Last week, Connecticut’s General Assembly moved ahead with S.B. 414, a bill that would revoke the tax-exempt status of several academic buildings owned by Yale, including Payne Whitney Gymnasium, the Yale Center for Genome Analysis and the Yale Repertory Theatre. If passed, the bill could cost the University several million dollars a year in additional payments to New Haven. While such a figure seems inconsequential for a University with annual revenues of more than $3.3 billion, SB 414 has the potential to damage relations between Yale and New Haven at a time when both stand to benefit from cooperation. As students, we should be concerned for both the place we go to school and the city we call home.
Campus discourse so far has largely favored the city. Some fault the University for not doing more to improve New Haven’s public schools, which are seen by many as inadequately funded and understaffed. Others accuse Woodbridge Hall of turning a blind eye to the increasing inequality between neighborhoods that receive investment from University Properties and those that don’t. As evidence, many point to the higher rates of violent crime in neighborhoods that lie beyond walking distance from campus. Of course, this criticism of Yale’s involvement with New Haven has its merits, but in this case much of it lies outside the limited scope of S.B. 414.
We must remember that Yale has done a lot for New Haven. Since 1991, the University has made more than $96 million in voluntary contributions to the city, including $8.5 million in the last year alone. These payments supplement the state’s Payment in Lieu of Taxes program, and do not include the $4.5 million that Yale pays on its non-academic properties, such as the shops on Broadway. In 1994, the University founded the New Haven Homebuyer Program to assist Yale employees looking to buy a home in New Haven. In the last 22 years, the program has paid $28 million to 1,134 faculty members and staff who now live in neighborhoods across New Haven — from Dixwell to The Hill to West Rock.
This has strengthened the local housing market and provided New Haven with additional sources of revenue. Yale has also maintained its own police force, funded the renovation of parks and community spaces, built facilities like the Dixwell-Yale Community Learning Center and provided scholarships for local students. Every week, Yale students and faculty volunteer with charities and nonprofits to support those in need, which has in turn helped reduce the cost of social services paid for by the city.
Local businesses have also benefited from Yale’s presence in New Haven. According to the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges, visitors and students spend an estimated $244 million around the city every year, while the University pays out more than $2 billion in annual wages and benefits to its employees, many of whom live and work in the greater New Haven area. In 2013, Yale had an estimated $8.7 billion impact on the state’s economy. Additionally, Yale’s support for scientific research and entrepreneurship has bolstered New Haven’s growing biotech industry. Companies like Arvinas and Melinta Therapeutics have brought jobs and growth to New Haven at a time when others, such as General Electric and the small-arms manufacturers, have chosen to leave the state.
Yet S.B. 414 threatens all of this. The University has made it clear that it sees the bill as an unconstitutional measure that would trample on Yale’s charter, which requires the approval of the Yale Corporation before changes are made by the General Assembly. Yale would also be joined by charities, nonprofits and other universities who rightly see the bill as a threat to the tax-exempt status of their own properties. While there have been some doubts about whether or not the University would win a potential lawsuit, both sides would likely spend millions in legal fees on a fight that does not need to happen.
It would benefit no one to return to the tense town-gown relations of 30 or 40 years ago. State legislators and city alders should refrain from attempts to extort Yale by legislative force, while Woodbridge Hall must also be careful that its attempt to push back against the Legislature are not perceived as a contest between the financial power of the University and the people of New Haven. The aim should be to create a respectful and meaningful dialogue that allows Yale and New Haven to discuss the areas where each can do more.
Taylor Holshouser is a sophomore in Saybrook College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .