The Problem With Business Improvement Districts

Business Improvement District
A BID employee cleans a city sidewalk (credit: Soapbox Media)
Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) usually take on services, such as street cleaning, security, beautification and, sometimes, use of public space in an urban shopping district. If enough business owners in a district don’t oppose the creation of the BID, the city passes legislation to allow its creation.

On the surface BIDs sound great: streets are cleaned, storefronts improve, lighting and streetscapes are installed all in hopes to bring in more shoppers to the district. But there are a number of problems with BIDs.

For one, BIDs are an undemocratic, quasi-public nonprofit with a board typically made of business owners, some of which may not live in the district they control. Max Rivlin-Nadler’s scathing piece on BIDs for the New Republic points out, “Once the city passes legislation allowing the BID, the area affected exits democratic control, with major decisions—including street cleaning, homelessness outreach, and use of space—determined by the BID.”

What’s more, the effect that BIDs have on current shop owners can be devastating. BIDs can bring about some of the worst aspects of gentrification, like the proliferation of chain stores and restaurants. Rivlin-Nadler continues, “BIDs have been found to drive up commercial rents in the immediate aftermath of their formation; they also levy a mandatory fee from property owners every year, a cost that’s usually handed down to tenants.”

Even worse, BIDs, according to an study in the Journal of Planning Education and Research, “have indifferent impacts on economic growth,” and concludes that “BIDs may not always be the best policy for areas with significant levels of independent retail.”

BIDs are rapidly becoming the go-to tool for urban renewal across the United States. There are now more than 1,000 BIDs in almost every state. If this trajectory continues, we must democratize BIDs, protect small businesses and use them only where needed.

The Key to Economic Development: Getting Back to Basics

Pop-up park on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia (Credit: M. Fischetti for Visit Philadelphia)

A recent quote about Akron, from the “62.4 Report” written by the Greater Ohio Policy Center, struck me: “While the city has done a good job of building and marketing itself as a great place to work and play, it has done less to boost itself as a good place to live.”

Akron, certainly, isn’t alone in the problem. Many cities, include Philadelphia where I live, focus a lot of their attention on boosting pop-up parks, a first-class restaurant scene, bike-share systems, and other programs to attract “millennials” (what I think is coded language for well-off, young, white professionals and not a generation as a whole).

City leaders and officials focus on these kinds of programs because they’re relatively cheap and easy to accomplish. Their quick to get done before the next election, and they make young so-called urbanists happy.

But, according to new research by Gary Sands of Wayne State University and Laura Reese of Michigan State University, these schemes may have little economic impact. What city leaders should focus on, instead, are things like education, safe drinking water, a good transit system, and public safety. If a city can’t get the basics right, it won’t be good places to live.

According to the Detroit Free Press, “[Sand and Reese] have completed new research that calls into question almost all of the economic development tactics that Rust Belt cities have thrown at decline over the years, including casinos and programs aimed at luring the so-called creative class. They found little or no relationship between those trendy investments and broader community-wide economic growth.”

The researchers aren’t arguing that pop-ups and bike lanes are bad, and neither would I. But it cities with a poverty or education crisis, they do little to improve the overall economy. I’m so happy to see city leaders and researchers starting to think longer into the future.

Sands and Reese are working on a book, which should come out in 2017, on this topic that I cannot wait to read.

Dispatches Against Displacement Shows Us S.F.’s Housing War Is Winnable

Dispatches Against Displacement

In September 2013, San Francisco artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña wrote an open letter to fellow artist Rene Yanez, considered “Royalty” of the Mission art scene, who was being evicted from his home of 35 years.

I don’t even know how to begin this letter…we are outraged! All of us, artists, writers and activists in San Francisco are outraged that you Padrino, your beloved Cynthia, our dear Yolanda Lopez and Rio Yanez, the whole Yanez-Wallis-Lopez clan, puro Chicano royalty, are being evicted! After 35 years in your home, and just when you and your loved ones have become ill and vulnerable, the base from which you’ve supported a lifetime of making art and promoting the art careers of so many others is being cruelly pulled out from under you. You are being physically and culturally evicted, along with so many others in San Francisco. It’s an outrage, it’s tragic, and sadly it’s all too common in this merciless city that seems to care nothing for those who’ve helped to make it what it once wanted to be.

The anger and betrayal felt in this letter is not uncommon in San Francisco. The city has gone through an extreme amount of change. And while seemingly everyone has a idea for how to fix San Francisco’s housing crisis, few can match the history, context and solutions that James Tracy outlines in his latest book, Dispatches Against Displacement: Field Notes from San Francisco’s Housing Wars.

