Yale Daily News

Activists representing Yale student organizations, unions and city social justice groups arrived at City Hall on Monday to demand Yale do more in the wake of a historic town-and-gown agreement. 

The city’s Board of Alders Finance Committee voted in support of Yale’s agreement to contribute an additional $52 million in voluntary payments to the city over the next six years. The city will also convert parts of High Street into a pedestrian-only walkway and Yale’s School of Management will create the Center for Inclusive Growth, which will “identify economic and social development initiatives that will bolster growth” in the community. After nearly 20 activists and community members voiced support for Yale’s contribution to New Haven, the committee unanimously voted to recommend the agreement for the full Board of Alders’ approval. Meanwhile, all activist speakers and alders argued that Yale must do more to fight rampant socioeconomic inequality in the city, especially in the face of the University’s tax-exempt status. 

“We all know that something in our city is wrong when it hosts one of the world’s wealthiest universities while there is so much suffering here in New Haven,” said Ken Suzuki, secretary-treasurer of Local 34, a union representing Yale employees. 

City Economic Development Administrator Michael Piscitelli, Acting Controller Michael Gormany and Yale’s Associate Vice President for New Haven Affairs Lauren Zucker presented the payment plan as a collaborative effort between the city and University. Speakers said the agreement, which Piscitelli noted was not legally binding “in a formal sense,” will attempt to make up for historic economic injustices in the city. When Alders broached what comes after the six years, University officials gave a general description of “long-term economic growth.” Zucker also read a statement on behalf of Kerwin Charles, dean of the School of Management, on the upcoming Center for Inclusive Growth. Charles promised that the Center’s efforts would allow collaboration with city leaders, nonprofits and residents, prioritizing respect for the city for a “mutually beneficial” relationship. 

While they ultimately voted to recommend the payment plan, some alders expressed skepticism over certain aspects of the deal. Although Ward 10 Alder Anna Festa concluded she was “not going to refuse any money,” she expressed several concerns over the agreement to make High Street a pedestrian-only space. According to Festa, roughly 30 metered parking spaces currently exist on High Street, and once those spaces are gone, the city could lose revenue generated from parking and automobile use. Festa added that many residents residing on or near High Street, including Yale employees, were not notified about the plan, creating problems with food and package delivery services and commuting. She also questioned the limited timeframe of the agreement, especially since the projected contribution in the final year of the plan will be only $2 million.

“Year six is only $2 million, and that’s nothing compared to what Yale makes and what Yale will be making,” Festa said. “And do we get our street back after that?”

Tyisha Walker-Myers, president of the Board of Alders, joined Festa to recommend that Yale and the city work on a more specific plan for the financial agreement. Several alders repeated that the town-and-gown agreement was a “move in the right direction,” but pointed to the hundreds of millions in property taxes that the University does not pay to the city each year because its academic spaces are tax-exempt. Festa noted that the total $52 million in additional payments will not make up for the value of Yale’s tax exemptions.

In response to calls for Yale to increase its contributions, University officials have previously pointed to voluntary payments, alongside Yale’s various programs that support New Haven residents. Yale recently increased funding toward New Haven Promise, a college scholarship that pays tuition for local students. Officials have also pointed to the fact that Yale’s voluntary payments have traditionally been larger than those of its peer institutions.

Piscitelli said that the University and city began negotiations for this voluntary payment plan “a year and a half to two years” ago, but community activists and groups have long fought for increased contributions from Yale. Abby Feldman, a leader of New Haven Rising, listed various ways the group has put pressure on Yale over the years, including distributing thousands of “Respect New Haven” lawn signs and literature pamphlets door-to-door, organizing neighborhood meetings and teach-ins on Yale-New Haven relations, creating a tax calculator to show how much property owners could save if Yale paid “equitable mill rates” and holding street protests and a car fair. 

Members of student activist groups noted their own fight to boost Yale’s contributions. Several members of Local 33, the Yale graduate student union that remains unrecognized by the University, testified to their own time spent educating New Haven residents and Yale affiliates on the impact of Yale’s tax exemptions. Ridge Liu GRD ’24, Local 33 co-president, acknowledged that Yale’s agreement is a good first step, but said that it must continue to pay New Haven and give more power to employee unions, including Local 33 and Local 34. Members of Students Unite Now, an undergraduate organization, spoke about their campaign to gather student support for improving Yale-New Haven relations.

“This historic agreement that we’re talking about tonight, between New Haven and Yale, is the culmination of all those years of hard work,” said Dolores Colón, the former Ward 6 Alder who now works as a Library Service Assistant at the Beinecke. “But it is not the end. To adequately address decades of disinvestment and change the maps of segregated development, New Haven will need much more.”

Colón and other community members highlighted the city’s most dire problems, including the housing crisis, unequal access to wealth and healthcare and segregated development across neighborhoods, as areas for further investment. Charlie Taylor, another New Haven Rising member, pointed to the creation of luxury apartments as an obstacle to a more equitable housing landscape, while others drew connections between property taxes paid by residents and Yale’s tax-exempt properties. 

Public education posed another area for improvement. Cynthia Stretch, an English professor at Southern Connecticut State University, discussed the financial struggles of her students, who live in the city where Yale students attend classes. She argued that Yale’s increased investment must address the housing crisis so that students experience better living conditions and public schools receive more funding.

“While Yale’s endowment has grown to unimaginable levels — over 40 billion dollars right now — our city’s youth are in a state of crisis,” said Marika Phillips, a New Haven Rising organizer. “We’re going to need Yale to increase their voluntary pay much more… I envision a New Haven where we have the funding for our children to have all that they need — small classes, new textbooks, safe places to go, community centers.”

After hearing from the public, Festa noted that New Haven residents should not bear the burden of Yale’s tax exemptions and that the “city of New Haven is still missing out on about $140 million in tax dollars each year.” Other alders concurred that Yale’s payments should be greater. Nevertheless, they recommended for the plan to move forward to be approved by the full Board of Alders. 

During the 2021 fiscal year, Yale’s endowment rose to $42.3 billion. 

Megan Vaz is the former city desk editor. She previously covered Yale-New Haven relations and Yale unions, additionally serving as an audience desk staffer.