Houselessness advocacy group protests business improvement districts

Houselessness advocacy group Western Regional Advocacy Project held a rally on Sept. 18 in Pioneer Courthouse Square to launch a campaign against business improvement districts—divisions of cities in which businesses are required to pay an additional tax used to fund projects within the district including cleaning, security, capital improvements and construction of public walkways.

WRAP organizers said in a press release that BIDs contribute to “continued criminalization of houseless individuals in Portland.”

“Patrolling and controlling our public spaces, sidewalks, streets and parks, BIDs are privatizing our downtown and main thoroughfares,” the press release continued. “Our public spaces are becoming corridors and shopping centers that are welcoming consumers with open arms and excluding everyone else. Most particularly impacted by this emerging trend are the houseless communities that see areas to rest and sleep—free from harassment and criminalization—shrinking.”

Organizers said the rally was in response to the Aug. 22 release of a University of California Berkeley study prepared for WRAP about the effects of BIDs on houseless communities in California.

According to the study, the California state legislature first authorized BIDs when it passed the Parking and Business Improvement Area Law of 1965, with the goal of revitalizing struggling urban areas. Since that time, the state has authorized three similar statutes: the Parking and Business Improvement Area Law of 1989, the Property and Business Improvement Act of 1994 and the Multifamily Improvement District Law of 2004.

BIDs—also known as business improvement areas, business revitalization zones, community improvement districts, enhanced services districts, special services areas and special improvement districts—have expanded throughout California and across a number of cities in the United States. Portland’s current BIDs include the Downtown Clean and Safe District and the Lloyd District.

Researchers found BIDs in California engage in advocacy on both state and local levels in order to enact, strengthen and maintain anti-houseless laws, and spend assessment revenue collected from properties including publicly owned buildings on anti-houseless policy advocacy. Additionally, the number of BIDs established after 1994 correlates with a rise in the amount of anti-homeless laws.

“BIDs exclude homeless people from public spaces in their districts through policy advocacy and policing practices,” the study’s executive summary states. “BID involvement in social services is experienced by homeless people as an additional form of policing, surveillance and harassment.”

As rally organizers began to set up their table, microphone and tent in the square before the rally, security personnel informed them that without a permit, they would not be allowed to rally with their equipment. Organizers opted to continue the rally without equipment as speakers representing WRAP-affiliated organizations Sisters of the Road, Right 2 Survive, Street Roots, Portland Copwatch, Portland Tenants United and Portland Jobs with Justice addressed approximately 50 ralliers gathered in the square.

The rally concluded with a march from Pioneer Square to Sisters of the Road cafe on NW 6th Ave. and NW Davis St., where organizers held a strategy meeting outlining their next steps for the campaign.

“The business improvement districts are pretty bad,” said Benjamin Donlon, a representative from Right 2 Survive and Sisters of the Road. “Historically, they’ve been the main force for gentrification in a lot of downtown corridors. They’ve been pushing out people left and right and utilizing urban renewal zones to enforce racist policies.”