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HomeEducation'The untouchables': How Columbia and N.Y.U. profit from property tax breaks

‘The untouchables’: How Columbia and N.Y.U. profit from property tax breaks


As Columbia College places the final touches on its brand-new campus in Harlem, it has reached a milestone: The college is now the biggest personal landowner in New York Metropolis.

In a metropolis the place land is extra invaluable than virtually anyplace within the nation, the varsity now owns greater than 320 properties, with a mixed worth of practically $4 billion. The expansion has helped it keep aggressive inside the Ivy League and meet its broader ambitions to turn into a world establishment.

By many measures, these ambitions have additionally helped raise the town round it, attracting increased numbers of scholars, producing new jobs and boosting New York’s status as a world middle of data.

However as Columbia has expanded its footprint, it has additionally turn into extra of a drain on the town finances due to a state legislation greater than 200 years outdated that permits universities, museums and different nonprofits to pay virtually no property taxes.

The legislation saves Columbia greater than $182 million yearly, in keeping with an evaluation by The New York Occasions. The quantity has soared from $38 million simply 15 years in the past because the college has purchased up extra properties and their worth has elevated.

Columbia’s property tax financial savings, that are a fraction of its $14.3 billion endowment, far exceed the tax breaks granted to many high-profile industrial developments, together with large-scale websites like Hudson Yards. They’re 50 p.c bigger than these at Yankee Stadium and higher than the mixed tax offers for Citi Subject and Madison Sq. Backyard.

N.Y.U. constructed a 23-story glass and metal constructing in Greenwich Village for $1.2 billion as a part of its growth plans in Decrease Manhattan. It pays no property taxes for the area.footprint within the metropolis, the variety of New Yorkers enrolling declined.
Saturday 2nd September 2023
New York, NY

Credit score : Amir Hamja/ The New York Occasions Credit score: Amir Hamja/The New York Occasions

At the same time as Columbia has swallowed up extra land, it has taken fewer college students from New York Metropolis. Since 2010, the variety of metropolis college students enrolled in Columbia’s undergraduate ranks has declined by 37 p.c.

Almost each state has property tax exemptions for nonprofits, together with universities, that are exempt from paying taxes on their tutorial buildings and dormitories. (Universities, together with Columbia, pay tax on properties they personal that aren’t used for academic functions.)

However they’re usually contentious, and the seven different Ivy League universities pay some property taxes on these buildings or voluntarily pay hundreds of thousands of {dollars} yearly to their native governments and college districts.

Not one college in New York Metropolis does, together with two of the nation’s wealthiest establishments, Columbia and N.Y.U., which had property tax financial savings of $145 million this 12 months.

“I name them the untouchables: I can’t consider anybody who has been keen to tackle this problem,” stated Harvey Robins, who labored for Mayor Edward I. Koch and Mayor David N. Dinkins and has adopted the problem of tax exemptions for universities. “It’s actually necessary that we start a dialog lastly about who pays what and who subsidizes whom.”

A Columbia College spokeswoman, Samantha Slater, pointed to $170 million in contributions the college had pledged to the group close to its campuses beginning in 2009, saying the investments “have been a mannequin for related investments by different universities.”

“The impact is similar — forging partnerships with the town and native organizations to spend money on the financial improvement of the group,” she stated in an announcement. She didn’t reply to particular questions concerning the establishment’s property tax financial savings and whether or not it had thought-about making annual funds to the town.

The controversy could have been muted in New York as a result of the town has different main income streams, similar to Wall Avenue. Columbia has additionally spent greater than $2 million during the last 5 years to retain among the metropolis’s most outstanding lobbying corporations, who meet with officers, together with the mayor, on plenty of points, together with its actual property pursuits.

“They’ve a really highly effective board, they discuss to the mayor. I feel it needs to be checked out, significantly within the years developing. Should you take a look at the finances deficits, they’re large.”

Gale Brewer, a councilwoman and former Manhattan borough president

However with monetary challenges looming, a rising variety of metropolis and state officers are re-examining the longstanding exemptions for personal universities. Property tax income accounts for greater than 40 p.c of the town’s complete tax collections.

