Last week brought the welcome news that Yale University has started negotiations with Mayor John DeStefano Jr. to increase the payments it makes to New Haven to compensate for the tax revenue the city loses because of Yale’s nonprofit status. After a year in which New Haven ran a $3 million budget deficit, the University’s rhetoric about being good neighbors and pitching in to help seems only appropriate. But the one sour note in these developments, which come after more than a year of concentrated organizing and advocacy by the New Haven community, was comments made by the President of the Office of New Haven and State Affairs, Bruce Alexander. He told the Yale Daily News on Sept. 13, “Frankly, efforts to bring pressure on the University has a counterproductive effect, as you might expect, because we do so many positive things in the city that we don’t feel the need to respond when people approach us in a negative or adversarial way.”
It’s this same unfortunate attitude toward anyone in the New Haven community who dares to suggest that Yale could do a better job in its role as dominant employer and largest neighbor in the city that so far has lead the University to reject the Community Benefits Agreement Resolution. This proposal, passed 30-0 by the Board of Aldermen this summer, provides a promising framework for resolving disputes between Yale and the community groups who have often pushed the University to reform flawed policies and expand the reach of its best programs. And yet, the University continues to portray the proposal as a coercive and unfair measure.
It is nothing of the kind. The Community Benefits Agreement Resolution is modeled after a series of successful negotiations between developers and a coalition of community groups in Los Angeles that managed to balance the developers’ plans with the needs of the neighborhoods where major projects were going up. Because the developers treated the community organizers as if they were legitimate and equal negotiating partners, the friction that could have existed between the two parties was dramatically limited, and the developments, including the Staples Center and the area around it, both accommodated the developers’ business plans and made sure that neighborhood needs like affordable housing were met.
If the Yale administration had the courage to meet New Haven community leaders on an equal footing to discuss developments like the new cancer center at Yale-New Haven Hospital, the results might be striking. Nobody thinks that bringing new business to New Haven is inherently a bad idea. But buying out neighborhood businesses to make space for branches and laboratories of larger corporations, and replacing affordable housing with luxury apartments is not a reasonable recipe for urban revitalization.
The best way to determine the needs of the city’s diverse residents is to talk directly to the people who represent them, and to show a real willingness to strike reasonable, productive deals, whether the negotiations center around union contracts or the sites of new parking lots. Alexander’s comments are representative of what seems to be the prevailing attitude in the Yale administration: the starting assumption is that anyone who asks Yale for anything is selfish, compromises only reward bad behavior, and that only a few, select community leaders are worthy of a place at the table.
When Yale sets those parameters for debate, is it any wonder that those who seek a more just, equitable and open relationship between New Haven and its largest employer feel that they have to make their voices heard in other ways? Make no mistake about it, no matter how much the University may deny it, Yale is in talks with the City of New Haven today at least in part because of the pressure community leaders have brought to bear on the University. The same thing happened last year when the Yale Corporation extended the University’s Homebuyer Program to the Fair Haven neighborhood. When a coalition of student groups echoed community calls for an end to redlining in the program at a press conference, they were quickly invited in for a meeting at the Office of New Haven and State Affairs.
But rather than end this cycle of public disagreement, adoption of sensible policy, and insistence that community pressure has no effect, it appears that the Yale administration will continue to resist the tailor-made solution that is the Community Benefits Agreement model. When asked about the Resolution at a dinner with FOCUS participants in late August, the answer was linguistic hairsplitting that would have earned Bill Clinton’s admiration: depends on what your definition of a Community Benefit is. Here’s a hint: there are a whole bunch of pastors; community organizers; leaders of residents’, homeowners’, and neighborhood associations; and block watch leaders who would be glad to give Yale a few suggestions, most of which aren’t half bad. Invite them in for a talk; in the end, the University may have to give a little, but new relationship Yale could form with New Haven would certainly be worth it.
Alyssa Rosenberg is a junior in Silliman College. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.