Report finds community benefit districts linked to displacement, harassment

An advocacy group is calling on The City to block business improvement districts from using tax dollars to address quality of life issues in San Francisco’s neighborhoods following a report linking the nonprofit groups to the harassment and displacement of homeless people.

Largely clustered in downtown San Francisco, a total of 16 BIDs, also known as community benefit districts (CBDs), currently operate throughout The City using property tax assessments — including from public properties — to fund improvements to public spaces, entertainment and security services, among other things.

But a report released Tuesday by the Policy Advocacy Clinic of UC Berkeley’s School of Law says these special districts often exclude homeless people from public spaces within their boundaries “through policy advocacy and policing practices.”

It is the first “systematic look at the role of BIDs in managing public space and homelessness in California,” said Jeff Selbin, the clinic’s director, who at a press conference held at City Hall on Tuesday explained that BIDs are “proposed by property owners, approved by cities, authorized by state law” and managed by private nonprofit organizations that “represent the interests of the business community.”

While BIDs exist in almost every large city in California — 189 were identified by the nearly two-year, student-led effort, though the state does not keep an official registry — their proliferation “as a growing influence in state affairs” in recent years has largely gone unnoticed among policy makers and the general public, said Selbin.

The state legislature first authorized BIDs in the 1960s, yet their numbers and influence grew dramatically after a 1994 law empowered them to collect revenue from property owners and operate largely independently.

According to the report, the rise of BIDs also correlated with an increase of anti -homeless laws — or laws that criminalize activities such as sitting, sleeping and panhandling in public spaces — throughout the state. Per the report, 13 BIDs were established and 61 anti-homeless laws enacted between 1975 and 1994 — jumping to 60 BIDs and 193 anti-homeless laws in the period from 1995 to 2014.

Christian Martin, executive director of the Lower Polk CBD, defended the districts, saying that “correlation does not equate with causation” in regard to the report.

The CBD, he said, uses a portion of its $800,000 budget to host a tenant-landlord clinic that takes “a non adversarial approach to potential disputes that could end up in homelessness.”

The CBD is also responsible for providing restroom and sanitation services, he said.

“We haven’t been accused of being gentrifiers because we do take more of a holistic approach,” he said, but added that “other CBDs may be different.”

“That’s the thing about the CBD model — they are very much dependent upon their governance and the participation of the people in the neighborhood,” he said.

Andrea Aiello, director of the Castro CBD, said that some 65 percent of the estimated $500,000 annual budget goes toward street cleaning efforts.

“We have people who sweep the sidewalks — each parcel gets swept at least twice a day,” said Aiello, adding that sanitation services are provided “365 day a year.”

“The purpose of the district is to provide services above and beyond the baseline level of services that The City provides,” she said.

In the 2016-17 fiscal year, the districts generated approximatley $16,359,029 collectively in revenue, which funded supplemental services including the removal of some 1,919,885 pounds of trash and 12,768 needles, according to numbers reported to The City’s Department of Economic and Workforce Development.

But a significant number of BIDs coordinate with local police departments and in some cases hire private security guards or volunteers to enforce anti-homeless laws. They also engage in policy advocacy efforts to influence “laws that target and disproportionately impact homeless people,” according to Shelby Nacino, one of the report’s authors.

“Almost half of the BIDs we surveyed listed policy advocacy as one of their main expenditures,” said Nacino.

She added that these efforts are in conflict with the state constitution, which requires property assessments to result in a special benefits to the properties, raising legal concerns.

Heavily-funded BIDs, such as the Union Square BID, use their revenue to hire private security guards known as hospitality ambassadors — red-jacketed BID staffers who serve as a “welcoming presence in the district” by giving directions and providing referrals, according to the district’s website.

According to homeless advocates, the ambassadors also direct the homeless out of the area.

“The ambassadors are like the public relations arm of the BIDs, that’s who they want everybody to see,” said Paul Boden, director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project. “You wouldn’t recognize that it’s all connected to this bureaucracy that is there for one purpose only — to gentrify the community and to improve the bottom line for property owners and businesses that are in it.”

According to the report, some 90 percent of the BIDs that responded to the survey indicated that they work with local police to enforce laws within their boundaries, while two-thirds implement paid or volunteer security patrols.

Because enforcement efforts are “informal,” it is difficult to measure BID policing efforts, said Nacino, adding that testimony from homeless survey respondents reported experiencing a “substantial surveillance and harassment” by both police and BID staff.

Street vendors and buskers are also targeted by increased enforcement within BIDs, according to the report.

In July, a woman was fired from her her job as an ambassador to the Yerba Buena CBD after a video of her harassing a street vendor went viral.

The report recommends that state lawmakers amend state laws that grant BIDs the authority to collect and spend assessments, to prohibit them from spending money on policy advocacy, and calls on city government to provide more careful scrutiny and regulation of their activities.

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