UAlbany News Podcast

The Changing Role of Business Improvement Districts, with Wonhyung Lee

Episode Summary

Wonhyung Lee is an assistant professor in the School of Social Welfare. Her research looks at the role of business improvement districts among U.S. cities (including Los Angeles, Washington D.C. and Albany, N.Y.) in addressing social issues. On this episode, Lee shares how BIDs might take a more compassionate, collaborative approach to solving urban problems.

Episode Notes

Wonhyung Lee is an assistant professor in the School of Social Welfare. Her research looks at the role of business improvement districts among U.S. cities (including Los Angeles, Washington D.C. and Detroit) in addressing social issues. On this episode, Lee shares how BIDs might take a more compassionate, collaborative approach to solving urban problems.

The UAlbany News Podcast is hosted and produced by Sarah O'Carroll, a Communications Specialist at the University at Albany, State University of New York, with production assistance by Patrick Dodson and Scott Freedman.

Have a comment or question about one of our episodes? You can email us at, and you can find us on Twitter @UAlbanyNews.

Episode Transcription

Sarah O'Carroll: Welcome to the UAlbany News Podcast. I'm your host Sarah O'Carroll. I have with me Wonhyung Lee, an assistant professor in the School of Social Welfare. Her research looks at the role of business improvement districts among U.S. cities in addressing social issues. 

Wonhyung, thank you so much for being here.

Wonhyung Lee: Thank you for having me.

Sarah O'Carroll: From my understanding, your research on business improvement districts, or BIDs, stems back to a dissertation started in Los Angeles around five to six years ago. So can you share a little bit about what questions you were exploring on the West Coast, and what got you interested in this topic from an academic perspective?

Wonhyung Lee: Sure. So at the time, I was pursuing a doctorate degree in urban planning and the research question that I had for my dissertation was about what kinds of neighborhoods are successful in forming BIDs. So what was interesting to me was that BIDs were growing in many states and cities, and while BIDs are known to be effective in bringing some positive changes in the areas that they're serving, not all neighborhoods were forming BIDs. So either there's no attempt to form BIDs or sometimes they try but they fail.

Wonhyung Lee: So that made me wonder if BIDs are a good thing, and if so, why aren't all commercial areas trying to have them? That led me to study more deeply about where BIDs exist and where BIDs are not existing, and what makes BIDs to be formed. And at that time, there were about 40 BIDs in Los Angeles. On average, I found that if it was a lower-income area or if it had a higher percentage of foreign-born populations, then those areas would be less likely to have BIDs formed -- which suggest that if this kind of pattern continues, the socioeconomic gap between neighborhoods could grow if no other intervention is made.

Wonhyung Lee: We can imagine that if one neighborhood has a very well organized BID that provides street cleaning, security and marketing, and if another neighborhood does not have a BID, meaning there's no particular self-help type of efforts to make the areas nicer, then the one without the BID might experience more issues related to trash, street order, crime or lack of identity in the long run.

Sarah O'Carroll: So it sounds like the absence of BIDs actually makes these problems worse because the neighborhoods aren't getting the type of resources that a city with a BID would have.

Wonhyung Lee: Yes. So then another part of my research was to find out what matters for BID formation, what makes these things happen. So from the areas that did not have BIDs, I learned that some areas actually tried but failed. So I selected two lower-income, immigrant neighborhoods in central L.A. that are literally adjacent to one another, but one had had a BID for the past 10 years while the other one tried yet never formed one. So from this comparative study, I learned that in order for a neighborhood to be successful, they really need invested community stakeholders from the insider community.

Sarah O'Carroll: And what do you mean by that?

Wonhyung Lee: So oftentimes from the city's perspective, because the BID can play such a big role in making improvements in the area, sometimes the pressure can be imposed from outside the neighborhood. So, the mayor or the city council could say, "I think it'd be really nice that this neighborhood has a BID."

Sarah O'Carroll: Okay, so some political influence?

