Patrolling and controlling our public spaces— sidewalks, streets and parks— Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) are privatizing our downtowns and main thoroughfares. Our public spaces are becoming corridors and shopping centers that are welcoming consumers with open arms and excluding everyone else. Most particularly impacted by this emerging trend are the houseless communities, who are seeing these areas to rest and sleep, free from harassment and criminalization, shrink.  

BIDs have been growing significantly across the United States. In California, BIDs have grown exponentially since the passage of the Business Improvement District Law of 1994, which expanded their budget, autonomy and authority. One hundred eighty-nine BIDs have been identified in 69 California cities surveyed. What began as a way to supplement public services within geographically defined boundaries has turned into massive beasts with large budgets, controlling public space and being significantly funded with tax dollars with little to no oversight.

Even though BIDs control large swaths of private and public land, many people do not know what a BID is. However, most people could probably point out the BID Ambassador and street cleaning teams, whose brightly colored uniforms are a common sight as they give tourists and shoppers directions, pick up garbage, and pressure wash sidewalks. A positive sight for many, but behind the scenes, BIDs have become powerful lobbies, crafting or supporting ballot initiatives and legislation to push anti-homeless loitering, sit-lie, sidewalk obstruction and other laws, ensuring the further criminalization of homeless people and compounding the day to day harassment of the houseless community. As shown below, the increase in BIDs directly correlates to an increase in local anti-homeless laws.  

BIDs are formed when business owners and/or property owners come together, petition for their establishment and get approval from the local government. Once the BID is established, the local government collects an assessment (tax) from all the property owners within the district, including the local government on publicly owned parcels. Funds from this tax are then turned over “to a nonprofit or to a quasi­-governmental agency run by the BID organization’s board of directors.” Some BIDs are run by business owners, who are primarily focused on bringing in more shoppers, while others are run by property owners, who are interested in attracting tenants who can pay higher rents for storefronts and/or housing. In effect, our local governments are turning taxpayer dollars over to private businesses, which use that money to create a more “safe and attractive” consumer environment. There are well over 1,000 of these special districts throughout the United States, whose main function is to drive poor and homeless people away from the neighborhood by hassling them, enforcing the sit-lie law and other discriminatory tactics, including contracting with the cops to step up enforcement of “quality of life” offenses, thus criminalizing homeless and poor people’s existence.

“It is my understanding that the people who ride around on bikes waking up the homeless are not supposed to put their hands on anyone… If I’m breaking the law a San Diego Police Officer is to do something about it — not some flunkie on a bike who has no badge, [and] won’t tell me his name,” stated a complaint filed by a homeless woman in San Diego, who was awakened by a BID security guard when he rode his bike into her.

To be clear, we are not just talking about houseless people when we talk about BIDs criminalizing non-consumers. BIDs do not want anyone in their districts from whom they cannot profit. This includes street vendors (“Permit Patty”), buskers and anyone who is hanging out in the neighborhood but not looking to purchase anything. Laws against sitting on the sidewalk and other such laws are always discriminately enforced, specifically with the goal of removing people, who are not wanted, from public spaces.  

From a study by UC Berkeley Law School Policy Advocacy Clinic conducted for the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP) to understand the effects Business Improvement Districts have on houseless communities in California, “BIDs violate California law when they spend property assessment revenue on policy advocacy… BIDs may violate additional state laws when they spend assessment revenue collected from public properties within their districts on policy advocacy…. BIDs and their agents may violate state, federal and international law through their policing practices, including the infringing on the legal rights of homeless people.” This study, “Homeless Exclusion Districts: How California Business Improvement Districts Use Policy Advocacy and Policing Practices to Exclude Homeless People from Public Space,” is the first of its kind containing groundbreaking research on how BIDs impact our local communities.

“Their entire job is to push homeless people out by harassment, pressure washing the streets, and calling the cops on folks. They are also hiring formerly homeless people to harass other homeless people and removing them from their economic corridors,” remarked Benjamin Donlon of Right To Survive in Portland, Oregon, on Clean and Safe, a 213-block BID that touts itself as the “oldest, largest and most successful BID in the nation” created by several adjacent BIDs, Clean and Safe controls all of downtown and Old Town Portland.

As General Dogon, an organizer from L.A. Skid Row can attest, “Cops will pull up and go right up to the BID guard and pull him to the side and have a conversation with them, and then walk over to the homeless person and tell them what they did wrong. The BID guards then began to think that they are the police and that they have the power. The community ambassador is really the community oppressor.”

A classic example of BID control of public space is the Urban Camping Ban in Denver, Colorado.  Terese Howard of Denver Homeless Out Loud said, “When the unauthorized camping ban was passed in Denver, The Downtown Business Partnership (a prominent BID in Denver) listed in their annual report that they were successful in the lobbying of the unauthorized camping ban.  Further, the Downtown Business Partnership supports enforcement of sit-lie laws, enforcement of unconstitutional panhandling bans, and further architecturally pushes homeless people out of their districts by removing benches, water fountains, bathrooms and trash cans.”

“BIDs will go Block by Block to ensure that every sidewalk, street and park serve to benefit the businesses that are in the district. Public Space has become nothing more than the hallways of a shopping mall, and if you are in that hallway you better be there to shop, or someone will chase you out,” said Paul Boden of WRAP.  

“With the release of the study,” Boden added, “we hope to bring greater awareness to how our shiny new shopping spaces are created, and what goes into their creation — mainly our tax dollars and our freedom.”