It’s dispiriting to see business improvement districts attacked by an academic group in league with a homeless advocate.
Business improvement districts often do yeoman’s work that otherwise may go undone. Generally called BIDs, they are defined areas in which business property owners pay extra assessments that are used clean their neighborhoods, market their area, provide extra security, upgrade landscaping and that sort of task. In the Valley area, we have a dozen or more sizable property-based BIDs, including such places as Glendale, North Hollywood and Chatsworth.
But a recent study, which received a fair amount of attention, claims that business improvement districts systematically exclude the homeless from their neighborhoods. The study basically claims that business improvement districts not only shoo away homeless people but they try to influence policy makers to pass anti-homeless measures. For those alleged sins, BIDs should be exterminated, according to the study.
The study was done by the Policy Advocacy Clinic at UC Berkeley School of Law for a homeless advocacy group called the Western Regional Advocacy Project.
It’s hard to know where to begin on this “study.” The press release that accompanied it included grammatical and spelling errors, which gives you an indication of the level of intellectual rigor employed by the authors.
Let’s start with the charge that BIDs “violate California law when they spend property assessment revenue on policy advocacy…”
First, it’s very much an open question whether BIDs could be violating state law even if they were advocating policy positions. (By the way, where in California are all these anti-homeless policy positions?) BIDs could be doing nothing more than giving voice to their members’ interests. Which happens to be what pretty much every organization in America does.
It’s good to remember that BIDs are not really public entities. They are sanctioned by public bodies, yes, but they do not have the power to collect taxes. Property owners in a BID pay “assessments” to distinguish them from taxes.
This distinction is important because the study’s authors seem to conflate what’s public with what’s private, sometimes calling the assessments “taxes.” Indeed, it would be wrong for a private group to collect taxes and then advocate for the private group’s interests. But that’s not what’s happening. What is happening: Property owners are funding their own organization. The organization is reflecting the interests of its members.
Another part of the study claims “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.”
But it’s more nuanced that that. The homeless have a right to be on public property as does anyone, sure. But what about the business with its entry blocked by a tent encampment? Or when there are so many used needles and human waste around the business that customers and employees are scared off? There’s no hint in the study as to how the business owners’ rights are being infringed.
There’s also no hint that many BIDs work conscientiously to help homeless get the care and counseling they need.
It’s disappointing this study got much press attention at all. After all, it concluded by saying: “It’s important to take action and say NO to BIDs!” It exhorted readers to tell local governments to immediately disband BIDs and not to patronize businesses that support BIDs.
So with conclusions like those, it’s easy to declare that this was not exactly the kind of “study” that was done at arms-length, with a detached and impartial view. It’s also disappointing that UC Berkeley allowed its name to be attached to it.
BIDs exist often because of the failure of local governments. BIDs may be formed to provide services that a city or other local government is unable or unwilling to do adequately, such as picking up litter, painting over graffiti – and providing enhanced security.
Businesses in a BID – which are already paying taxes – have to pay an additional assessment to provide those services. And that’s another reason why it is dispiriting to have them trashed by a study with the name of a publicly funded school attached to it.
Charles Crumpley is editor and publisher of the Business Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.