The Complex Realities of Private Dollars for Public Spaces
Earlier this month, the Policy Advocacy Clinic at the UC Berkeley School of Law released a report reflecting three years of research into business improvement districts (BIDs) in California, entities that collect assessments from business owners or property owners in a defined area to pay for special services.
The conclusions were damning. The report, titled “Homeless Exclusion Districts,” suggests that BIDs “use their power and resources to advocate for anti-homeless policies and to support policing practices that exclude or drive out homeless people,” as the clinic put it in a press release. The growth of BIDs “correlates strongly” with the increase of laws like those that ban sitting or lying down on the sidewalk during certain times of day, the report says. It tracks instances of individual BIDs policing homeless people or coordinating with police to confront people living on the street. And it found in a survey that more than 80 percent of BIDs identified “panhandling and loitering” as an important safety and security concern.
“There’s a fundamental philosophical issue [with BIDs], which is that the presence of homeless people is an issue in the neighborhood,” says Shelby Nacino, a 2018 Berkeley Law grad who helped write the report.
The researchers began working on the report after the Western Regional Advocacy Group, a coalition focused on homelessness and poverty issues on the west coast, reported that homeless people in its orbit said they were being affected by the presence of BIDs, Nacino says. In addition to the survey, researchers conducted interviews with BID representatives and people living on the street, and they filed public records requests seeking information on BIDs’ advocacy work around homelessness.
The report is critical of how some BIDs access public money to engage in policy advocacy work. BIDs are quasi-public entities, but they are typically funded privately, collecting assessments from property owners or business owners who must vote to approve the creation of the BID. In some cases, though, BID assessments apply to municipal or public buildings, thereby accessing taxpayer money. The report found that public buildings accounted for an average of 16.8 percent of the total assessment in eleven case-study BIDs in Berkeley, Chico, Sacramento, Chico, San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
“I think if business people and property owners want to take over our neighborhoods, they should do it on their own dime,” says Paul Boden, executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project. “I don’t believe that public space is best controlled by private enterprise. I don’t believe that the only role of cities is to earn money for corporate America.”
In San Francisco, BIDs are authorized under two laws from 1989 and 1994. Both allow for the creation of special services districts, but the 1989 law allows assessments only on business owners, while the 1994 law allows assessments on all property owners in a certain area, with the money to be used for a broader array of services. Some newer BIDs are called “Community Benefits Districts,” or CBDs, though they are authorized under the same laws.
Some BID representatives reject the characterization of their work presented in the report.
“We all understand that this population that lives on the street are our neighbors as well,” says Andrew Robinson, executive director of The East Cut CBD in San Francisco. “They live in the community and we are not in the business of wanting to move somebody who needs service somewhere else.”
Robinson says the East Cut CBD doesn’t experience an “antagonistic relationship” with people living on the street the way the report describes. And he says the group doesn’t engage in policy advocacy. In fact, Robinson says, the report unfairly conflates most BIDs’ work with the Union Square BID in San Francisco, even though that group is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, and most BIDs are 501(c)(3) nonprofits, restricted from political lobbying.
The Union Square BID also boasts on its website of addressing some 20,000 sit/lie law violations and 1,700 cases of “aggressive panhandling in 2017. Robinson says The East Cut CBD only calls the police when it feels like someone is a threat to others.
“The reality of the situation on the ground, I think, is something much more nuanced, complex and not captured at all in that report,” says Fernando Pujals, director of communications for the Tenderloin Community Benefit District in San Francisco. “I think the report, from what I’ve seen, is trying to make a leap to causation where there’s correlation.”
Both Robinson and Pujals say that they want to improve their neighborhoods for the people living on the street as much as for the property owners who pay the assessments. Many BIDs say they hire people living on the street for certain jobs and try to help others find services.
“At the end of the day what CBDs offer is really a lot of connectivity in the public space,” Pujals says.
But for Boden, of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, most BIDs are just paying lip service to helping the homeless, when they really just want them out of sight. Boden thinks BIDs only exist to tidy up downtowns and create more wealth for a select few. The groups that do engage in policy advocacy work should spend less time worrying about street-level quality-of-life issues and more time pressing for investment in permanent, affordable housing for the homeless. Simply referring a homeless person to a shelter is an empty gesture, for example, he says.
“Homeless people know where the fuckin’ shelter is,” Boden says. “The shelter waitlist is over 1,200 names long.”