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Business Improvement Districts Take Over Cities: One-Dollar/One-Vote

Women from St. Mary’s Center in Oakland join the protest in San Francisco against the harassment of homeless people by Union Square BIDs. ©2015 Janny Castillo

By Jess Clarke

Imagine a government where voting power is directly proportionate to the value of the property one owns; where a majority ownership stake gives one the right to appoint leaders; where small businesses and homeowners don’t have a voice; and people without homes are exiled from the community.

You might think this is a dystopia still to come (after a few more Supreme Court decisions granting corporations ever more rights as persons), but unfortunately, it’s already a reality in hundreds of cities across the United States in so-called “Business Improvement Districts (BIDs).”

BIDs are private corporations governed by business property owners in a particular geographical region. They are chartered by state law and approved by local jurisdictions to take over many of the functions once served by local government. Better street cleaning, trash removal, street signage, streetscape improvements, and other maintenance tasks are part of the sales pitch BIDs make to cities to gain taxing power over commercial property within a district. BIDs are also typically empowered to hire poorly trained and poorly paid security guards to push undesirable people out of the area—supposedly the criminal element, but often poor and homeless people who aren’t deemed good customers by big business.

“According to the Business Improvement District, quality of life is more access to Macy’s and all these other shops without having to step around people and deal with human suffering,” notes Marcus Harris, director of Cities of Refuge in Denver, Colorado.

The creation of BIDs gives the big businesses, which already dominate local politics through Chambers of Commerce and political donations, yet another mechanism for changing city policies to reflect their interests. Homeless people are the first to feel the brunt of these privatization and gentrification initiatives but low-income tenants soon discover that they too are being pushed out. While incumbent homeowners may be the beneficiaries of a brief boom in the value of their homes, new families trying to move from apartments into houses are likely to be driven out to the periphery, further degrading the diversity of our communities.

“We are back to the days of Jim Crow laws and Anti-Okie laws,” says Lisa Marie Alatorre of the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness. “The BIDs are promoting discriminatory policing practices to simply remove people deemed unwanted from certain parts of town.”

Origin and Spread of the Business Improvement District

The first significant governance by a BID in the U.S. came in the wake of a governmental collapse in New York City in the 1970s, when Grand Central Station and other key mercantile hubs were given over to privatized governance.

BIDs are granted the power to assess commercial property owners within a district with what amounts to a real estate tax, collected on their behalf by the local government. Voting power in a BID is based on the amount of tax paid, not the number of businesses in a district.

In some cases, BIDs, which are privately managed entities, also take on the land-use planning and capital investments typical of government. They can control millions of dollars of public tax revenues and expenditures—ranging from $18,000 to over $27 million in the case of the San Francisco Tourism Improvement District. While most BIDs file some sort of report to their city council once a year, research into the actual practice shows city councils largely uncritical of plans created by the business-led boards of BIDs and rarely, if ever, overrule them.1

BIDs are quickly spreading from state to state and laying the groundwork for ever more direct corporate governance at the municipal level. In California, which leads the country in BIDs with almost 250 in downtown and suburban areas statewide,2 a BID can be created with the support of 51 percent of the business taxpayers in a district. According to a 2011 report based on a census conducted by the International Downtown Association and professors Carol Becker and Seth Grossman, there were over 1000 BIDs in the U.S. and their numbers are growing rapidly.

Grossman, who is the founder and director of the Rutgers’ Institute of Business District Management, sees Business Districts as improving government accountability by shifting the taxing and spending decisions about a neighborhood to a level closer to those who have a stake in it—the business owners. They act, in effect, as a political action group.

“Prior to the ‘60s, the Chamber of Commerce was a political organization. In fact, almost all elected officials were put forth by the Chamber of Commerce. Business and government were almost hand-in-glove, way more than it is now.  Business people, because of suburbia, began to move out of the urban areas...  and they couldn’t vote and they couldn’t run for office. So they lost their political power in town.”

