Homeless Exclusion Districts: How California Business Improvement Districts Use Policy Advocacy and Policing Practices to Exclude Homeless People from Public Space
52 Pages Posted: 22 Aug 2018 Last revised: 26 Mar 2019
Date Written: July 27, 2018
Business improvement districts (“BIDs”) are private entities funded by local property assessments that play an increasingly large role in managing public space in California cities. First authorized by state law in the 1960s to help revitalize struggling urban areas, BIDs have grown considerably in number and influence, especially since 1994 when the State Legislature reduced public oversight of BIDs and expanded their assessment and spending authority. Today, approximately 200 California BIDs collect hundreds of millions of dollars annually in compulsory property assessment revenue, which they spend on a wide range of activities.
Researchers and policymakers have paid little attention to the rise of BIDs and their growing influence on municipal and state affairs. BIDs typically are located in downtown areas where businesses are concentrated. These same areas, especially in California, often have a high concentration of homeless people, including many people who are unsheltered. The interests and activities of BIDs and homeless people intersect and conflict in several important ways, including in the areas of public policy, policing practices, and social services.
In this report, we share research findings about the relationship between California BIDs and homelessness. We conducted a literature review, studied municipal laws that target or disproportionately impact homeless people, researched the legal framework authorizing BIDs, and surveyed BIDs in California’s 69 largest cities. To help interpret the data from these sources, we conducted in-depth case studies of eleven BIDs in the cities of Berkeley, Chico, Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, San Diego, and San Francisco, including analysis of public records, interviews with BID officials, and surveys and interviews of homeless people.
Our key finding is that BIDs exclude homeless people from public spaces in their districts through policy advocacy and policing practices. BID involvement in social services is experienced by homeless people as an additional form of policing, surveillance, and harassment. Our findings raise several legal concerns. When BIDs spend property assessment revenue on local and statewide policy advocacy, they may violate California law. BID spending on policy advocacy with revenue from assessments of publicly owned properties raises special statutory and constitutional concerns. Further, BID policing practices may violate the legal rights of people experiencing homelessness and expose BIDs to criminal liability.
The findings and legal concerns inform several key recommendations, spelled out in more detail in the report. First, the State Legislature should amend state laws that grant BIDs broad authority to collect and spend property assessment revenue and to operate largely independent of government oversight. Second, city governments should provide more careful scrutiny and regulation of BID activities within their jurisdictions. Finally, BIDs should assume greater accountability to all district residents and visitors.
Keywords: homeless, homelessness, criminalization, poverty, business improvement district, downtown association, local government, neoliberalism
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