James Larson, Senior Photographer

As summer turned to fall and Yale students arrived on campus, they encountered college common rooms transformed with specially constructed booths for twice-weekly coronavirus testing. The University gave every student cloth face masks with the Yale logo, thermometers and bottles of hand sanitizer. Every evening since, hundreds of tests have been shuttled off to Cambridge, processed and turned around overnight.

New Haven, by contrast, does not have an asymptomatic screening program for all residents, though sites in the city offer testing for residents. All of New Haven’s public schools were remote in the fall. Even now, two are still shuttered because the buildings are too old to outfit with air filters. High school students can return to the classroom for the first time next week.

Though the divide between the University and city is nothing new, and is a challenge each Yale president approaches differently, University President Peter Salovey has seen particularly turbulent times during the coronavirus pandemic. The University has had to radically rethink nearly all of its approaches and procedures. Yale spared no expense to insulate its own community against the threat; to some, that is the University’s primary responsibility and mission. But with New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker announcing that the city’s financial crisis has only worsened — New Haven faces a projected $66 million budget shortfall for next fiscal year — others have reiterated longstanding calls for Yale to contribute more to the Elm City. 

Particularly during a pandemic, what does the University owe its home city?

Coronavirus-induced strain

Times of crisis reveal people’s values, Elicker said in an interview with the News. On an individual level, different constituencies within Yale have helped the city during the pandemic, Elicker said. University affiliates have volunteered with the Medical Reserve Corps, Yale’s public health experts advised the city’s Health Department through a series of calls and Yale researchers sampled the concentration of coronavirus in the city’s wastewater to give an early warning of rising case numbers.

“There [was] a lot of, and I think this is historically true for the University, kind of disjointed collaboration between the city and constituents of the University,” Elicker said. “I would say that there was not a centralized effort.”

Yale values its relationship with New Haven and remains committed to its hometown, University spokesperson Karen Peart told the News. Last March, at the start of the pandemic, the University created the Yale Community for New Haven Fund and has since distributed approximately $3 million to local nonprofit organizations to support New Haven residents affected by the pandemic. Yale has also supported local businesses by waiving and deferring rent due from retailers and restaurants, Peart added. The University has not furloughed any of its employees, many of whom are New Haven residents, and it has continued paying several hundred employees who have been working from home for the last year.

As of now, Yale makes a $13 million annual voluntary contribution to New Haven. It also pays property taxes on non-academic properties, totaling about $5 million per year. In addition, the University pays about $5 million to the city each year for permits to build anew or renovate its properties. It spends about $4 million on the New Haven Promise program, which provides scholarships to schoolchildren in New Haven. All told, Yale’s direct contributions to New Haven exceeded $30 million in 2019.

Yale will also share testing supplies and vaccines to the extent that it gets the supplies that it needs, Salovey said. Yale New Haven Hospital is already vaccinating New Haven residents.

“The issue is the supply, not the willingness to share,” he added.

Yale has been “very effective” at ensuring the population it serves was provided with every resource it needed, Elicker said. By controlling spread on campus, it benefited the community by making sure students did not infect the local population.

But when city officials have made requests, the University has not always obliged. Last March, after students had been sent home, Elicker asked Salovey to provide 150 beds for New Haven’s first responders. Salovey initially declined, and Elicker struck a deal with University of New Haven President Steve Kaplan instead. After Elicker slammed Yale for declining, Salovey announced that Yale would provide double the number of beds the Mayor had asked for.

“It’s no secret that at the start of the pandemic there was some tension between the University and the city,” Elicker said. “We reached out to the University and asked for help in a specific way and that was not provided, but the University then, after additional conversations, ended up helping out.”

Reverend Scott Marks, the director of New Haven Rising, an organization founded by activists and members of the UNITE HERE unions at Yale, said the pandemic has made it more crucial to fix the University and city’s relationship.

“The pandemic has been the great reveal,” Marks wrote in an email to the News. “Our worst-off neighborhoods have experienced the highest costs of this pandemic. Meanwhile, our residents have ensured that Yale University was able to operate under extremely challenging circumstances.”

Yale, the state and the city’s budget

During his tenure, Salovey has tried to approach town-gown relations by building a relationship with the mayor and Board of Alders, he said. He speaks with the mayor at least once a week. Additionally, he said he has emphasized providing financial support to the city, including by increasing the voluntary payment from $8.29 million in 2014 to $13 million now.

