The Seattle City Council signed off on a plan to allow Ballard businesses and residents to tax themselves to pay for improved services in the neighborhood’s business district, but the plan includes more than just street sweeping: It promises financial support for mental health and homeless services.
The new Ballard Business Improvement Area (BIA) expects to raise $399,102 — with another $360,000 coming from the Ballard Partnership for Smart Growth — to bolster services including street beautification, cleaning, business development and retention.
Those are normal for a business improvement area, notes a report on the proposal from the Department of Economic Development, but there’s something innovative about the Ballard BIA — the promise to spend 20 percent of its budget on public safety and public health.
That category covers a lot of ground, but according to the analysis by city staff, the Ballard group plans to partner with Swedish Medical Center’s Ballard campus to create a program or position that connects people to social services addressing homelessness, drug or alcohol abuse and mental health issues.
“This is an important part of the plan because we feel that there isn’t enough mental health outreach social service in Ballard,” wrote Mike Stewart, executive director of the Ballard Chamber of Commerce, in an email.
“We want to be part of the solution that will ensure that Ballard is actively working to connect folks to the services they need, particularly as it relates to critical social service issues such as homelessness, drug/alcohol abuse and mental health,” Stewart wrote.
It’s not a step that every business improvement area has sought to take, but Ballard’s took it on because of the relatively thin access to services in the north, wrote Joe Mirabella, spokesperson for the Seattle Office of Economic Development, in an email.
“The City has a robust network of organizations they partner with to deliver human services and BIAs are just one small but appreciated part of that network,” Mirabella said.
Although almost all business improvement areas established in Seattle make some reference to public health, safety or security, Ballard is unique in including an explicit reference to social services. Others involve phrases like discouraging “predatory street behavior,” or provide “additional security” for people if needed.
Although business improvement areas may set social service goals, they exist for the benefit of businesses, and businesses want customers with the cash to buy their goods or services. As such, the danger exists that giving private entities effective control over large swathes of public space in heavily populated parts of town can lead to the exclusion of those who can’t pay to play.
The Homeless Rights Advocacy Project at Seattle University’s law school highlighted the dilemma in its report “Blurred Lines: Homelessness and the Increasing Privatization of Public Space,” released in May. The report examines the rise of the “business improvement district” in cities and the impact on what it dubs “the visibly poor.”
These kinds of districts create “a more restrictive form of public space: a quasi-public space that is technically and legally public but that is managed and allocated more like private space,” giving private groups the ability to discriminate against “undesirables.”
The report cites the Metropolitan Improvement District (mid), a nonprofit created as part of the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA), the business improvement area that covers all six downtown neighborhoods. mid employees conducted 22,843 trespass and wake-up visits to homeless people between 2014 and 2015, suggesting heavy enforcement, according to the report.
The authors suggest instead moving to a “no displacement” model, which entails connecting people to services rather than shooing them along.
City Hall recently reaffirmed DSA’s control over programming and entertainment in Westlake and Occidental parks, two popular places for people to hang out during the day. In online materials, DSA promotes its activities as something that benefits all park visitors, regardless of their socioeconomic status, although it also stresses “public safety.”
“The public safety components are just to make sure that the park is welcoming to everyone,” said James Sido, public relations manager for DSA. “Being poor is not a crime.”
Like the new Ballard improvement area, DSA puts resources toward connecting people experiencing homelessness in the downtown with services and, in some cases, employment.
It runs an 11-member outreach team with a full-time case manager who works to connect with homeless people directly, and operates a program called Jobs Connect, which offers training and employment on the organization’s outdoor “clean team.” The DSA has hired 15 to 18 people through the Jobs Connect program, Sido said.
City Hall seems to approve of the model. In his budget speech, Mayor Ed Murray announced plans to expand the management of public parks with other business improvement areas, Mirabella wrote.