Wonhyung Lee: Politically influence, yes. But then, if there's no buy-in from the inside or if there is no organizing power from the inside, I think it is very difficult to engage the people who actually have a voting power about whether to form a BID or not.
Sarah O'Carroll: Okay. And so it sounds like those factors from the outside have a lot of influence as well as those who will be giving votes to the people in power, and that all of that matters in terms of determining whether a BID will be successful or whether it will peter out.

Wonhyung Lee: Yes. And for this particular case, there were some socioeconomic challenges and there was no initial organizing power from property or business owners. Also, for this particular case, the churches of various denominations and schools actually played big roles, as can the local university, nongovernmental organizations, residents and activist groups. So in a sense, these are unconventional stakeholders when you think about business communities, but sometimes these stakeholders -- who care about where they live and where they shop -- they can also make a BID happen. So that was one takeaway from this comparative study.

Sarah O'Carroll: That's interesting. And so after L.A. you switched focus to Washington D.C. And started looking at BIDSs and homeless populations, whereas before it was mostly looking at BID formation among various neighborhoods. What made D.C. a useful city to study homelessness from this research standpoint?

Wonhyung Lee: Sure. Actually, I got interested in homelessness while I was still in LA. Just living and working in the central part of L.A. just made me encounter homelessness every single day. Even back then, just from street corners around the subway station to a tourist spot in Hollywood, or the more concentrated areas in Skid Row, the homelessness was so real. The scale amazed me at the beginning, but then maybe because I was studying BIDs around multiple districts, I was very intrigued by the fact that the relationship between homeless populations and the business communities could drastically differ from district to district depending on what kind of BID that they had.

Wonhyung Lee: So that became the topic that I wanted to study next. And by then, I was already in Albany [NEW YORK] and was looking for some cases that could showcase some unique and exemplary approaches to homeless populations. And I knew that some BIDs in L.A. and D.C. were trying some holistic and a little more compassionate ways of reaching out to homeless populations.

Sarah O'Carroll: Through policies or through organizations?

Wonhyung Lee: Through their own efforts. As a BID, you have discretion over your own budget, your program, and your philosophy and approaches. So depending on which BID you talk about, they might have a very different approach to homeless populations. So I wanted to find a BID that's trying something different, something that has a more long-term perspective about how to address this issue instead of trying to drive them out of their district.

Sarah O'Carroll: And were you able to find one -- a good example of a compassionate BID that was really doing something to address the homeless populations there?
Wonhyung Lee: Yes, I was aware that there were a couple of cases that I could look into in L.A. and D.C. I was looking for people who could speak with me about that. And at that time, the director of the Washington D.C. downtown BID kindly welcome my inquiry and made great efforts for me to be connected to other people in the area, which is a huge blessing to a researcher.

Sarah O'Carroll: Yes.

Wonhyung Lee: So D.C. was a very useful site in that regard. It was also a special city because I got introduced to the director of the International Downtown Association. It's a membership-based organization that connects various types of district management organizations (like BIDs) in the U.S. and across the world. I had a great collaboration with them in designing and also conducting a survey with BIDs in the U.S. and how they're approaching homelessness in their district. So I was able to get some insights at the national level.

Sarah O'Carroll: Okay. And can you speak to a little bit of those insights and also what a common dynamic might look like in terms of downtown revitalization efforts and homeless populations? You said that you were looking for good examples of compassionate BIDs, so does that indicate that perhaps there are less compassionate BIDs, or simple ones that don't really see helping the homeless as part of their role?
Wonhyung Lee: So when we think about the ongoing development trend, what's interesting is that downtowns are becoming a place where both developers and homeless populations are continually battling for more space. When we think about where homeless populations commonly go, many of them are public spaces: sidewalks, bus stops, store front, public parks and libraries. These places also overlap with the popular spots in downtown where other people also want to go and hang out. These places also have good transportation access, attractions, which all naturally leads to high foot traffic.

Wonhyung Lee: So from the perspective of property and business owners, of course they want to create a space that's safe and appealing to their patrons. It's just a really important priority. Because BIDs usually represent this side of interests, they are often understood as the forces behind anti-homeless policies or strong-arm measures used against the homeless populations.

Sarah O'Carroll: That they are at odds with one another?