Yale and New Haven are “joined at the hip,” Salovey said, with the success of one dependent on the strength of the other. The single biggest challenge when the University tries to recruit faculty members is that their spouses want to find a job in New Haven as well, he explained.

An attractive city with job opportunities, great culture and stable neighborhoods is a boon for Yale, and a University that provides jobs, cultural opportunities and attracts people to the area is good for New Haven, Salovey said.

But Woodbridge Hall and City Hall have often diverged as to how to bring about this result. New Haven’s projected budget shortfall exists partially due to lost revenue from the pandemic and partially due to its commitments to provide pensions for city employees. The city needs $39.5 million each year for the next decade to resolve the pension crisis, and Elicker has publicly called on Yale to assist with the bill as part of a broader increased commitment to the city that outlasts the pandemic.

Yale Senior Vice President of Operations Jack Callahan said that he believes it is a “false narrative” to blame Yale for the city’s financial pressures. The city has made promises for pensions that will be hard to keep, has seen a decline in economic activity and suffers from the Connecticut state government not fully funding its Payment in Lieu of Taxes program, or PILOT, to partially refund municipalities for their tax-exempt property, Callahan said. These cost pressures have nothing to do with Yale, he added.

“As much as people would like to comment on the size of an endowment at Princeton or Harvard or Stanford or Yale, we’re spending that money,” Callahan said. “The endowment is there for the mission of the University, which is to educate, sponsor research and create new thought.”

Yale’s operating budget is around $4.2 billion, and it educates 12,000 students per year. New Haven has around $600 million to spend on 130,000 people. The University spends about $350,000 per student each year, while the city spends $4,600 per resident.

At a March press conference, Elicker unveiled two potential budgets for New Haven’s next fiscal year. One — the “Crisis Budget,” which totals to $589.1 million — contends with the demand for pensions and lost revenue on account of the pandemic. With the “Crisis Budget,” the city would save $2.6 million in “unspecified layoffs” within city government. It would also close the East Shore senior center, Mitchell Library and Whitney firehouse and raise taxes by 7.75 percent.

“New Haven just can’t handle that,” Elicker said. “It’s the University’s ethical responsibility to ensure, especially in these times when we’re talking about systemic racism and income inequality, that New Haven residents, particularly those who have been struggling for centuries, have a real opportunity to succeed.”

The second option, the “Forward Together Budget,” comes in at $606.2 million and requires significant investment from either the state or University. Both Salovey and Callahan said that the most sustainable solution is investment from the state through a change in the structure of PILOT in Connecticut. In New Haven, 60 percent of property, including most of Yale’s campus, is tax exempt. Under Connecticut’s current PILOT program, the state is obligated to give municipalities 77 percent of the revenue they lose from tax-exempt properties. Due to a lack of funding, New Haven currently only receives 26 percent of the value it should. The proposal to create a tiered PILOT program would more than double the payment in lieu of taxes Connecticut allocates to New Haven, bringing it from the current $41.6 million to an estimated $91.2 million.

State Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney’s tiered PILOT bill has been approved by both the House and the Senate. It needs to be signed by the governor and finalized through the budget process, which is set to conclude by April 22. 

Yale administrators have joined New Haven’s government in calling for Looney’s proposal to pass. In an interview with the News, Salovey said that PILOT is the most viable path forward. Callahan seconded the idea: If Yale writes a blank check, he said, “it just feeds the narrative that: ‘Yale’s rich, it’s Yale’s fault, they should just write us a check.’”

Former New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. recalled a Times article from nearly 50 years ago that quoted a Yale administrator asking when the requests would end if Yale increased its payment to New Haven. The language is reminiscent of Salovey’s March 2020 opinion piece in the New Haven Register, in which he wrote that New Haven’s books should not be balanced by Yale writing bigger and bigger checks.

But now, Salovey seems to have softened his stance. In a recent interview with the News, he said he was “cautiously optimistic” about Yale increasing its $13 million voluntary payment to the city. Peart said that the University has historically raised its voluntary payment when the city has experienced financial troubles. Elicker has repeatedly called on the University to contribute about $50 million and has emphasized the topic in both op-eds and press conferences.

But even if the PILOT proposal becomes law and New Haven sees more state funding, Elicker said that the “Forward Together Budget” is still inadequate.

