Community Benefit Districts Under Fire From Homeless Advocates

A three-year study of CBDs in San Francisco and beyond showed rampant anti-homelessness efforts funded by property owners' tax dollars.

As San Francisco faces a constant battle between homeless communities and law enforcement, a hidden, little-mentioned player got a shout-out this week. On Tuesday, homeless advocates gathered on the steps of City Hall with students and professors of UC Berkeley School of Law’s Policy Advocacy Clinic for the formal release of a three-year study on Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) and their negative effects on unhoused populations.

BIDs were started in the 1960s, as a way to revitalize — and let’s face it, often gentrify — low-income areas. In San Francisco, they’re more commonly known as Community Benefit Districts, or CBDs. The 16 neighborhoods that partake citywide range from wealthy Rincon Hill to the poverty-stricken Tenderloin, and while each has its own staff and priorities, the UC Berkeley study claims that their prevalence and unchecked power has had a disastrous effect on local anti-homelessness policies.

“Although they’re present in almost every city in California, researchers, policymakers and the public have paid little attention to their rise and growing influence in local and state affairs,” says Jeff Selbin, the director of the Policy Center and UC Berkeley School of Law, at a press conference Monday. “Our key finding is that they exclude homeless people from public space through aggressive policy advocacy and policing practices. This finding raises important legal — and I would say moral — concerns.”

The survey showed that most CBDs are funded by taxes on properties that reside within a specific district. All told, CBDs in California collect hundreds of millions of dollars each year, which the study claims are subsequently spent with little to no oversight.

Former-student Shelby Nacino, who contributed to the study, says that the rise of CBDs coincided with a sharp rise in the number of anti-homelessness laws. They are “effectively using taxpayer dollars to lobby local government,” she says. For example, Union Square’s CBD unsurprisingly lobbied in support of Proposition L, better-known as the sit/lie law, which passed in 2010.

In San Francisco, the numbers of districts are only increasing; plans were put forth in March of this year to create the city’s newest CBD in the Financial District. It’s estimated that a tax of 10 cents per square foot for owners of both residential and community property in the area could draw in $4 million annually, which would be spent on issues of homelessness and traffic congestion.

At the center of the criticism from local homeless advocates was the behavior of private security firms hired by CBDs to patrol neighborhoods, which are often assigned tasks such as moving people along who are sitting or sleeping on sidewalks.

Western Regional Advocacy Project Director Paul Boden says that CBDs “are part of a concerted and growing effort to erase from cities any sign of vast inequality while at the same time perpetuating it. The interests of BIDs and the public interest fundamentally conflict. BIDs work to manufacture the appearance of prosperity in the city square but that farce comes at the expense of basic human rights for the unhoused poor.”

Jack Rice, development director at the Coalition on Homelessness, said he’s interacted with private security before. While working one day, they said they spotted a security guard point a taser at the heart of an elderly homeless woman as she stood outside a business on Turk Street.

“I told him to put the taser down and that I would encourage her to move away from the storefront,” they said. “He refused and kept the taser pointed with the laser dot on her heart and said ‘get her out of here and I’ll put this down.’ He clearly had no problem with shooting her. It was very hard to de-escalate the situation.”

Rice says they later learned the guard was part of Legion Corporation, a private security firm paid for by the local Community Benefit District. Correction: Legion Corporation is not paid for or associated with the Tenderloin CBD. 

While CBDs undoubtedly do some good work in the community — Tenderloin CBD manages Safe Passage, which gets kids to school safety, and the Lower Polk CBD hosts a helpful tenant-landlord clinic — there is a point to be made about the privatization of security for public spaces, and the subsequent rules made around what, and who, are allowed to be in what district. With no accountability to anyone, the UC Berkeley study shows that CBDs have proven (in some cases) to become a financial resource for and haven of bigotry.

Next steps have yet to be announced, but there are rumblings behind the scenes of citywide legislation that would create some oversight of the San Francisco’s growing number of Community Benefit Districts. In the meantime, property owners paying taxes in these districts might want to look into exactly where they’re going.

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