RECENTLY, neighbors in the Montavilla neighborhood have noticed a sharp increase in the number of sex workers along 82nd Avenue between SE Powell and NE Sandy.

Most residents attribute the influx to one thing: the end of Portland's Prostitute-Free Zones (PFZs).

Together with Drug-Free Zones (DFZs), the "free zones" gave police the authority to "exclude" a repeat offender from a designated area for up to 90 days. If caught in the zone during the allotted time without court approval, officers could simply arrest the offender on a criminal trespass violation.

But Mayor Tom Potter and city council allowed the PFZ ordinance to expire this past fall. In September 2007, an independent study sponsored by the mayor's office concluded that the DFZs were unfairly targeting African Americans. Shortly afterward, Potter declared he would not renew the zones, saying, "Both programs are no longer serving their intended purpose and act only to suppress a serious community problem rather than solving it."

But many are still wondering why the PFZs—widely considered an effective law enforcement tool—were thrown out with the DFZs.

"The people that allowed the two programs to expire didn't really understand that the PFZs didn't have the same racial-profiling problems as the DFZs," Officer Leslie Pintarich said at the May 12 Montavilla Neighborhood Association general meeting. "There is now very little we can do to bust those we absolutely know are pimps and prostitutes. Since the PFZs went out of effect, the pendulum has definitely swung in their favor."

But Maria Rubio, Potter's public safety policy advisor, says the PFZs did in fact show evidence of racial bias and only worked "to move the problem to different areas." Rubio says the mayor is taking a more holistic approach, providing more services and resources to the sex workers. She says the mayor will not be considering a reinstatement of the PFZs.

Meanwhile, residents in Montavilla are getting more vocal about the problem.

"There's a general consensus that something needs to be done. It's a huge livability issue, it drives business away, and people are angry about it," neighborhood activist Stephen Sequeira said after this Monday's neighborhood association meeting. "It's starting to seep into the side streets."

Montavilla residents are now exploring courses of action for a post-PFZ neighborhood.

"We're hoping to coordinate a community-based approach to the problem, involving churches, businesses, the city," says Justin Cutler, vice-chair of the neighborhood association. "We need to give it time and do it right."

In the meantime, many residents say they want the issue taken more seriously and plan on using the election year to press city council about the PFZ suspension.