Columbia’s contribution in all probability can be small within the scheme of the greater than $31 billion the town collects yearly. However it is usually considerably greater than among the bills that metropolis leaders haggled over throughout finances negotiations this 12 months. Applications serving inmates on the troubled Rikers Island jail advanced have been lower, for instance, and the finances without spending a dime preschool for 3-year-olds was diminished.

Within the coming 12 months, federal pandemic funds — which the town has leaned on to shore up public college budgets and different providers — are drying up, whilst the town says it expects to spend billions to handle an inflow of migrants from the southern border. Mayor Eric Adams has requested metropolis companies to chop their budgets by 5 p.c by November and has stated the Police and Fireplace Departments, amongst others, will have to slice time beyond regulation.

Gale Brewer, a councilwoman and former Manhattan borough president, stated she was amongst these the college has lobbied in recent times, largely in reference to college housing. She stated she was undecided why metropolis officers haven’t requested Columbia and N.Y.U. to make annual funds.

“They’ve a really highly effective board, they discuss to the mayor,” she stated. “I feel it needs to be checked out, significantly within the years developing. Should you take a look at the finances deficits, they’re large.”

‘Civic challenge’ or ‘land seize’?

The state’s tax breaks for nonprofits date to 1799, lengthy earlier than Columbia and different increased schooling establishments turned huge enterprises with billion-dollar endowments. On the time, the nation’s first universities have been primarily related to non secular denominations and have been deemed charitable enterprises.

Columbia opened in 1754 and moved within the early twentieth century to its core Morningside Heights campus, the place it confined itself for practically a century. In 1968, it deserted its transfer to assemble a health club on the sting of Harlem — a challenge that was derided as “Fitness center Crow” — after huge protests. Then, within the early 2000s, Columbia directors, led by its president on the time, Lee C. Bollinger, stated the college might now not stay aggressive with out a bigger campus.

To assist Columbia increase, New York State condemned land in 2008 within the West Harlem neighborhood of Manhattanville and used eminent area to grab properties for the college. The college made guarantees to be a great neighbor and rent native staff. 

Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia when it started its growth, promised the college would work carefully with the group. Credit score: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Occasions

“There was a time when Columbia actually turned its again on the place it was situated,” Bollinger stated in a 2006 interview with The Occasions. “I wished to take precisely the other strategy.”

Bollinger, who declined to remark for this text, advised group leaders and neighborhood teams that the college had modified for the reason that 1968 upheaval. 

A lawsuit briefly halted the Bollinger plan as a result of judges agreed it was not a “civic challenge.” Nick Sprayregen owned self-storage warehouses in West Harlem and fought Columbia’s efforts to purchase his properties. “This can be a actually nothing greater than a land seize of essentially the most excessive kind,” Sprayregen stated in 2007. He died in 2016.

The next court docket allowed the challenge to go ahead. Columbia moved a number of dozen residents to a 12-story condominium constructing and gave them $7,000 every.

Because it expanded, the college stated that it spent at the very least $600 million with native corporations, lots of them owned by girls and folks of coloration, for development, upkeep and repairs at its campuses — roughly 16 p.c of the entire it spent throughout that point interval.

For practically a century, Columbia College’s campus was confined to a core space in Higher Manhattan. Credit score: Geo. P. Corridor & Son/The New York Historic Society/Getty Pictures

The college has additionally paid out about $104 million of the $170 million it pledged to the group — to native organizations, an inexpensive housing fund and metropolis companies just like the Parks Division. The college additionally stated it had spent greater than $100 million in upgrades to native infrastructure since 2009 and that it could quickly pay to interchange two escalators at a subway station on one hundred and twenty fifth Avenue.

“Columbia continues to prioritize engagement with our area people — from Morningside Heights to Harlem, Washington Heights and past,” Slater, the Columbia spokeswoman, stated in an announcement. “We deal with significant investments that present native jobs and financial alternative, together with sustainable group partnerships.”

Maritta Dunn, the previous chairwoman of Group Board 9 who lives throughout the road from the brand new campus, praised it. “It offers the area people a close-by fairly park with bushes, benches and tables,” she stated.

