Improvement or exclusion

Downtown Sacramento Partnership got police to change the boundaries of a patrol beat to match those of a business district, one email revealed

Homeless activist James Lee “Faygo” Clark speaks during a press conference about the privatization of public spaces in front of City Hall on September 18.

Homeless activist James Lee “Faygo” Clark speaks during a press conference about the privatization of public spaces in front of City Hall on September 18.

Photo by Dylan Svoboda

Property owners who have banded together to create their own commercial districts in Sacramento are engaged in a potentially illegal campaign to privatize public spaces and push homeless people out of downtown, the UC Berkeley School of Law’s Policy Advocacy Clinic contends in a blistering report.

Titled “Homeless Exclusion Districts: How California Business Improvement Districts Use Policy Advocacy and Policing Practices to Exclude Homeless People from Public Space,” the August 22 report examined the expanding roles of property and business improvement districts, or PBIDs, in the state’s largest cities. PBIDs are when property owners form special assessment districts as a financing mechanism to improve the conditions of their commercial districts, the city of Sacramento says on its website. Local governments collect the property assessments and then redistribute them to the respective PBIDs. PBIDs also collect revenue through events, grants, donations and business license assessments. But some of these PBIDs are allegedly misusing their money by lobbying state and local politicians to adopt anti-homeless policies, which the UC Berkeley study says may violate state law.

PBIDs originated in the 1960s to revitalize struggling urban areas, but have multiplied greatly since 1994, when the state legislature reduced public oversight of them and expanded their assessment and spending authority, the study says.

Last year, all 11 Sacramento PBIDs campaigned against Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s proposal to change city code and allow churches to serve as temporary shelters without requiring a conditional use permit last year.

The study also found that, in 2016, the Downtown Sacramento Partnership “urged the city to retain its anti-camping ordinance in the face of repeal efforts by homeless advocates” and “vocally supported expanding Sacramento’s aggressive anti-panhandling ordinance.” (Federal court rulings this year have cast both local laws in doubt.) During the 2015-16 legislative session, DSP opposed a series of homeless decriminalization bills, one of which, Assembly Bill 718, would’ve prohibited local laws against sleeping or resting in legally parked vehicles.

DSP generated 17.5 percent of its assessment revenue from publicly owned properties.

Researchers surveyed 189 PBIDs in California’s 69 largest cities, while administering in-depth case studies of 11 PBIDs, including two in Sacramento. Interviews with homeless people in Sacramento, Chico and San Francisco rounded out the research.

On September 18, the Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee held a press conference in front of City Hall to discuss the study’s findings and the role of PBIDs.

“They are trying to turn this into a tech city,” said civil rights attorney Cathleen Williams. “They want to dislodge the poor people. They want to push them out to other states, other towns, other areas.”

Spokespeople for two PBIDs, the DSP and Midtown Business Association, say they’re committed to helping solve Sacramento’s homelessness crisis.

“The Midtown Association is at the table and engaged in meetings and discussions taking place to address the problem as we collectively seek to identify permanent, long-term solutions to help those who are facing homelessness in our community,” executive director Emily Baime Michaels wrote in an email to SN&R.

DSP communications director Emilie Cameron said the partnership educates lawmakers “to ensure that housing is the first priority for our most vulnerable population.”

Behind the scenes, these organizations lean heavily on law enforcement to carry out their interests. Over a 10-month period in 2015, PBID executives exchanged almost 2,000 emails with the Sacramento Police Department and city officials regarding homeless people. Citing an email of a DSP executive, the study stated that “the Downtown Sacramento Partnership persuaded the Sacramento Police Department to realign a neighborhood beat with the [PBID’s] boundaries.”

The findings came as no surprise to Paul Boden, executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, which commissioned the study.

“This is a part of a trend going on across the country,” Boden said.