Wonhyung Lee: Yeah, I think that's a very popular depiction of the BIDs. But I think the relationship between BIDs and homeless populations is a very important one because BIDs are growing in their number and influence. And as mentioned before, depending on how they decide to approach homelessness, the experience could be very different from district to district.

Sarah O'Carroll: Okay. So would you say that your research in D.C. suggest that we might improve this relationship between the business community and homeless populations, and that that is something that in fact BIDs should try to take on?

Wonhyung Lee: Yes. So from both my national and local level data that I got, the data that I collected really tells us that business communities can seek more fundamental, long-term holistic solutions to address homelessness. More specifically, I can say that some BIDs really took the role of an advocate. When they add their voice to other human service providers, we can really start to frame the issue of, for example, housing-first policies. When the BIDs add their voice to the issue, they can frame it as a good investment that the city could make, instead of presenting it just as a social or political agenda.

Wonhyung Lee: And BIDs also naturally play the role of mediator because it's where, naturally, the private interest meets the public interest. So it can really create a space for business owners or residents, activists and local law enforcement officers. They can come together, share information and talk about how they could work together. And lastly, some BIDs also provided some direct services such as street outreach, assessments, direct referrals, and some offered actual job opportunities to homeless populations. So, I mean, these examples show that BIDs can play a different role in addressing homeless populations.

Sarah O'Carroll: And it sounds like what I'm hearing is a philosophy behind these BIDs saying, "Okay, if we work on housing for homeless populations, perhaps that will in turn help create a more positive environment for tourists, and bring in commerce and young people who will want to rent out the fancy new apartments downtown." It seems like they're trying to see potential resolutions in a more holistic sense.

Wonhyung Lee: Yes, exactly. Instead of approaching the homelessness like, "They're always hanging out in front of my store front so I'm going to just call a cop to remove them," we should be thinking differently. The fact that they can come back this afternoon or tomorrow presents a meaningful question for business owners to think about: are we truly thinking about why they're here in the first place? And can we do anything collectively to help them in the long run? And like you said, it will eventually help them create the space where they can attract foot traffic and shoppers in the long run as well.

Sarah O'Carroll: I can see a shop owner saying, "Well that's great that you have this approach, but this doesn't solve the problem that someone is sleeping outside of my store." But on the other hand, it sounds like a really neat vision to see this more humanitarian approach.

Wonhyung Lee: Yep.

Sarah O'Carroll: So I'm starting to see a progression in your research toward street outreach organizations. So how does this fit into the picture and what is their role in resolving some of these issues in conjunction with BIDs? And I'm also curious what success looks like, and how you might quantify that?

Wonhyung Lee: Yeah. So I got interested in the outreach aspect of it because when I was interviewing some BIDs, they were already doing some of this outreach in their independent efforts. What they were doing was collaborating with other human service organizations that have clinical expertise. So sometimes they would provide funding to hire them as part of the BID's services, or sometimes the BID's staff members would actually get the training to go out into the street side-by0side with human service experts. And these BIDs would really go out and try to know people's names, stories and situations. They check in with anybody they see on the street on a daily basis. And if they're willing, they also tried to connect them with services and eventually housing opportunities.

Wonhyung Lee: So that nonjudgmental, relationship-building aspect of the approach was very inspiring and very refreshing.

Sarah O'Carroll: And it sounds like you've been working with local organizations here in Albany and in the Capital Region. Who have you been working and collaborating with?

Wonhyung Lee: Yeah, so in Albany I interviewed two organizations to learn about the experiences of street outreach workers. And one was the Homeless Action Committee, which is also called HAC. And the other one was the St. Anne Institute. And from the connection that I had from my research, I continued to work with HAC for my teaching later on. So, in my macro practice in social work, students are required to volunteer with these outreach organizations, and observe and participate in the outreach process.

Wonhyung Lee: Experience really helps them go out of their comfort zone and experience something that's very eye-opening.

Sarah O'Carroll: So when having these discussions in class with students who have come back from their street outreach volunteering efforts, what would you say are some of their key takeaways? And do you have any of your own that you'd like to share?

Wonhyung Lee: Sure. I think the biggest take away for me personally was related to the way that these outreach workers tried to engage with the homeless populations on a one-on-one and very personal way.

