Houston’s Complex Battle Against Sex Trafficking and the Role of Short-Term Rentals Like Airbnb

BREAKING: HOUSTON, TX— America’s fourth-largest city has for nearly two decades stood as a glaring beacon in the number one spot of the nation’s sex trafficking charts. This unsettling distinction has sparked outrage among its residents. 

At a recent City Council meeting, multiple Houston residents flamed council members for their complacency in creating ordinances to crack down on sex trafficking, which now runs rampant in short-term rental properties, like Airbnb, around town.

“Young women are being taken out of apartment buildings by nefarious people… it’s called [sex] trafficking. Why can’t we arrest [these perpetrators]? I’m sorry, in all due respect, [City Council’s] answer is not acceptable,” said concerned resident Dorothy Hablinski at the meeting.

The Houstonian voiced frustration with the council’s inaction in stopping alleged human trafficking being facilitated through short-term rentals and Airbnb’s across town. 

“Houston is the greatest sex trafficking center in America. What used to be an incredible city … is in shambles in every way,” Hablinski continued. “Our city government has failed all the people of Houston. And you need to hear this. I’m speaking on behalf of [everyone].”

“Money is the number one most important thing in Houston, Texas. And guess what… we are tired of paying taxes in a city… [with streets] that are like third world countries… Houston is becoming Detroit, New York, San Francisco and all the other fabulous cities that gave us so much of the American way of life, destroyed.”

“We don’t trust our government, and the people are waking up. We’ve had enough. We will speak out, and we will fight back.”

Yet the multifaceted nature of Houston’s fight against sex trafficking runs deeper than meets the eye. Councilmembers drew attention to the unique challenges posed by Texas’ strong property rights stance and the absence of zoning laws.

Resident Karen Henry brought up similar concerns about sex-trafficking related events she had witnessed outside of short-term rentals and Airbnb properties. She described young women being escorted into vehicles late at night; people walking around in public, naked, who appeared to be on drugs; and people having sex on balconies. 

“I know you’ve heard about all of the horrible stuff that goes on with these short-term rentals. I want to know, as the City Council, what can y’all do to restrict the short-term rentals?” Henry posed.

“I have so many friends who live in town homes and don’t have any restrictions and HOA to prohibit these short-term rentals. What can y’all do as city councilmembers?”

City Councilwoman Sallie Alcorn (At-Large Position 5) pointed to research into methods of other cities in Texas as a possible first measure.

“[What each city can do] is all very different. At the very least, I feel we need to know where [the properties] are, we need to have them registered and know who the bad owners are,” Alcorn said. “We need to find a way to somehow penalize the owners of the [short-term rentals] that have repeated calls and violations. We need to come up with some kind of methodology.”

However, Texas’ status as a staunchly pro-property rights state and its absence of zoning laws pose a complex challenge in containing trafficking rings within short-term rentals.


“The courts will fight back, we’re in a big property rights state, so a lot of these rules that cities put into place get overturned,” Alcorn pointed out. “But I’d rather find a way to go to the owners of the ones that we’re having a lot of problems with and… I don’t know what we can do! But set up what legal will allow us to do.”


Further, the issue is more complex than Airbnb and similar platforms holding their hosts accountable. After a certain amount of phone calls and police reports at a short-term rental property, many popular rental websites will remove a listing— but the listing simply jumps to a different platform.

“However, [we’re] talking to a company that is going to mine all the data [on] all of the platforms, there are like 30 plus platforms out there. We’re going to get a contract to see who owns them, where they are… and mining the police data, too,” Alcorn said. 

“We know where the bad [rental properties] are. We’re talking about maybe 50 that I know of. It seems like we can do something.”

Alcorn listed phone calls to the police, scanning local advertisements and informing neighborhoods to file police reports if they witness something illegal as current measures the council is executing.

Councilmember Julian Ramirez (At-Large Position 1) also addressed the concerned residents.

“We do have a Quality-of-Life Committee. I’m the chair of it. My understanding is that in the next few months, we will be taking this up after we hear from the Mayor’s Office on what ideas they have to bring forward,” Ramirez said. 

“As Councilmember Alcorn stated, it’s not as simple as passing an ordinance banning short-term rentals. We can’t do that; it would immediately be struck down in the courts because Texas is such a strong property rights state.”

“It’s going to take a nuanced approach, and we will take a good hard look at it soon. I invite you to come back and weigh in when we have our committee meeting, and when we take up any ordinances after that.”

Houston has long ranked as the nation’s top sex trafficking hub due to its proximity to the Texas-Mexico border; ease of access to Interstate 10 and other major highways, land and water ports; and high demand for sex services.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that a minimum of 50 thousand people from various countries are trafficked into Texas every year. Additionally, many victims are U.S. citizens.

In 2016 alone, over 300 thousand people were victims of human trafficking in Texas, including some 79 thousand minors and youths being sex trafficked. About one-fourth of human trafficking cases in Texas involve young people being forced into prostitution rings.

In more recent years, short-term rental platforms like Airbnb have become unwitting hosts to countless victims in the dark snare of Houston sex trafficking. These platforms originally bloomed due to their anonymity and secrecy, for both hosts and renters; ease of access; lack of regulation and transience.

Now, these foundational pillars are exploited by traffickers, who abuse the anonymity and secrecy to conduct activities discreetly and without attracting attention from authorities. They can quickly book properties without the thorough scrutiny that often comes with hotels, and they can operate without detection.

Recently, concerns about short-term rentals and their link to human trafficking have been frequently presented to Houston City Hall. 

Last March, a meeting was held to discuss the problems surrounding short-term rentals, including “party homes.” An Airbnb representative was present at the meeting and presented the company’s “trust and safety tools,” and he explained how the platform enforces its global house party ban. 

Additionally, residents in Tanglewood have reported disturbances with a short-term rental that has been a “hot spot for wild parties and prostitution.” 

The city has pitched a multitude of ideas to crack down on this issue, including reclassifying certain rental properties as hotels. The Mayor’s Office of Human Trafficking and Domestic Violence is weighing different ideas in addressing trafficking through a municipal lens, including leveraging city departments to increase awareness.

Addressing this issue may require a careful and nuanced collaboration between short-term rental platforms, local law enforcement agencies, policymakers and community organizations.

Councilman Julian Ramirez suggested a committee hearing in the near future to address some tentative first steps. Concerned residents are urged to gather documentation of these issues and bring their evidence to the town hall meeting.

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