Drawing of city buildings on light tan background. Title: Business Improvement Districts in Theory and Practice: Comments from Socialist Sunday School #53

Business Improvement Districts in Theory and Practice: Comments from Socialist Sunday School #53.

by Brett Arnold

The following comments are a summary of the readings for Socialist Sunday School #53: Why the BID is Bad for Business, held Sunday, February 4, 2024. Socialist Sunday School is a program of ROC DSA’s Political Education Committee that meets to discuss socialist theory, organizing, and local issues.

Please join our upcoming “In Jackson Heights” Screening and Panel, on February 11 @ 2:00pm. Hear why a Business Improvement District (or “BID”) in downtown Rochester is not only unjust but destructive. ROC DSA and NO BID ROC will host a 30-minute screening followed by a Q&A panel. Register here: bit.ly/JacksonBID.

This is a great opportunity to meet your comrades and discuss important ideas, whether you’re new to these conversations or have been involved in them for a long time. Every effort will be made to create a safe, accessible, and comradely space for learning and discussion.

Welcome to this week’s Socialist Sunday School! This is a project hosted by Rochester DSA’s Political Education Committee, meeting biweekly on Sundays to help educate current and prospective members as well as our friends and neighbors. This week we partnered with NO BID ROC to focus on an issue specifically facing our community.

Our reading this week covers two articles related to BIDs: “Business Improvement Districts Ruin Neighborhoods” by Max Rivlin-Nadler in The New Republic, and “Business Improvement Districts Allow for Aggressive Policing of the Unhoused” by Tyler Walicek in Teen Vogue.

The two articles overlap but provide different perspectives. TNR provides a good overview of what a BID is, and the problems with them, and is recommend if you’re looking for a quicker read and summary. The Teen Vogue article provides more specific insight, including lots of great details on the role of BIDs in exacerbating the criminalization of homelessness. The TNR piece also briefly spotlights the documentary “In Jackson Heights”, focusing on one Queens neighborhood’s fight against a BID, which ROC DSA and NO BID ROC will be screening along with a panel discussion one week from today. We will also be hearing from one of the organizers featured in that documentary today for their perspective!

So what is a BID? In theory, they are a private entity founded by property owners at the neighborhood level, who band together to boost commercial activity by taking over activities that the municipal government could provide like trash collection and security, as well as public events. BIDs first arrived in the 1970s, and now there are over 1000 nationwide, with at least 115 in NYS at last count, with nearby examples including Syracuse, Buffalo, and Geneva.

The name and purpose sounds positive at first glance: Who doesn’t want the small businesses that our friends and neighbors make their livelihood from to thrive? However, the insidious nature of BIDs ultimately lies in their decision making structure. BIDs remove democratic power from the hands of working-class residents and place these areas under private control of local property owners. Even BID members are not immune. Instead of one person one vote, property owners have weightier votes with the more properties they own, leading to the voices of small businesses being drowned out by large property owning corporations.

The problems BIDs claim to solve are real, and BIDs may grant some additional funding and power to benefit small businesses and residents in some ways. But ultimately they remove accountability mechanisms, allowing the wealthy property owners who operate the BID to remake entire neighborhoods as they see fit.

So in theory, BIDs are a way to help struggling municipal governments at the local level. But in practice they serve the needs of the wealthy few over those of the many, who are free to put in place policies harmful to the residents with limited means of accountability or transparency.

The board of directors of a corporation managing a BID oftentimes does not live within or even close to the area managed by the BID. There are additional problems with their funding structure. BIDs are funded by tax dollars and a fee imposed on their membership businesses. This means BIDs funnel tax dollars from residents and property owners into a slush fund for the BID members and board of directors. In essence, using our money to invest in their businesses, so they can profit at our expense while also funding marketing and political lobbying for ever increasing power. Taxation without representation, anyone?

In addition to BID fees often passing down from landlords to tenants, BIDs lead to increased gentrification by raising rents that can price out both residents and small businesses alike. This is fine for large property owners who are only interested in profit, but terrible for residents who are often rent-burdened in the City of Rochester. This displacement from downtown, while at the same time limiting investments into the area, effectively creates a 21st century version of redlining.

A BID’s vision of neighborhood revitalization is focused on commercial interests, over the interest of the community members. So who gets left out? The development of BIDs coercively excludes marginalized people, especially people who are unhoused. These people are harassed by over-policing (selectively enforcing crimes like “vagrancy” and loitering)—only now via private security, instead of via city police who are at least in some way accountable to the public via the mayor and police accountability boards. This private security surveils local residents, issues orders, and works with police to issue citations and arrests. Some people charged with offenses within the BID may even be referred to community service to occur for the benefit of the BID—free labor!

The BID amounts to a secondary, private government stapled over top of our existing one, and one that does not work for us or our interests. Ultimately, the BID serves business interests with an outsized voice, ensuring the needs of other community members go unmet. BIDs and allied businesses often lobby to oppose social aid and outreach measures, in the name of successful commerce downtown.

A BID may seem harmless or even beneficial at first glance, but by its very nature of removing our democratic input, we have no way to keep it accountable to our needs. Cities are not run for the sake of businesses alone. This is why we ask for your help in stopping the Roc BID!

Discussion Questions:

1. In the New Republic article, they note that “It’s theoretically possible that a Business Improvement District can help a community and help small businesses grow through actions like improving garbage collection, putting on public events, and providing the tools small businesses need to navigate bureaucracy. But too often BIDs have turned against the businesses they were meant to serve, making the cost of entry into a new area even higher for local merchants, or lacking the transparency needed to instill trust from the community.” As socialists, is it in our interest to support the success of small businesses? Does this point resonate with you (why/why not)?

2. What are some alternate ways to address municipal issues such as those listed in the articles (e.g. trash collection, public events, public safety) in Downtown Rochester? Further, do you think these are the most pressing issues to focus on, or are there others you would like to see addressed first?

3. The Teen Vogue article notes that the exclusion of marginalized folks, including those who are unhoused, is at the heart of BIDs. As members of DSA, how can we respectfully and successfully work with unhoused folks in Rochester to fight back against the BID?

4. One of the main arguments against BIDs is the subsequent creation of private police forces, notably for enforcement of “quality of life” violations. How does this policing affect public engagement in shared spaces? What are some ways to ensure public spaces are truly open to everyone?

* * *

Please attend the upcoming “In Jackson Heights” Screening & Panel, featuring City Councilmember Stanley Martin, local comedian and activist Chris Thompson, owner of Ugly Duck Coffee Rory Van Grol, and former Deputy Commissioner of Neighborhood and Business Development Kate Washington.

Register here: bit.ly/JacksonBID

One thought on “Business Improvement Districts in Theory and Practice: Comments from Socialist Sunday School #53.

  1. It seems the positive things BIDs are promising are the responsibility of our elected city government. BIDs are like Charter Schools! There’s already a ‘Chamber of Commerce’ which supports local businesses.

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