You Are Either Customer or Contagion

In San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley, the BIDs that control and patrol the downtown city centers have aggressive anti-homeless policies enforced in a joint effort with the local police departments. The City of Berkeley’s harassment of homeless people hit new lows in spring 2015, when its Downtown Business Association (DBA) employees were caught on video assaulting homeless people as the City Council launched a new campaign to criminalize homelessness, again. In a widely viewed YouTube video taken March 19, 2015, Berkeley “ambassadors” beat two homeless men they chased off the main street into an alley.3

Grossman is frank in his evaluation of why BIDs aim to move homeless people out of the districts. “It’s a customer service district. So they are concerned about customers. They don’t see the homeless people as customers... If they don’t see you as a customer you are in trouble... You are either a customer or a contagion.”

While granting that BIDs don’t represent the whole population, Grossman sees them as an improvement over bribery through campaign contributions. “[If] all they can do is “pay to play” then it becomes so self-centered. They don’t have any overall community interests. They are just trying to save their own ass or their business.”

He sees BIDs as a way of reconnecting business and government. “Aren’t they getting the ear of the Mayor almost the way the old Chambers of Commerce did? Chambers of Commerce are flaccid, but BIDs are exerting more and more political power. They are a public-private partnership.”

“They are of government, but they are not in it,” says Grossman. “[And] it’s in their best interest to get along with their public partner really, really well.”

California BIDs Lead Anti-Poor Campaigns

The Berkeley DBA has been doing a good job of organizing for what they see as their collective interest. In mid-March, a package of ordinances backed by the DBA went before the City Council in an underhanded effort to revive the core of the so called “sit-lie” law that Berkeley community organizations convinced voters to reject just two years earlier.  In that campaign, BID CEO John Caner was named in a complaint eventually sustained by the city’s Fair Political Practices Commission, for campaign finance violations that included paying $5,530 in $100 and $50 cash payments to homeless and formerly homeless “poll workers” who were deceived into handing out slate cards urging a vote for the measure that would have criminalized them.

Street protests and interventions by local faith leaders and other civil rights advocates have managed to prevent the immediate adoption of the new anti-poor laws, but BIDs across the state are maintaining constant pressure to deprive homeless people of their human and civil rights.

In Los Angeles, years of successful legal challenges brought by community organizations, such as Los Angeles Community Action Network (LACAN), and the ACLU, overturned five different sleeping bans and property seizure laws as unconstitutional. But in June 2015, the City Council once again passed another set of anti-poor laws targeting homeless people4 and the LAPD is back to business-as-usual, making sweeps in the Downtown Industrial District BID, which is run by the Central City East Association (CCEA).

CCEA is just one of many business lobbying groups that is helping itself to local taxing authority in LA, which now boasts nine BIDs in just the downtown area—three of which overlap or abut the Skid Row area.

According to Curbed (a real news website), LAPD Sergeant Robert Bean told the homeless people as he was rousting them out, “People pay a lot now to live here, they expect services from the city.”5 Of course, the service they seek is to drive the homeless out of their rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods.

Taking people’s bedrolls, shopping carts, and tents is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to police actions. In their 2010 study of increased police presence in skid row, LA CAN reported that the so-called Safer Streets initiative—intense street enforcement of minor infractions like drinking and drug possession—leads to far greater numbers of encounters between homeless people and the police with an astonishing 54 percent of the 200 homeless residents of downtown LA reporting being arrested in the previous year (compared to a 5 percent rate for California overall).6

With increased police contact comes the predictable excessive use of force that is now widely reported across the country. In March 2015, the LAPD killed a homeless man on Skid Row—pursuing him to his tent, tearing him out of it and shooting him dead in front of numerous onlookers and several cameras.7 Two months later, on May 5, they killed another man in Venice who committed the crime of running from police while homeless.8

While Police Chief Charlie Beck and Mayor Garcetti made apologetic gestures in public, the LA city government banded together with others in the League of Cities to attack homeless rights bills in the California legislature.