Sarah O'Carroll: You mentioned names, and knowing who they are and their story.

Wonhyung Lee: Yeah. And just a simple question, "Are you hungry?" I think that was the question that really hit my heart. I think they just care about the human condition that you mentioned. And they just first want to make sure if they're all doing okay without imposing any expectations or rules or regulations. So, that side of the approach was very inspiring for me. Students, they share all sorts of reflections when they come back in person and also in writing. And it's very rewarding to hear that before they go out, sometimes they have anxiety or some discomfort in just trying something like that. But when they come back, I think they really get to see the human side of the actual people who are living out in the streets. So, yeah, that's very rewarding.

Sarah O'Carroll: Well, very cool. Now taking a step back to include your work in L.A. and D.C. and now in Albany, do you have any final thoughts you'd want to share about the role of BIDs in addressing social issues like homelessness? I know every city is unique, each with its own sets of problems and issues, but can you speak to what they can and should be doing, looking to some of these successful models, in pursuing more equitably revitalized downtown areas?

Wonhyung Lee: I think the business community often has a bad rap just for being profit-driven and self-interest driven, but I think as I'm learning from my own research, I think the business community can take a different role. As I mentioned about the advocacy mediation and service provision aspect, there's just so many roles that they can use as leverage to make a social impact. I'll also just say that the more long-term perspective that they have, and the more collaborative, collective perspective that they have, there more room there is to work with different sectors, such as with nonprofits, the government, residents and activists. I think there are many stakeholders that the business community actually can work with. And that way, I think they could really make a more holistic impact.

Sarah O'Carroll: Very neat. How might other social welfare researchers build upon this work? And do you have any guidance for social welfare workers who are out in the field to better serve these communities?

Wonhyung Lee: Yeah, actually one of things you asked, and I think we missed it, was how to quantify the success of outreach. So that was a very good question because it is very hard to do this. When think about how many IDs this homeless population decided to go and get, or how many doctor's appointments they decided to go -- things like that can be quantified, but there are so many interactions that are significant milestones, but then at the same time are hard to quantify.

Sarah O'Carroll: Right. It doesn't translate into a number or stat when someone is in perhaps a better place that they were before with more resources.

Wonhyung Lee: Yeah. And also things like, "Oh, this person smiled at me," or, "Today we got into a longer dialogue." "This person seemed to dress warmer today." Things like these actually means huge and significant changes, an improvement in their behavior, but then it's very hard to quantify. And without that kind of data, it also creates challenges for these organizations to make reports or compete for grants. So thinking about that side of the challenge, I think it'd be very useful for there to be more research about how to quantify and how to understand that process, in terms of the outreach's outcomes.

Sarah O'Carroll: And what about for social welfare workers to better serve these communities?

Wonhyung Lee: First, I just want to mention that there are already a lot of social workers who are doing amazing work who first gave me the guidance for this research. But if there are social workers who find my line of research refreshing, for example, is it really possible to work with the business community? Is there room for social profit and collaboration? I really want to say yes, and I want to say that the business community can be the partner so you can make powerful, effective change for the people that they serve.

Sarah O'Carroll: And what's next for you as a researcher? Are you going to tackle a new city next?

Wonhyung Lee: Yes. So currently I am in Albany, and I'm working on a research project called Smart and Connected Communities, focusing on Albany. So it's not necessarily on BIDs and homelessness per se, but I'm continuing my study to understand how people who need services are navigating these services, and how people who provide services can communicate with them better using technology. So I'm hoping to understand the needs of homeless populations along with others through that lens. And I recently joined the board of the Central Avenue BID. So from that role, I'm trying to continue my engagement in the community that way.

Sarah O'Carroll: Wonhyung, thank you so much for being here.

Wonhyung Lee: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Sarah O'Carroll: Thank you for listening to the UAlbany News Podcast, I'm your host Sarah O'Carroll. And that was Wonhyung Lee, an assistant professor in the School of Social Welfare. You can let us know what you thought of the episode or who we should speak to your next by emailing us at or you can find us on Twitter at UAlbany News.