by the Hour

Three years after a new zoning ordinance attempted to relocate them, hourly-rate motels are still operating in the same neighborhoods.

by Phil Campbell

The woman in the tight miniskirt and leopard-spotted blouse waves to me from the motel room door as I pull into the motel-parking lot. I shut off the engine and turn off the headlights, but I do not get out. She approaches my car and gets in the passenger side without asking.

"I wanted some privacy to negotiate," she says inside. "Are you a cop?"

"Uh, no," I say. "How much?"

"Twenty dollars either way, and 30 dollars for half an hour."

"Twenty dollars," I repeat. "Well, I'm really waiting for a friend. Can I get back to you?"

"Sure, honey." She tells me her name and gets out, swinging her hips as she walks off.

THE BELLEVUE INN AT 1250 S. BELLEVUE is typical of the hourly-rate motels around town. The lighted sign on the marquee along the street reads, "Whoop, there it is. XXtra Special Rate$." There's a high wall--part wood, part concrete--separating the 20-room motel from the street. After 8 p.m., this small lot seems busier than a Piggly Wiggly on Saturday afternoon; headlights illuminate everything as prostitutes walk from car to car seeking the best offer. If business is slow, it becomes a buyer's market. The hookers leave the motel lot and walk the streets.

Hourly-rate motels first received attention in 1994, when the Memphis City Council attempted to zone them into the city's industrial hinterland, away from both residential and commercial areas. During her successful reelection campaign in 1995, Janet Hooks offered the issue as an example of government regulation that works. "I don't care what part of town they're in, hourly-rate motels are objectionable," Hooks says.

But three years after the zoning ordinance was passed, the hourly-rate motels have not moved from their old locations in the commercial districts. There are currently 25 identifiable hourly-rate motels in Shelby County, representing 17 percent of all area hotels. The council has been told by the courts that it simply cannot shut down independent motels that charge by the hour, and the motel owners do not appear ready to give up their current locations. The motels persist as the most accessible place in Memphis to both buy and have cheap sex, and they continue to blight declining neighborhoods.

Most hourly-rate motels are located in three areas of town: on Lester Avenue off Summer near Binghamton, the northern end of Elvis Presley Boulevard as it turns into Bellevue, and certain spots along South Third. With the car traffic they encourage, the prostitutes they attract, and the reputation they give to an area, they are a major reason why these neighborhoods have had a difficult time rebounding.

"I would say that they would be our number-one problem in the neighborhood," says Barry Lincoln, an active member of the Annesdale-Snowden Neighborhood Association, whose boundaries are bisected by Bellevue. "Hourly-rate motels lead to crime, and they bring unsavory characters into our neighborhood."

Another neighborhood activist, Mary Wilder of the Vollintine-Evergreen Community Association, says most of the motel owners don't care about the neighborhoods in which they operate because they don't live in those neighborhoods.

Two prostitutes follow me into the tiny lobby of the Bellevue Inn. "Do you want company?" asks the one in a green sports jacket. When she sees my duffel bag, she looks disappointed. "Oh, you staying the night?" They leave. Another car has just pulled up, anyway.

HOOKERS IN MEMPHIS HAVE TWO BASIC choices concerning where they can service their "johns"--in the customer's car or in hourly-rate motels. Cracking down on prostitution is a never-ending battle for police, one made more difficult by the street knowledge of the hookers. "There are some regular girls that work out of them," says Lt. Chuck Newell of the Memphis Police Department's Organized Crime Unit. "When we pull up, sometimes they know us and they run into the motel."

Nevertheless, the motels are generally regarded as "quiet" by many veteran law-enforcement officials because patrol officers do not get a lot of 911 calls from there, at least when compared to other parts of the same police wards. "Occasionally we'll go in there and send some decoy officers. And we'll lock some of these folks up," Newell says. "But I can't really say we've had many emergencies."

At Newell's suggestion, The Memphis Flyer reviewed five years' worth of complaints that occurred at Wayside Inn, formerly the Little Gun Motel, at 1462 Elvis Presley Boulevard. Thirty-four police reports have been taken since 1992. No homicides, but seven reported assaults, three robberies, and a stolen car. A rape was reported in 1994, but there was no follow-up, suggesting that there was either little evidence to prosecute the suspect or that the alleged victim dropped the charge.

