Who Benefits from Green Benefit Districts? Part One: A Bouncing Baby Boondoggle

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By Rupert Clayton, HANC Housing & Land Use Chair

Coming to your neighborhood very soon is a hip new concept for funding and controlling local services – the “green benefit district”. Local grandees are trying to launch one for the Inner Sunset and there’s already one up and running for Dogpatch and Potrero Hill. There’s also a proposal for a “Greater Buena Vista Green Benefit District” with the potential to encompass all of the Haight Ashbury. It sounds warm, fuzzy and eco-friendly, right? But what does it really mean?

 

 

Green benefit districts (GBDs) are the green-washed version of community benefis districts (CBDs), which are the residential cousin of business improvement districts (BIDs). San Francisco has 15 CBDs or BIDs already, covering areas from Fisherman’s Wharf and Union Square to Noe Valley and the Castro/Upper Market. The official line is that each district is a voluntary agreement by the owners of a majority of the property within its boundaries to levy an assessment (basically, a tax) on property to fund local services.

If you have any experience with local politics that simple description has likely spawned a lot of questions. Don’t we all get to vote on this? What’s a majority of the property? How much does each owner pay? Who controls the money? What are these services? Aren’t we already paying for services through our current taxes? Do residents who don’t own property get services or have any say? And what’s behind all this anyhow?

The answers to those questions start to make GBDs seem a lot less warm and fuzzy. I’ll explain the messy details below, but for now I’ll propose that GBDs are a thoroughly non-transparent and anti-democratic mechanism for local bigwigs to build a power base, tax their neighbors and spend the proceeds on jobs for their friends, dubious beautification and shunting poor people across town. They’re loved by City Hall because they bring in more funding and PR opportunities without much accountability and by property developers because they’re a great advance guard for gentrification and new market-rate construction.

Let’s start with the basics around how the district gets set up, who gets assessed, what they pay and who makes the decisions.

Conception

Every GBD starts off as a twinkle in its parents’ eyes, but San Francisco’s GBDs are post-nuclear and actually have at least three parents: the city, Build Inc., and one or more local worthies.

In theory, a GBD reflects a spontaneous request from a group of neighbors to tax property owners to fund local services; in practice it requires a well-organized, well-funded campaign. How this works is that an individual or small group already active in local politics asks for more funding for rousting homeless people, sweeping sidewalks, cleaning up the neighborhood park or some such civic service. The city tells them “Sorry, we don’t have the budget for that, but a GBD would give you lots of funding. Let me introduce you to our consultant.”

Enter the well-paid consultant from PlaceLab, the non-profit arm of market-rate developer Build Inc. (the people behind the One Oak luxury condo tower). PlaceLab was set up by Build Inc. founder Michael Yarne to make GBDs the “Uber of public space”. Apparently Yarne has a two-tier vision of public services: while everyone gets the increasingly limited level of service funded by taxes, GBD residents will pay extra to get Uber-style service. The implication, of course, is that residents in poorer areas won’t get these benefits because their property owners are, well, poorer.

"Changing Perceptions"

Setting up a well-funded, development-friendly neighborhood booster organization with “green” camouflage lays the groundwork to push extensive market-rate development into new areas. As Yarne told a planning blogger, a GBD “can change perceptions of new development from an unwelcome sign of gentrification into new opportunities to green”.

And don’t imagine that the city bureaucracy is a neutral party here. San Francisco Department of Public Works has staffed a position for a Green Benefit District Program Manager and has funds available to promote GBD formation in new neighborhoods.

(Click here to read part two)

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