Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

It's time to end punitive anti-homeless policies

By Jeffrey Selbin

In 2010, they actively campaigned for a San Francisco ballot measure to restrict sitting or lying on public sidewalks, and in 2012, their CEO was the major financial contributor to the campaign for a similar law in Berkeley.

In 2013, they pushed for a new sit-lie law in Chico, and in 2016, they urged Sacramento to expand its aggressive anti-panhandling ordinance, which the city passed and then a federal judge blocked.

At the state level, they opposed a Homeless Bill of Rights and a Right to Rest Act in the California Legislature.

Who is lobbying so hard to enact, preserve, and expand local laws that target or disproportionately punish homeless people across the state?

A new study by the UC Berkeley Policy Advocacy Clinic documents how Business Improvement Districts engage actively in these kinds of efforts to exclude homeless people from public spaces.

Homelessness has reached crisis proportions in many California cities, primarily because of decades of government divestment from affordable housing and other public services. While business owners have a legitimate interest in helping to address the crisis, our findings suggest that these districts have only exacerbated the problem by trying to exclude homeless people from public space without addressing the causes of homelessness.

Homeless advocates have been raising the alarm about the role of these districts in criminalizing homelessness for many years, but the proliferation of these city-approved private entities has gone largely unnoticed by the public.

The clinic study is the first to document how Business Improvement Districts are increasingly using their resources to influence the management of public space and homelessness in California.

Funded by compulsory property assessments, the districts were authorized by the California Legislature in the 1960s as a form of public-private urban renewal. In the early years, they were managed by cities and funded by business license fees and sponsored promotional events and holiday decorations.

In 1994, state lawmakers authorized these districts to collect property assessments, spend revenue on things like security and sanitation, and operate with little oversight.

The number of Business Improvement Districts increased rapidly after the Legislature gave them more money, power and independence.

In our study, we identified almost 200 Business Improvement Districts in California’s largest cities, where they annually collect and spend hundreds of millions of dollars.

Notably, some district revenue comes from assessments on publicly-owned properties. For example, the San Francisco Civic Center district collects more than half of its revenue from government buildings. In other words, taxpayers are footing the majority of the bill.

In addition to aggressive policy advocacy, the districts use their increased revenue and public dollars to coordinate closely with police and to hire private security to enforce anti-homeless laws. These policing practices take place without the oversight and accountability mechanisms that normally apply to local law enforcement.

Although some districts refer homeless people to social services, we found little evidence that such efforts help homeless people. On the contrary, homeless people we interviewed said they often experience their interactions with district employees as a form of surveillance and harassment.

The Legislature should rein in district authority to collect and spend property assessment revenue. Lawmakers can limit districts’ authority to tax publicly owned properties, prohibit districts from engaging in advocacy and policing, and strengthen local oversight.

City government should scrutinize district advocacy and policing practices. Cities can reject applications from districts that propose to spend revenue on anti-homeless activities and close down districts that violate the rights of homeless people.

The Business Improvement Districts should assume greater accountability to everyone in their districts, including homeless people. They should end all anti-homeless policies and practices, and should collaborate with homeless people, advocates, and service providers.

Cross-posted from the San Francisco Chronicle