Business improvement districts have a complicated relationship with people experiencing homelessness
Walking along any street in downtown Washington, D.C., you’re likely to see someone clad in a red uniform jacket.
And they’re likely beautifying the street, giving directions, or aiding someone experiencing homelessness. A bystander might assume this is a government employee, but the red uniform signifies a “SAM,” a.k.a. a Safety, Hospitality, and Maintenance worker for the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District.
Business improvement districts (BIDs), funded by taxes collected from businesses in the designated area, serve to increase property values, attract businesses to the office space, and drive population growth. BIDs do this in a variety of ways, such as hiring “ambassadors” to patrol the streets and help passersby, cleaning up trash, doing yard work, and maintenance and holding community events.
Despite the fact that BIDs are responsible for many positive projects, a history of tension with homeless advocates has shown they can also cause harm to homeless people living in the area. Initial criticism of BIDs became public in the 1980s and 90s, when the New York Times exposed a “goon squad” in New York, working for the Grand Central Partnership BID. The workers were told to beat up anyone living unsheltered on the streets if they did not move. While this was an extreme example of violence against the homeless community, BIDs have since been scrutinized for other actions like anti-camping ordinances and encampment cleanups.
People on the street
A recent report from UC-Berkeley Law analyzed 11 BIDs in different California cities and found these private organizations were responsible for discriminating against homeless people, forcing them off the streets and lobbying for laws that criminalized behavior associated with homelessness. The report called them “homeless exclusion districts.”
Because of these practices, members of the local homeless communities tended not to trust or engage with any social services the California BIDs provided, which further excluded them. “They look at us like we’re trash,” said one homeless man quoted in the report.
D.C. BIDs have had more mixed responses from members of the homeless community and their advocates. One key difference between California and the District is D.C. city code prohibits BIDs from lobbying on legislative or administrative actions regarding property. And several D.C. BIDs and “Main Streets programs employ people who have experienced homelessness by contracting their clean teams through Central Union Mission.
Nevertheless, BIDS remain conscientious of their image. One D.C. BID employee contacted for this story accidentally copied Street Sense Media on a note to their supervisor, writing “Should I engage with them at all? My first instinct is to not respond.”
The NoMa Business Improvement District has been criticized this year since embarking on construction related to a $2 million light-based art installation for three underpasses in the BID, which required the homeless people taking shelter in those underpasses to move on. At the first site, on M Street NE just outside the NoMa-Gallaudet U Metro station, the D.C. government conducted an “immediate disposition” in February 2018, forcing the people encamped there to move with limited notice and make way for the art installation.
[Read more: D.C. clears out homeless camps ahead of art display]
“I was angry. It didn’t look like something so needed … it was kind of ridiculous,” said Gabriela Sevilla, a third-year law student at Howard University who lives within the NoMa BID.
“It could have been done in a more compassionate way. They pushed a bunch of people out to do an art installation, which I don’t know how it serves the community either,” Sevilla said.
An immediate disposition notice at the K Street NE camp. Photo by Jake Maher
NoMa BID president Robin Eve-Jasper pointed out that the cleanup was conducted by city government, not NoMa BID.
“Tragically, there isn’t a single simple solution that will serve all people who are encamped,” Eve-Jasper said. “We do assist with outreach, trying to help connect people with services through the city or private service providers. We have also helped warn them about the dangers posed by certain drugs circulating, like the bad batches of K2 that killed and injured so many this summer.
[Read more: K2 overdoses spiked for a second time this year]
“Finally, we help alleviate the unsafe and unsanitary conditions in the underpasses by removing trash and periodically washing away dirt and excrement.”
The cost of housing
Driving up property values increases rental income for landlords and tax revenue for the area, which may appeal to wealthy companies and individuals. However, increased costs put both housing and office space out of reach for low-income households, small businesses and nonprofit tenants. Higher costs can also be used to justify higher price tags on goods and services from affected businesses.
“BIDs tend to represent property owners who have a vested interest in increasing property values and who overwhelmingly tend to oppose measures promoting affordable housing,” said Ben Holtzman, a scholar focused on housing advocacy.
For example, The Capitol Riverfront BID, according to their annual report, has set goals to steeply increase income and property tax revenue, based on the fact that “property values and household incomes” have increased within BID boundaries. In the Golden Triangle, the average income of someone living in the BID was $108,000 in 2017, and average income of someone living within a half-mile is $123,000.
Some BIDs do make efforts to allow for affordable housing. In Mount Vernon Triangle — the most expensive neighborhood for renting an apartment in D.C. according to RentCafe data — the Mount Vernon Triangle Community Improvement District opened the “Plaza West” affordable housing complex in October. It is specifically designed for low-income grandparents who are raising their grandchildren and older residents making 30-40 percent of the median income.