However some residents stated the college finally employed few native residents, neglected native firms for a lot of the work and has not been as welcoming to neighbors as promised.

“It didn’t occur the best way I assumed it ought to have occurred,” stated Walter J. Edwards, the founding father of the Harlem Enterprise Alliance whose firm, Full Spectrum, helped renovate a Twenties constructing on the brand new campus. “If you’re displacing us, give us one thing.”

Altagracia Hiraldo, who runs the Dominican Group Heart, stated she had hoped for extra, together with the prospect for neighborhood nonprofits like hers to work on campus.

“They forgot about us,” Hiraldo stated.

For the reason that growth, Columbia’s new properties in West Harlem have greater than doubled the market worth of the neighborhood, and they’re now valued at $644 million. The centerpiece of the campus is the Jerome L. Greene Science Heart, a large glass and metal construction. Extra buildings are beneath development, together with a 34-story residential tower for graduate college students and school.

As a result of Columbia took over properties that had been paying taxes, the town now collects half the annual property taxes that it collected on that land in 2008, The Occasions discovered.

Taking extra space, however no more college students

Native public faculties have questioned Columbia’s dedication to its surrounding group. As just lately as 2010, 1 / 4 of Columbia’s undergraduate college students got here from New York Metropolis: 2,236 college students. By 2022, that quantity had decreased to 1,416, or about 15 p.c of the coed physique.

A number of directors at native public faculties stated that the college, which has been vocal in supporting variety and affirmative motion, has proven minimal curiosity in recruiting native college students, particularly youngsters from low-income households.

Its total scholar physique is 7 p.c Black and 15 p.c Latino, and 22 p.c of scholars obtain Pell grants, that are geared toward low-income college students. The racial breakdown is much like different Ivy League universities; the next share of Pell-eligible college students attend than at a few of its friends. (Columbia declined to share demographic information for its New York Metropolis college students.)

Jerome Furman, a counselor at East Facet Group College within the East Village of Manhattan, the place about two-thirds of scholars are low revenue, stated he has had college students accepted to each Ivy League school besides Columbia in his seven years on the college.

He stated his calls and emails about school festivals or college students who apply go unanswered.

“The connection has been nonexistent,” Furman stated.

“If New York is such an asset to them, then it is smart to ensure that New York college students are represented in an actual capability within the scholar physique.”

Fred Raphael, the school and profession counselor at Boerum Hill College for Worldwide Research in Brooklyn

Columbia wouldn’t say what number of New York Metropolis public college college students are enrolled, however stated that the quantity had elevated up to now 5 years and that college students from 45 of the town’s public excessive faculties entered Columbia final 12 months.

Fred Raphael, the school and profession counselor at Boerum Hill College for Worldwide Research in Brooklyn, the place a majority of scholars are Black or Latino, stated that acceptances have turn into so uncommon that he doesn’t see Columbia as a practical possibility, even for his highest-performing college students.

Jerome Furman, a counselor at East Facet Group College, has had college students accepted to each Ivy League school besides Columbia. Credit score: Amir Hamja/ The New York Occasions

“If New York is such an asset to them,” he stated, “then it is smart to ensure that New York college students are represented in an actual capability within the scholar physique.”

Different city Ivy League universities declined to share enrollment from their dwelling cities, aside from Brown College, situated in Windfall, R.I. A Brown spokesman stated on common between 20 and 30 undergraduates from Windfall public faculties enrolled in a given 12 months — barely greater than from comparably sized cities exterior Rhode Island.

Different main universities within the metropolis have a bigger proportion of New Yorkers. At Fordham College within the Bronx, 23 p.c of undergraduates come from New York Metropolis, a proportion that has been secure for the final decade. At N.Y.U., about 17 p.c of undergraduate college students are New York Metropolis residents.

Like Columbia, N.Y.U. has sought to remodel itself right into a nationwide and world powerhouse. It has been increasing for the reason that Nineteen Eighties and just lately started to construct out its personal campus, for essentially the most half on land it already owned, together with a 23-story glass and metal tutorial constructing in Greenwich Village that value $1.2 billion to assemble. After group backlash, the growth has been scaled again, however the college can pay no property taxes.