Crimes in hourly-rate motels often go unreported, argues Carolyn McKenzie, an activist with Citizens for Community Values, a conservative political organization. "If a man goes into an adult bookstore, an hourly-rate motel, or a quote-unquote gentlemen's club, and he gets robbed or beaten up, what do you think the chances are that he's going to report it?" she asks. The women who sell their bodies for money or drugs probably wouldn't want to call police, either, even if they are the victims.

"The businesses don't want to call attention to themselves, and the customers don't want to call attention to themselves," McKenzie says.

A white man in his early 20s pulls up in a blue Ford truck with Kentucky plates. He speaks to two of the regular prostitutes, then walks out into the street with them. From my motel-room window, I can see him fidgeting with the bill on his baseball cap. After several minutes he retreats into a room with one of the black hookers.

About 10 minutes pass before the man and the prostitute leave the room. He gets back into his truck and drives away, and she walks to a vending machine to buy a soft drink. Two dour-looking men wheel a cleaning cart with creaking wheels into the room the couple just left.

A few minutes later, a police car rolls through the parking lot. The officer looks suspiciously at everyone, but he soon drives off.

SIX YEARS AGO, THE CITY COUNcil had a strict ordinance affecting all "sexually oriented businesses," including adult bookstores and movie theatres, hourly-rate motels, and escort agencies, but a federal court gutted the law, objecting to its appeals process.

A special licensing board was established through the Memphis Police Department requiring a $5,000 permit to operate such businesses. A court struck down the fee as too excessive, so the council lowered the permit cost to $500. According to the original ordinance, businesses could not operate within 1,500 feet of a church, a school, a park, or a boundary to a residential district. If the distance rule were broken, the license could be rescinded, and the owners could not reapply for a license for another 12 months.

Four businesses sued, taking their cases all the way to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, where the appellate judges ruled that, while the ordinance was constitutional, the appeals process that the city council created for it was not. The ordinance required appeals to go through the state courts, even though the city had no power to schedule the appeals, which had to be heard in a timely fashion, according to the federal judges.

Thus the ordinance became unenforceable. "It's like a beautiful car without wheels," says assistant city attorney Patti Bowlan. "It just sits there, beautiful, stunning, but it doesn't have any wheels."

That's when Hooks and the rest of the city council in 1994 came up with the idea to use zoning ordinances as a weapon. Any time a new motel is established, or any time hotel or motel owners sell their business, the new owner has to apply for a special permit with the Office of Planning and Development. The new owners have to take an oath before the city council that their motel will not charge hourly-rates. If they refuse the pledge, they have to move their business out of the commercial district into the parts of the city zoned for light or heavy industrial purposes.

"The city had to regroup and decide how to approach the problem," says city council attorney Alan Wade. "Under the circumstances, we did the best that we could do."

With a contractual agreement that motel owners make with the city, Wade says, it is possible to punish them if they try to run an hourly-rate motel. "We accomplished the same result, but we're on sounder legal ground because they agreed to the procedure."

Before I reach my room, a woman jumps out of a parked van and asks in a wooden voice, "Can I come, too?" Her eyes are unfocused, strung out. I tell her maybe later. It is only 7:30. Business is still slow.

IN ONE SENSE THE NEW ORDInance has been successful. According to the county's business-tax division, no new hourly-rate motels have opened since 1994. On the other hand, the battle against hourly-rate motels has reached a standstill. The Office of Planning and Development reports that there has not been a single application for a change of ownership for area motels and hotels in that time.

It could be that the motels are just too profitable to sell. Look at the math. Prices vary from $10 to $20 an hour at the motels, which tend to have no more than 25 rooms. So, even if a room is only used 12 hours a day, the motel owner makes anywhere from $120 to $240 gross a day, far more than a Red Roof Inn or a Comfort Suites makes per room charging guests by the night. The more profitable hourly-rate establishments make more from one room each day than The Peabody can make with its medium-size rooms, which cost $210 a night.

At the Bellevue Inn, if you want to spend an entire night, it costs $37 on weeknights and $47 on Friday and Saturday. Considering how much the cheaper chain hotels charge, the neighborhoods in which these hourly-rate places are located, and the annoying noise emanating from the parking lot, it's hard to imagine anyone but the most exhausted, lost traveler not leaving when a price of $47 is quoted.

"They lose money when you get a room for the night," Lt. Newell says. "They don't like to do that, but they can't refuse you."

This Week's Issue | Home