Just a few months ago, Cambridge City Council approved the creation of a business improvement district in the area around Central Square. Business improvement districts (BIDs) are special assessment districts created when property owners want to “initiate, manage and finance supplemental services or enhancements above and beyond the baseline of services already provided by their local city or town governments.” This means that property owners can bypass their city council and other voters to tax themselves and allocate resources as they see fit.
In the case of Central Square, the BID is projected to raise approximately $1.2 million annually, 42% of which will go to “cleaning.” This means that the district will spend over $500,000 a year cleaning what is not even two square miles, raising some doubts about what exactly “cleaning” will entail. In light of cases in which BIDs were shown to systematically target homeless people, or in the case of New York in the 1990s, exploit them to work for the district, it would be irresponsible to look at that budget without some hesitation. This is an especially palpable concern given that the community of homeless people living in Central Square has both grown, and been documented with some disdain.
Perhaps even more troubling, though, is the 19% of the budget that will be spent on the “Ambassador Hospitality Program.” Ambassadors act as a kind of private police. Though here, Cambridge promised that they would be trained in conflict resolution, administering drugs that combat the effects of opioids, and performing CPR, there is reason to be cautious about a group of people wielding state power and patrolling the streets. This fear is particularly acute given that they will have a close relationship with Cambridge police officers, who became the subject of intense scrutiny following the use of violent tactics during arrest just over a year ago.
Even if this BID or any other evades all possible harm, though, business improvement districts are simply anti-democratic and classist. That a group of wealthy property owners can decide how resources will be distributed and how a public area will be administered is a problem. In a city where 64% of the residents rent, the Central Square BID in particular is a useful tool for property owners to silence those voices.
This past November, Cambridge elected some of the most progressive and diverse city councilors in recent history. Among the biggest issues being debated in the election were public transit, affordable housing, and tenant protections. Conspicuously absent from the debate in the elections was the cleanliness of Central Square.
The $1.2 million financing the Central Square BID could go a long way towards subsidizing housing, or improving public transportation. It could go a long way towards “cleaning” Central Square. Either way, it should be up to the voters and residents of this city and others to decide how resources will be allocated, where quasi-police forces should be allowed to be, and what they should be trained to do. Money and property should not be the basis for civic participation. Business improvement districts are anti-democratic, and we should all be scared of them.