“I might wager my life that they’re nowhere close to the tip of their progress,” stated Andrew Berman, the chief director of the nonprofit advocacy group Village Preservation.

An N.Y.U. spokesman pointed to the contributions the college makes to the town, together with its college students who help in public college school rooms and its comparatively giant Greater Instructional Alternative Program, which supplies school entry for low-income New Yorkers. It additionally famous that almost all of its graduates keep in New York for work and that its hundreds of workers pay in extra of $100 million in payroll taxes.

“We acknowledge the finances challenges the town faces. However, we really feel the charitable standing that derives from N.Y.U.’s academic mission — and the attendant tax insurance policies — shouldn’t be a one-way change,” stated an N.Y.U. spokesman, John Beckman. “We’re deeply appreciative of these insurance policies, however we additionally take some humble pleasure within the many, some ways, small and enormous, that N.Y.U. contributes to the town’s well-being and its financial system.”

New York’s distinctive exceptions

New York is amongst 49 different states with property tax exemptions for personal, nonprofit entities, which supporters say enable them to offer essential social, financial and cultural advantages to their communities. Within the case of universities, they conduct usually pricey analysis and public-policy research and make use of individuals who pay revenue taxes.

However in different cities, officers have pressured universities to make voluntary funds, often known as funds in lieu of taxes, or PILOTs, or related annual donations. Even inside New York State, different cities have charted a unique course.

In upstate Ithaca, Cornell College began making annual funds a long time in the past which have now grown to $1.6 million and are anticipated to climb to $4 million in October.

Columbia has sought to keep up shut ties to lots of the individuals who would possibly put stress on it to contribute, spending greater than $2.2 million since 2017 on corporations that foyer metropolis and state officers. The college stated that the corporations that it employs offered different providers along with lobbying and spent most of their lobbying efforts on schooling, analysis and well being care.

A spokesman for Mayor Adams, Jonah Allon, stated that the town’s monetary issues meant “each possibility is on the desk to make sure we proceed to fund metropolis providers we depend on.” However he didn’t instantly reply to questions on whether or not the town had thought-about asking the colleges to make voluntary funds.

Just lately, requires the colleges to pay extra have been rising.

After then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed a $485 million lower in 2016 to CUNY, the town’s public college system, the union that represents its professors started calling for personal universities to assist offset the cuts.

“CUNY is the upper schooling establishment that serves the working folks of New York,” stated James Davis, the president of the union, “and those self same working individuals are successfully subsidizing these tax breaks for Columbia and N.Y.U.”

Assemblywoman Deborah J. Glick, a Democrat who represents an space that features New York College’s Manhattan campus, has spent a decade questioning the tax exemptions. In a current interview, the town’s comptroller, Brad Lander, praised the colleges, however stated they need to “step up” to assist CUNY.

“There’s simply extra urgency than ever,” he stated.

Throughout the 2021 mayoral marketing campaign, candidates together with Andrew Yang and Curtis Sliwa referred to as for ending the property tax exemptions altogether.

However forcing the colleges to pay property taxes would require lawmakers in Albany to alter state legislation.

Zohran Mamdani, a state assemblyman who represents elements of Queens, has stated he plans to do that 12 months, with a invoice that will finish property tax exemptions for personal increased schooling establishments with exemptions of greater than $50 million in actual property.*

The one personal universities that meet that threshold are Columbia and N.Y.U.

Liset Cruz and Emma G. Fitzsimmons contributed reporting.

*Correction: An earlier model of this text misstated how a invoice that will finish property tax exemptions for personal increased schooling establishments would decide which faculties are eligible. It might be for establishments with annual property-tax exemptions of greater than $50 million, no more than $50 million in actual property holdings.

This story was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit information outlet that covers schooling. Hechinger is an impartial unit at Academics Faculty, Columbia College.

The Hechinger Report supplies in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on schooling that’s free to all readers. However that does not imply it is free to provide. Our work retains educators and the general public knowledgeable about urgent points at faculties and on campuses all through the nation. We inform the entire story, even when the main points are inconvenient. Assist us hold doing that.

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