A painting of a cityscape
(Mary Stackiewicz)

Dr. Phil, the affable problem-solving TV host, has a catch phrase he uses when defensive participants exhaust themselves telling him and the TV audience why they do things the way they do. He listens patiently. And then he says, “How’s that working for you?” 

It’s time for Berkeley, and any city with a “business improvement district” or BID, to ask the same question. How’s that working for you? Getting anything out of the special tax you’re paying to, for instance, the Downtown Berkeley Association to improve your business or community? 

A recent report from the Policy Advocacy Clinic at the UC Berkeley School of Law suggests that the answer is “no.” After examining 189 BIDs, it uses the City of Berkeley and more specifically the Downtown Berkeley Association (DBA) more than once as a case in point of how BIDs are actually counter-productive. 

From their inception, the local business improvement districts have lobbied locally and statewide for anti-panhandling, anti-sitting, and anti-belongings laws and sidewalk restrictions which primarily target the poor. 

The most recent Berkeley City Council agenda featured just such a new set of “enforcement priorities” from the mayor for the renovated BART Plaza which was, at least temporarily, withdrawn due to the 9th Circuit Court’s Martin vs. Boise decision, and its implications regarding such laws’ constitutionality. 

At the Berkeley City Council meeting on October 16, John Caner—the CEO of the Downtown Berkeley Association—stated that “we need to create a balance of civility in our public spaces.” This is reminiscent of the early United States, when politicians went to excruciating lengths to allow only property owners to vote, deliberately excluding women and people of color. A property-based business improvement district does the same thing, but is not even a pure democracy within those boundaries, since it is board-run and has no discernable oversight. In Berkeley, “ambassadors” aren’t fired for assaulting homeless people until there is public outcry. Election campaign malfeasance and repeated First Amendment and civil rights violations are yawned away by the Downtown Berkeley Association’s director and the City Manager overseeing their contract, which continues to focus on counter-productive anti-homeless ordinances and practices. 

Ignorance about homelessness might have been forgiven in the earliest iterations of the business district programs, which grew out of the Main Street revitalization programs funded by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the late 1970s. The focus was on historic preservation of small towns’ main streets, which suffered in competition with malls. 

But Berkeley now knows—and publicly acknowledges—that housing is the answer to homelessness. Many of our local unsheltered population work in town, have kids in school, and are stuck on a waiting list for honestly low-income housing, especially since “affordable” housing isn’t affordable. 

The irony is that the developers and real estate moguls who profited off of replacing once-affordable housing with developer profit-at-any-human-cost schemes sit without oversight on the board of the Downtown Berkeley Association (or are among the larger circle of previous board members.) Furthermore, the 501(c)(6) organization has a huge $1.2 million budget—all accumulated from fees which downtown businesses and taxpayers who technically own public buildings included in the footprint are obligated to pay. 

This means your business or you as a citizen may oppose anti-homeless laws and both unjust and pointless, but you are forced to underwrite them and pay the Downtown Berkeley Association to advocate for them at your local city council and lobby on their behalf at the state level as well. 

Business improvement districts are simply a map of an area within a city that mandates any businesses within that map pay fees involuntarily. Even public buildings—such as public schools— or public lands—such as courthouses and post offices—must pay fees to the BID. 

There is provision for a little bit of oversight, such as Section 19 of Assembly Bill 1319, from 1994: 

“(1) If the city council finds there has been misappropriation of funds, malfeasance, or a violation of law in connection with the management of the district, it shall notice a hearing on disestablishment.” (Assembly Bill No. 1381, Chapter 871, 1994.) 

But nobody has seen that legally mandated public hearing on malfeasance yet, even after the DBA’s ambassadors’ physical assault on homeless people a few years ago, which was videotaped and went viral. The Measure S campaign’s financial corruption, where homeless people were hired in a corrupt scandal to work against their own interests, only merited a weak public apology from the CEO John Caner, who remained in place. 

501(c)(6) organizations such as BIDs can engage in unlimited lobbying. Even political campaign activities are permitted—as long as they are not the organization’s primary activity. And nobody is evaluating the DBA. They write their own annual report. They hold an annual meeting. When they blow off your Public Records requests nobody cares. 

In this way, corporate interests—as opposed to small business interests—are not just well-represented in front of the Berkeley City Council and the City Manager, they’re in the back rooms where policy is made. Good luck asking such policy to visit the commissions where policy suggestions are supposed to be examined and vetted by interested citizens. I’ve been asking for years. 

It’s time. It’s time to recognize that the unaccountable, out-of-control business lobbies enabled by the 1994 legislation are pursuing a private agenda. Earlier iterations of the enabling BID laws were forced to be responsive to local concerns, but the 1994 legislation gave them almost unlimited power to tax, to lobby, and to control legislation. BIDs no longer represent but rather violate community interests. We have no idea what our town would look like, or even vote like, if it hadn’t had to weather decades of disinformation about poverty and housing from the publicly funded business improvement districts. Their distortions, their promotions of their own narrow interests at the expense of our shared values is hard to quantify. 

Let’s use Section 19 to respectfully request that corporate interests, disguised as small business interests, are well equipped to pay for their own stamps and stationary. And then join with local business interests, community arts groups, and nonprofits to honestly and creatively address community issues together. 

Carol Denney is a writer, poet, and musician who lives in the East Bay.