Right to Rest Blocked by League of Cities and Business Groups

In California, Colorado and Oregon, where members of the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP) ran a coordinated campaign for “Right to Rest,” BIDs working through the California Downtown Association and the business-dominated League of Cities blocked the legislation.

One of the more absurd arguments put forward by the California League of Cities warns that ensuring the Bill of Rights for homeless and poor people might result in a homeless person claiming protection under the Second Amendment to defend their tent by force of arms.9

Of course, we should not need enabling legislation to extend the Bill of Rights to poor and homeless people. We should all be protected by all constitutional requirements. In a court case in Boise, Idaho, even the current Justice Department has signed on to a brief that characterizes as “cruel and unusual punishment” (banned by the 8th Amendment), the practice of arresting people for sleeping in public spaces.

Community groups continue to fight in the courts, the legislature and above all, in the streets. In late September, WRAP and other groups took the fight to the International Downtown Association’s major annual conference in San Francisco. (See box p. 91)“This is about commercializing and applying neoliberal economics to our communities and the only way to stop that is to say ‘hell no, we are fighting back,’” vows Paul Boden, executive director of WRAP.


Big Businesses Use Broken Windows Policing to Gentrify and Exclude

Business Improvement Districts and business associations, such as the Chamber of Commerce, are very powerful lobbies that advocate the criminalization of homelessness and the use of police power to maintain the core fabric of racial and economic segregation in many cities across the United States. 

WRAP panel on “Broken Windows” policing.  ©2015 Jess ClarkeReal estate owners, developers and large retail businesses are the biggest beneficiaries of the “Broken Windows Policing” and “Stop and Frisk” approaches to maintaining order in public spaces. Segregation of the poor and people of color out of areas where property values are increasing or already high, is typically accompanied by methods of police enforcement that criminalize poor people of color’s very presence.

As police murders and abuse stir a popular movement for police accountability, corporate interests continue to preserve and expand their investments in urban centers by shifting police responsibility to private-public entities where corporate interests rule more directly.  Business Improvement Districts are one such mechanism.

At a panel discussion organized by the Western Regional Advocacy Project speakers address the BIDs increasing power in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver and other cities and how policing is connected to racial and economic segregation, gentrification and mass incarceration.

Jess Clarke is project director and editor at Reimagine! and is digital publishing coordinator at Street Spirit newspaper where this story first appeared.



1.   Goktug Morcol and Ulf Zimmermann, Business Improvement Districts: Research, Theories, and Controversies (CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group, 2008), Chapter 2, pp 27-50.

2.   Carol Becker, PhD and Seth Grossman, PhD, 2011 Business improvement Districts: Census and National Survey. Summary available at, Powerpoint:

3.   Bob Offer-Westort, “The Wrong Men Were Sent to Jail in Berkeley,” Street Spirit, April 2015.

4.   The Times Editorial Board, “Where is L.A.’s urgency in the homelessness crisis?” Los Angeles Times, June 21, 2015.

5.   Adrian Glick Kudler, “LAPD Hassling Homeless People On Behalf of Rich Downtown Gentrifiers,” CURBED, August 24, 2015.

6.   Los Angeles Community Action Network, “Community-Based Human Rights Assessment: Skid Row’s Safer Cities Initiative,” December 2010.

7.   Gale Holland, Jack Dolan and Kate Mather, “LAPD fatal shooting of man caught on tape,” Los Angeles

      Times, March 1, 2015. Video of shooting:

8.   Michael Martinez, “LAPD chief concerned if officer’s fatal shooting unarmed man was ‘justified’,” CNN, May 7, 2015.

9.         Jessica Bartholow, Paul Boden, Judith Larsonand and Elisa Della-Piana: Letter to Transportation and Housing Committee chairman Jim Beall, California State Senate, RE: SB 608 (Liu) Sponsor and Support – Response to League of Cities Opposition.