In an effort to protect property values and combat crime around their buildings, real estate developers are hiring private security firms to drive away homeless populations. The guards not only patrol the private property, but, in some instances, the public streets surrounding them.
In the developers’ minds, they want to protect their properties and investments.
Of course, the idea of developers hiring private security is not new. For example, in 2015, as many as six to 12 undercover private security guards monitored the streets surrounding certain properties in Fort Worth, Texas. Some were hired by the Basses — among the richest families in the area — and patrolled the city’s downtown Sundance Square, local news station WFAA reported at the time.
Some guards carry handguns and ride Segways. In one instance, a guard deployed a taser on a suspect, at a police officer’s request, though police told the outlet that they alone have authority to arrest and enforce laws.
Management of many of the Bass properties have since been transferred to the Henry S. Miller Company, which did not respond to The Messenger’s request for comment. Local residents told The Messenger that they still see private security patrol the downtown area, though it is uncertain who is responsible for hiring them. Some said that the security guards seem to focus their efforts on homelessness in the downtown.
Increasing private security presence, though, is raising questions regarding property owners’ rights to hire private security to police areas open to the public, as well as concerns by homelessness advocates surrounding a lack of training said to be common among the private guards.
“They seem to be protective of the area around the building itself rather than within the building itself. That’s where this is different than just hiring a security guard for your building. That’s the gray area,” real estate appraiser Jonathan Miller said.
Miller added that though a sense of safety can impact property price levels, there has not been any empirical data that draws a correlation between homelessness and rents. Values dropping can be related to other factors affiliated with homelessness, such as commercial vacancies, as seen in cities like San Francisco.
In Manhattan, for example, the Upper West Side and Upper East Side currently rank as the 19th and 21st priciest neighborhoods in the city, according to a report by real estate data firm Property Shark. Despite a series of homeless shelters opening on the West Side over the past five years, there has not been an impact on valuations, Miller said.
‘Shoo Away the Homeless’
“I hope that if landlords are hiring private security, it’s because they’ve either had something occur at their property that has prompted them to want to invest in private security or they know a really close case that happened near them,” Zac Clark, executive director of San Francisco homelessness advocacy group The HomeMore Project, said. “I hope that it’s not just because they have the resources to do it and they want to basically impose themselves to shoo away the homeless.”
In Denver, Broadway Park, which spans 75 acres of retail, office, residential and hospitality space, started to see retail tenants vacate due to vagrancy. As a result, developer D4 Urban spent $500,000 a year on private security to patrol the area and deter vacancies.
“We’ve had a very laissez-faire, permissive attitude and people don’t understand the economic consequence to the city,” D4 Urban CEO Chris Waggett told local news outlet BusinessDen.
Developers have hired guards to address crime separate from homelessness. In St. Louis, developer Sam Koplar employed private security to patrol a series of his properties. Following a car theft near one of the properties, guards were instructed to “work any angle you deem appropriate” to find more information on the issue, according to an email shared with ProPublica.
Adam Leitman Bailey, a New York real estate attorney who has advised clients about hiring private security, said that though loitering laws can make being outside a building without a purpose illegal, hiring private security is more about perception. Having guards outside a property can dissuade unhoused people from settling near the property.
“The most important thing they’re doing is making the residents feel safe,” Bailey said. “They don’t have any powers to arrest anyone or do anything effective to move them along. The only thing they can do is call the police.”
But even that perception can be helpful for developers looking to rent or sell space, Bailey said.
“People do not want to buy near homeless shelters,” he added.
Attorney John DiLorenzo, who owns residential buildings in Portland, Oregon, experienced that when he began receiving complaints from tenants regarding crime allegedly originating from a nearby homeless encampment. He tapped private investigators to look into the site.
The investigation observed signs of an alleged prostitution and drug distribution ring. A report was presented to the police, who then made arrests. Other unhoused residents of the encampment were moved to a shelter, according to DiLorenzo.
Government Failing Miserably
“Property owners shouldn’t be having to guarantee security. That’s the job of the government, and the government is failing miserably in that respect,” DiLorenzo said. “Any tenant who is reasonable will expect the property owner to try to guarantee the safety of the tenant.”
The property owners behind the hiring of private security firms to patrol neighborhoods are often hidden behind LLCs or larger groups. Developers are able to conceal themselves behind city agencies or through business improvement districts (BIDs) over which they have influence.