These BIDs have extraordinary resources and “the power to shape urban spaces,” adds Holtzman. “While BIDs focus on commercial areas, commercial and residential areas in dense cities are closely concentrated and often directly overlap onto one another.”
New research released on Dec. 11 by the real estate company Zillow explicitly tied increased rent burdened to increase risk of homelessness. “Communities where people spend more than 32 percent of their income on rent can expect a more rapid increase in homelessness,” according to the report, which specifically noted D.C. is “in the cluster where worsening affordability is most likely to affect homeless numbers.”
Based on federal guidelines for public housing, any expense on housing above 30 percent of your income is considered “burdened.” Zillow’s research estimates that if the average rent burden increases by two percentage points in the District, approximately 40 more people will fall into homelessness.
But neighborhoods and local businesses want the kind of support and investment that business improvement districts can provide, according to David Whitehead, the housing organizer for the nonprofit blog and advocacy organization Greater Greater Washington.
Business storefronts in the Dupont BID. Photo by Eric Falquero
To his point, Bisnow reported that there were five new BIDs starting to organize in DC last year, including the Dupont Circle BID.
If the housing in an area that is about to receive investment or development is cheaper, Whitehead said the city must move quickly to use covenants, the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, and other affordability preservation strategies to ensure it remains affordable while neighborhood land values rise, thus building wealth for the owners.
“We can invest in neighborhoods and business and maintain opportunities for low-cost housing,” Whitehead insisted. “It’s hard but doable. It takes a public sector that can keep pace with the private market and do those preservation deals early and often.”
Investing in solutions
The Downtown D.C. BID is the largest of 11 business improvement districts in the city — including the Dupont Circle BID that launched Nov 29 — and seems to have more positive experiences with the homeless community.
According to Gerald Anderson, a Street Sense Media vendor who sells his papers downtown, the street outreach workers employed by Downtown D.C. give directions and assistance, but only when people need it. “They are good people,” Anderson said as he waved to a familiar face in a red jacket.
Four SAM workers were approached by Street Sense Media for an interview but said they are not allowed to talk to the press regarding their work. Downtown D.C. refused Street Sense Media’s request to interview a SAM, instead providing quotes from the department of communications.
The Downtown D.C. BID has also partnered with Pathways to Housing D.C., a nonprofit that provides permanent housing and comprehensive medical services for people living on the street and in shelters. According to the Downtown D.C. website, the BID has a 16-year history of outreach to the homeless community and has been partnered with Pathways to Housing since 2007. The Downtown D.C. BID funds a Pathways to Housing outreach team to provide services to people living unsheltered in the business improvement district.
In 2017, the BID hired a director of homeless services to manage a new downtown homeless services center. Originally slated when hypothermia season began Nov. 1, the center is now expected to open in January 2019, according to Sean Barry, communications director the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services.
“It will serve as a daytime drop–in center with a goal of connecting individuals to housing services,” said Rachel Hartman, director of communications for the Downtown D.C. BID.
According to Hartman, the BID employs more than 80 ambassadors, some of whom are formerly homeless. “Select members of our team receive extra training on homeless services to help support individuals and connect them to services. They will play a larger role when the center opens,” Hartman added.
The Downtown D.C. BID spent approximately $800,000 of its more than $10 million annual budget on homeless services in 2017. This money went toward moving individuals into housing, providing outreach services, supporting a weekly services center for at-risk youth, and hiring the director of homeless services.
Slightly more — over 11 percent — was spent on marketing and communications for the BID. However, the majority of the budget goes towards maintenance, safety & hospitality operations.
The director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit advocacy organization, praised Downtown D.C. work as compared to other BIDs nationally. The Downtown D.C. BID has dedicated themselves to working with the homeless community, NCH interim director Megan Hustings said.
The Golden Triangle BID — which encompasses the area bordered by Dupont Circle, Washington Circle, H Street and 16th Street — has followed in the Downtown D.C. BID’s footsteps and funded a Pathways to Housing outreach team to operate in their district for several years.
Other BIDs in the District operate ambassador programs, including the NoMa BID and The Capitol Hill BID, and have staff trained in homeless outreach services, CPR, and the history and geography of the area. However, the main function of these groups is general safety, not homelessness outreach. Thus far, Downtown D.C. and Golden Triangle are the only BIDs in the District of Columbia funding a homeless outreach group like Pathways to Housing.
“The situation in D.C. is very different than the situation outlined in the report in California. I think Downtown D.C. has a great partnership with the homeless community,” Hustings said.
The new homeless daytime service center will be located at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, 1313 New York Ave. NW.