City residents push for payment in lieu of taxes on University property

| Managing Forum Editor

University City (U. City) residents and council members called on Washington University to implement a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) program during the “WashU, U. City, and PILOTs: An Overview” information session, Sept. 24. Presented by Community for an Accountable WashU (CAW), the session was held over Zoom as well as broadcasted live to a handful of former University students and residents of the St. Louis region.

The information session dedicated a significant focus to the St. Louis homeowners and business owners that experience increased taxes and decreased funding for essential services as a result of the University’s tax exemption.

While WashU is among the largest residential landowners in both University City and the surrounding St. Louis area, as a non-profit institution, many of the University’s off-campus residential properties are tax-exempt.

According to a 2015 report authorized by the U. City Council, the University’s tax-exempt residential property in U. City would generate $1.87 to $2.16 million by 2018 if taxed. They also estimated that the public services provided to the University’s exempt properties cost U. City around $3 million.

“The taxpayers of University City are bearing a disproportionate share of the burden,” the report stated. “Washington University can do more.”

Joanna Schooler, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Community and Local Government Relations, wrote to Student Life emphasizing the value WashU places on relationships with community partners.

Schooler referenced a number of initiatives where the University worked with neighborhood communities including: lighting on public walkways, the construction of a pedestrian bridge over Forest Park Parkway, investments in historic properties like the Lewis Center Collaborative to enhance the community’s cultural environment, and math and science curriculum support for local schools.

She also wrote that the University has “collaborated with our community partners on joint public safety initiatives, forgivable home loans for university employees to purchase property in nearby neighborhoods, and on the use of university-owned property for public services, such as a fire station.” 

Luke Ehrenstrom ‘21, an organizer with CAW, suggested that these benefits only go so far. “The further you are from WashU, the less those benefits…are going to matter. So if you’re in the third ward, which is [the] ward that struggles the most…you are completely cut off from the benefits that WashU gives for the most part, but you end up having to pay more for the services that you receive.”

Council member Aleta Klein, who has lived in University City for over thirteen years, spoke to the impact of this financial burden on U. City parents and students.

“Even a small amount of extra money every month may be the difference between their parents having to work extra hours, or their parents not being able to enroll them in an enriching program,” Klein said during the info session. 

“Our school district has a high enough poverty rate to qualify for 100% free breakfast and lunch in all of our schools,” she added in a written statement to Student Life. “A high percentage of Washington University students come from the wealthiest households in the world.”

A 2020 report commissioned by U. City found that tax-exempt University property placed a “fiscal burden” on U. City both through lost revenue and lost opportunity for projects funded by private investors.

“It’s a lot of money that we’re subsidizing,” council member Jeff Hales said. “My hope is that they recognize this imbalance. For a school that proclaims to be incredibly progressive and forward-thinking and interested in social justice…I wish their deeds would match their words.”

Julie Flory, Vice Chancellor for Marketing and Communications, offered a statement last week on WashU’s economic impact to Student Life, pointing toward the $2.9 billion contributed to the local economy and the 47,000 jobs supported in the region by the University in fiscal year 2021.

Throughout the years, representatives from the University have also pointed toward contributions to local communities such as student volunteer hours, research funding attracted to St. Louis, and money spent in the community by students, faculty, and staff. The University has also provided an annual grant to the U. City police department.

CAW’s current initial push is for a PILOT program, citing New Haven’s storied relationship with Yale (which paid $23 million to the city last year as part of their PILOT program), as indicative of the path the organization hopes to push the University toward. 

However, CAW has goals for the relationship between the University and U. City beyond simply “writing a check.” 

“My hope is that as you bring more and more people in, you start to hear and formulate some other ideas about how WashU acts, whether it’s on issues of labor, or even just parking,” Ehrenstrom said.

“Washington University finds answers to some of the world’s toughest questions in our time,” Klein wrote in a comment to Student Life. “I’m sure they can find a way to pay their fair share in their own community.”

 

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