Dispatches excels in three main areas: first-person accounts by those affected by displacement, a clear connection between neoliberal housing policy and outcomes, and possible solutions to San Francisco’s housing crisis.

In Dispatches, powerful stories, like Guillermo’s above, are featured throughout. The fear, anger and despair people feel is chronicled in striking detail. Take, for example, Tracy’s explanation of Clinton’s “One Strike and You’re Out” law and its affects narrated by housing activist Bethola Harper:

In 1996, President Clinton signed into law a bill designed to accelerate evictions in public housing. Dubbed “One Strike and You’re Out” it was touted as a way to stop drug trafficking and violent crimes in public housing developments. Since One Strike was a civil procedure, tenants could be evicted even if they were acquitted of criminal charges. In effect, what One Strike did was provide an excuse for eviction based solely on innuendo and allegations of criminal activity. Housing authorities across the country evicted entire households based on the arrest of one member. In one case, a grandmother was brought to court after her grandson, whom she hadn’t seen in several years, was arrested on drug possession charges in the neighboring county.

So what was the outcome of such a law?

North Beach tenant activist Bethola Harper explained the game: “We learned that we couldn’t sign anything without it being used against us. We learned that agreements we made with the Housing Authority were meant to be broken as soon as they could demonstrate enough tenant support to satisfy HUD. Most importantly, we learned never to air out any differences in front of the city. If we had to argue, we needed to meet amongst ourselves to work out our own problems. They were always looking for ways to spread rumors and pit the races against each other. The end goal was to get as many of us out, and pay for as little relocation as possible.”

As with the One Strike law, Tracy keenly ties together policy and outcome. Take Tracy’s explanation of the devastating public housing policy, HOPE VI:

In the late 1980s, then-Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp announced the creation of the Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE) program, which would tear down public housing and rebuild it. HOPE was intended to move the feds out of housing provision by transferring ownership to resident cooperatives. Kemp’s cocktail was infused with doses of privatization and austerity, yet it wasn’t a roadmap for displacement. Homes would have to be replaced on a one-to-one basis. It assumed and allowed for most residents to return. If the federal government, like a father in a divorce, left the house, it at least tried to leave it in good working order.


Since 1992, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has awarded 446 HOPE VI grants in 166 cities. A 2004 study found that only 21,000 units had been built to replace the 49,828 demolished units.5 In other words, only forty-two percent of the demolished public housing has been replaced. Other estimates put the loss higher, suggesting fifty percent of the public housing stock has been slashed.

What’s more:

Democratic president Bill Clinton removed most of the hope from the HOPE program when, in 1995, requirements for resident participation, return, and unit replacement were stricken from the federal record. Smaller developments meant that not every family even had a place to return. In reality, what often happened was that the reconstruction was delayed or abandoned altogether, or the ‘mixed income’ residency requirements caused the poorest of the tenants-those most in need of subsidies‚ and lose their homes.

Housing activists are regularly accused of being void of solutions and anti-development zealots who want the neighborhood to stay bad. Sharply avoiding this characterization, Tracy explains policies and practices that would have, or will, preserve and create affordable housing in neighborhoods facing gentrification, not on in San Francisco, but everywhere.

“The most tragic part of HOPE VI is that it was a perfect example of how ideology stole an opportunity to put a meaningful dent in national poverty,” writes Tracy. “The majority of the alternatives were not complicated or even very expensive. First, Congress could have easily maintained the one-for-one replacement requirements jettisoned in 1995, and guaranteed all residents the right to return, if desired. The influx of many millions of dollars of public money should have been used in an aggressive jobs program giving residents the chance to advance in the trades, as well as access to post-construction job opportunities.”

Beyond policy, Tracy advocates for tools like participatory budgeting, and says, “it engages everyday people and builds a basis of social solidarity; it can, under the right circumstances expose, rather than obscure, the political economy of cities.”

Urban policy in the United States has been trapped in the cage of private market logic. In practical terms, this means that development that serves the interests of the majority of people will be secondary to that serving the minority. It is important for organizers to fight for fundamental changes in how housing is shared, rather than just advocating for more rights in the existing balance of power. Today, little affordable housing is built unless a greater amount of luxury housing is first produced.

Dispatched Against Displacement is a refreshing reminder that San Francisco’s housing crisis didn’t happen by accident (it was policy-driven), and that market-based, supply-side arguments simply won’t do. I loved this book and will come back to it year after year to remind myself that the struggle for the right to housing, and the city, is in full force and we will win.