Dear WashU: Please pay your taxes

| Class of 2021

WashU’s off-campus Rosedale Apartments during a 2015 snowstorm. Photo by Stephen Huber | Student Life

Right now, if you live in off-campus housing with a landlord who is not Washington University, you pay more in property taxes than WashU does for any of its residential properties. You shop at the same businesses and contribute to the economy in the same way as other students, but you almost certainly provide more in direct taxes for the municipality than if you lived in University-owned housing.

And unlike the University, you probably did not have a 65% return on your invested savings in the FY20-21. And, even if you did, you paid taxes on those earnings — the University did not. For beneficiaries of public services not associated with the University, and especially those residents of University City, Clayton and St. Louis City who are not college students (like me, as of May 2021), this is a rough deal.

In late 2015, University City estimated that the University-owned property just within U City would generate somewhere between $1.61 to $1.86 million per year in property taxes, with the lion’s share going to the U City School District. That was in 2015 — since then, the University’s property empire around St. Louis has only expanded, and a 2021 reassessment of property values would drastically increase this estimate. 

The University has countered that it provides a huge amount of in-kind value to University City and that these benefits exceed the value of taxes. For instance, the University points to the economic benefits of having its students and faculty live and spend money in U City. However, most of those benefits would be identical if the University were for-profit, and as U City rightfully notes, these are private market transactions, not University policy. Right now, University City provides fire, police, street cleaning and snow removal services to the University relatively free of charge other than what WashU pays for additional police patrolling around the Loop.

The end result is higher property taxes and reduced government services for the non-University residents who live in U City. For the residents of U City, especially the working-class and often Black folks who live north of the Delmar Divide, the higher taxes and reduced public services are crushing. Those in-kind benefits are concentrated near the University — they do not trickle up to the places in the most need, here in University City or in St. Louis City.

Ultimately, a lot of the University property in U City is residential. When you consider substance over form, these non-profit residences are identical to the for-profit ones next door: University students, faculty and employees live in both. If these non-profit properties returned to for-profit or municipal ownership, it would likely be the same people living there — except the municipality and their residents would not get screwed over when it came time to collect.

This is a problem that exists in Clayton, St. Louis City and municipalities surrounding college campuses around the country. The solution is easy: the University makes a payment. That’s what Boston University, Harvard, Yale and the other prestigious universities (that WashU considers itself among) have done. They “make payments in lieu of taxes,” or PILOTs, to the government entities who otherwise lose out. These voluntary tax payments help fill gaps in municipal and school district budgets around the country, and these payments would be greatly beneficial to the communities that the University inhabits.

There’s only one real way to get a university to pay PILOTs, though, and that is by shaming them into paying. So please, write a letter, sign a petition, contact Chancellor Martin and the University and tell them this:

WashU, please pay your taxes.

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