“There’s very little recourse in comparison to how much oversight there is over cities, and or at least the idea of what should be public in terms of information,” said Elizabeth Venable, lead organizer of the Fund for Empowerment, which is in the midst of a federal lawsuit against the city of Phoenix for its use of police and private security to raid encampments.
Property owners’ “legal authority extends only to their private properties as far as I can tell, and when they’re regulating public space, I don’t think they have any legal authority at all,” Venable added.
A 2018 study by University of California, Berkeley, tracked a correlated rise in anti-homeless ordinances and BIDs since 1975. It also found that 59% of nearly 200 BIDs across the country employ paid security patrols in addition to working with local law enforcement.
In 2020, West Palm Beach passed an ordinance prohibiting panhandling. The city’s Downtown Development Authority — an economic development agency — hired private security to implement enforcement in the downtown and Northwood areas of the city. Northwood — a quiet artists’ village — is currently undergoing massive investment and redevelopment. The anchor site of the project is currently a vacant lot, but its transformation is expected to be valued at up to $38 million.
At the time of the private security’s hiring, five of seven Downtown Development Authority board members were closely involved in real estate, working as developers, lawyers or brokers, according to board meeting records and contracts provided to The Messenger.
The city was sued over First Amendment violations by three unhoused residents, according to a complaint filed in the District Court for the Southern District of Florida. The case has since been settled and the ordinance has been repealed.
The Downtown Development Authority told The Messenger that it was not named as a defendant and did not testify or contribute to the court proceedings. It declined to comment any further.
“The rise of the Not In My Backyard movement and some of the litigation on the West Coast, where private citizens are getting involved in cases asserting the rights of unhoused individuals to exist in public space, has created a new element of tension in our advocacy,” said Chelsea Dunn, an attorney with the Southern Legal Counsel, a Florida legal non-profit involved in the lawsuit. “Private citizens and businesses argue that the city’s failure to address the unhoused population is affecting my property values. It’s a different twist on these cases.”
No two states have the same training requirements for private security, and only 28 states mandate a certain number of hours of training. Nearly half of all unarmed guards can begin employment without having completed any training, according to a whitepaper by the National Association of Security Companies.
However, with both homelessness on the rise — a 6% increase since 2017, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness — and police forces shrinking by 4% between 2020 and 2022, according to Census analysis, landlords may feel more of a need to turn to private security.
“They think that they have the power of the state behind them, potentially the power to use lethal force, if they don’t think they are getting compliance with their orders and they really have no authority,” Tars said. “The reason that we have centralized the legal use of force and authority to enforce our laws into actual law enforcement is to prevent this sort of thing.”
The Next Viral Incident
In some instances, such efforts can end badly.
On the night of March 18, 2021, Joseph Gutierrez was sleeping outside a shopping center in Fresno, California, when he was awakened by a private security guard kicking his feet and shining a flashlight in his face.
Gutierrez, who was homeless, lunged towards the guard, according to records in a lawsuit Gutierrez’s family filed against the security firm that employed the guard. The guard pulled out his weapon and shot Gutierrez dead.
Though the lawsuit does not name any landlords, the attorney for the plaintiff told The Messenger that the firm had been hired by retail property owners to patrol the strip.
Criminal charges against the guard have not been filed. Fresno County Private Security, the firm being sued for negligence in the death of Gutierrez, did not respond to requests from The Messenger for comment.
“This is happening because people are more concerned about the value of their investments than they are about their fellow Americans or neighbors,” said National Homelessness Law Center Senior Policy Director Eric Tars. “It’s setting people up for the next viral video incident.”
DiLorenzo, who hired private investigators in Portland, said that he took those factors into consideration when going through with his initiative.
DiLorenzo stressed that in the investigation, those hired observed rather than used coercion to force populations away, they brought in police when necessary and focused on criminal behavior, rather than targeting unhoused people for simply existing in a public space. He compared the investigators’ work to a citizen filming an incident on their phone and turning footage in to the police.
DiLorenzo has since become part of a BID that hires private security but said private security employees in Oregon face higher standards than those in other states — though he acknowledged both private security guards and police lack trauma-informed training on approaching those with mental illness or addiction.
“I think we are all homeless advocates when it comes to wanting to provide people who can’t help themselves from the elements and treatments for their addictions,” DiLorenzo said.