“I think every New Haven resident would agree that what we’re doing today is inadequate to actually move the dial on many of the issues that we’re facing,” Elicker said. “We don’t have a librarian in every school, a guidance counselor in every school, we don’t have enough staff to fully ensure that people coming out of prison have the case support that is needed to land on two feet. And the list goes on.”

Brian Wingate, Ward 29 alder and vice president of the Local 35 union for Yale’s service and maintenance staff, said that Salovey has the opportunity to join with the community and undo 80 years of “segregated development.”

“Getting this right would be the most important accomplishment for Yale’s relationship with the community of any Yale president,” Wingate wrote in an email to the News. “But President Salovey must decide that this partnership is a priority for him.”

A committee, jointly led by city leaders and Yale’s administrators, is trying to address town-gown relations and Yale’s financial contributions to the city. Former city development chief Henry Fernandez heads the committee, which is looking at long-term solutions for Yale-New Haven relations. The committee, which was formed last fall, includes Yale administrators, graduate school representatives and city staffers.

A “renaissance in New Haven” — what can be done?

Out of the economic challenges of the pandemic, there is an opportunity for creative solutions and a new ethos for growth, Callahan said, and the changes can be more significant than a larger check from Yale.

During the pandemic, there has been a mass exodus from New York City to less populated areas, so construction has spiked in Connecticut, Callahan said. He hopes to spur a “Roaring 20s” coming out of the pandemic so that people quickly return to retailers, restaurants and museums. Salovey also aims to make the Peabody Museum free to all visitors as part of the University’s next fundraising push.

Callahan also suggested how Yale might support economic development in the city. Some University faculty, particularly professors in biotechnology and other scientific disciplines, have commercial ambitions. If Yale can encourage commercialization and bring incubators to New Haven, it will create jobs and increase tax revenue, Callahan said. One example is Alexion, a biopharmaceutical company founded by Yale professor Leonard Bell MED ’84.

Start-ups and the employment opportunities they bring reduce the number of people reliant on city services, Elicker said. Yale helps attract businesses to New Haven, either if University affiliates run them or if businesses want proximity to Yale New Haven Hospital.

So far, the University has helped New Haven with inclusive job growth by hiring city residents for construction projects. But there is more room to build, Elicker said. The city is expanding its training program for jobs in construction, he added, and Yale could contribute funds to the expansion and help ensure program graduates find jobs.

Both Callahan and Elicker called for sustainable development in the Elm City. The University has lofty goals around combating climate change, and the city has significant energy costs. Yale could install solar panels or other renewable energy sources in New Haven, Elicker suggested.

After Levin, the Salovey years

Salovey assumed Yale’s presidency in 2013, succeeding Richard Levin. Levin spent his entire 20-year tenure working with DeStefano, who said the two developed a close working relationship.

The two took over in a time of uncertainty about both the city and University’s future. At the time, both the city and the University were facing cataclysmic budgetary and institutional challenges. The city had several thousand vacant housing structures, public school enrollments were falling, residents were fleeing and there were substantial public safety concerns, DeStefano explained. On Yale’s side, the University’s endowment was smaller and yielding only moderate returns, and the admissions yield had fallen. Only two years before, a Yale student had been killed in New Haven while walking home from dinner at Mory’s, a local restaurant, and a nearby party.

“A premium was paid on predictability, consistent incremental improvements and trying to avoid make-or-break moments of high drama,” DeStefano said. “There was never a point where you said, particularly with the relationship with the University, that we ever publicly positioned that if you didn’t do this, this would happen.”

The working relationship between Levin and DeStefano was pivotal in the investment in the other’s well-being, Callahan said. He believes Salovey and Elicker hope to sustain this collaboration, and Salovey has affirmed his hope to work closely with the city.

DeStefano attributed some of the progress to his ability to develop a long-standing relationship with Levin. Salovey has seen three mayors in less than 10 years, as New Haven’s mayors run for reelection every two years.

They aimed to keep disagreements quiet, DeStefano said. Though that is not to say the two administrators did not butt heads, he added.

“I used to occasionally suggest that Yale at times can be a jerk, but they were my jerk,” DeStefano said. “We have a mutual self-interest. You never forget that. We’re better together.”

Then named the Collegiate School, Yale University moved to New Haven in 1716.

Rose Horowitch | rose.horowitch@yale.edu