Jose Davila IV

More than five decades after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., hundreds of New Haveners packed into Varick Memorial AME Zion Church on Dixwell Avenue for a standing-room-only celebration of King and the holiday.

The annual event featured worship, song, speeches and a number: $146,079,896 — the annual revenue New Haven is allegedly denied, primarily in property taxes, by Yale’s tax exempt status.

A coalition of unions and related community organizations such as New Haven Rising hosted Monday’s service. In 2019, New Haven Rising spearheaded the effort for a stronger jobs agreement between Yale and New Haven workers — an attempt to “tackle the gross inequality King illuminated in his ‘two Americas’ speech” delivered in 1968, according to the MLK celebration Facebook event. Ultimately signed in August, the agreement was a notable victory for community activists, but many of Monday’s speakers emphasized that Yale’s obligations to the city remain unmet and called for the University to assume greater financial responsibility in the Elm City.

“New Haven faces a jarring inequality where the wealthiest among us grow richer and richer while the poorest fall further behind,” State Treasurer Shawn T. Wooden, the keynote speaker, told the crowd on Monday evening. “We must ask ourselves: Is it fair for a city as poor as New Haven to provide a $146 million tax break to institutions as wealthy as Yale University and Yale New Haven Hospital?”

The crowd answered with a resounding no.

The celebrated jobs agreement — which includes deadlines on hiring local residents and longer-term perpetual agreements meant to strengthen a pipeline from New Haven organizations and programs to Yale employment — went into effect in August. The document was the latest milestone in a decades-long struggle between the University and the city’s politically powerful labor unions. But several key union organizers have pointed out that while the agreement was a definite labor victory, structural issues in the Yale-New Haven relationship remain. Namely, they pointed to Yale’s tax exemption and the burden it places on New Haven’s revenue generation.

In an email to the News, University spokesperson Karen Peart described several of the University’s contributions to the New Haven community, including its educational outreach programs, its free and open cultural institutions and its focus on hiring from local neighborhoods. She cited programs such as New Haven Works, Yale’s Homebuyer Program and the New Haven Promise.

“Yale is a strong supporter of and contributor to New Haven,” Peart wrote. “The University’s annual voluntary payment to New Haven is over $12 million. No other city receives a larger voluntary payment from a single institution. The University also pays over $5 million in annual property taxes on its non-academic properties and as a result is one of the top four real estate taxpayers in New Haven … the University has a long-standing commitment to our home in New Haven and remains dedicated to working closely with its mayor, its Board of Alders and its community partners and neighbors.”

Still, in his remarks, Wooden criticized what he called a local and nationwide system “designed to preserve privilege and power.” He said that Yale’s substantial contributions to New Haven — which include approximately $5 million in taxes and $12 million in voluntary payment each year in addition to support for a number of community programs — do not absolve the University of its obligations to a city that faces a deepening economic crisis.

Wooden thanked former Mayor Toni Harp for her service and efforts to reduce the inequality that renders a quarter of New Haveners impoverished and more than 40 percent burdened by rent — a designation that describes households spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Wooden went on to commend newly inaugurated Mayor Justin Elicker’s commitment for continuing this work, drawing a parallel between Dr. King’s “two Americas” speech and Elicker’s “Tale of Two Cities” op-ed in the News.

While one New Haven sees “opportunities abound … [m]any individuals in our most vulnerable communities are in crisis” wrote Elicker, who was then on the campaign trail.

Elicker talked extensively about the two New Havens on the stump, garnering enough support for his vision to unseat Harp, a three-term incumbent, by a 40-point margin. He specifically pledged to hold Yale accountable by negotiating with the University to more than quadruple its voluntary contribution in lieu of taxes, which most recently was $12 million annually.

At Monday’s event, Elicker underscored his commitment to realizing his campaign promises and echoed Ward 23 Alder and Board President Tyisha Walker-Myers’ earlier remarks — that progress requires communication, collaboration and dedication from all corners of the city. Walker-Myers, an annual presence, also made a personal promise: she will not return to the MLK event next year, challenging attendees to “put [their] work behind [their] words” between now and then, and implying her hope that another rallying cry for jobs and an increased commitment from Yale is unnecessary by this time next year.

Other speakers included Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, newly inaugurated Ward 6 Alder and New Haven Rising member Carmen Rodriguez and New Haven Rising Founder Rev. Scott Marks. A common thread ran through their remarks: that Yale does not contribute enough to the Elm City and that the University should be a partner, not just a presence.

Varick Memorial AME Zion Church was initially formed to counter segregation in other churches at the time and was later involved in the Underground Railroad.

Jose Davila IV | jose.davilaiv@yale.edu

Mackenzie Hawkins | mackenzie.hawkins@yale.edu