Lawmakers Looking To Blunt Budget Cuts at CUNY Focus on Property Tax Exemptions for Elite New York Universities

Two lawmakers at Albany say Columbia and NYU need to pay more than $300 million in yearly property taxes.

AP/Seth Wenig
The NYU campus at New York in December 2021. AP/Seth Wenig

Two of the most elite universities in America — Columbia University and New York University — have become the targets of a new effort by state lawmakers who want the schools to pay their property taxes. They say the $327 million the schools owe could be used to fund the city university system. 

The legislation, which will be introduced Tuesday by a pair of Queens lawmakers, Assemblyman Zohran Mamdani and Senator John Liu, would strip NYU and Columbia of their property tax exemptions. 

If adopted, the legislation would amend a 200-year-old law that allows universities and museums to pay almost no property taxes. In total, Columbia has avoided $182 million in property taxes in the last year, a larger break than Madison Square Garden, Citi Field, and Yankee Stadium. According to an analysis by the New York Times, the property tax exemptions have freed up capital for Columbia to build a $4 billion real estate portfolio. 

“When the constitution of the state was written, there was no idea that such an exemption could apply to two of the top landlords in New York City,” Mr. Mamdani said in a statement. “This bill seeks to address universities that have so blatantly gone beyond primarily operating as institutions of higher education and are instead acting as landlords and developers.”

A spokesman for NYU, John Beckman, told the New York Times that the proposal would be “extraordinarily disruptive” to his university’s operation and mission.

“To choose two charitable, non-profit organizations out of the thousands in the state and compel them to be treated like for-profits certainly strikes us as misguided and unfair,” Mr. Beckman said. “We are deeply appreciative of those policies, which have been in place for two centuries, but we also take some modest pride in the many, many ways, small and large, that N.Y.U. contributes to the city’s well-being and its economy.”

The doom loop of allowing universities to amass real estate across the city only to pay less and less tax on those properties has forced Mayor Adams to propose budget cuts to essential city services, including libraries, schools, and the police department. The budget cuts have also been made necessary by the influx of migrants, putting a strain on first responders and shelters, as well as the end of pandemic-era emergency money from the federal government.

“Migrant costs are going up, tax revenue growth is slowing, and COVID stimulus funding is drying up,” the mayor said in a statement announcing the cuts in November. “No city should be left to handle a national humanitarian crisis largely on its own, and without the significant and timely support we need from Washington, D.C., today’s budget will be only the beginning.” 

Mr. Adams, who is a City University of New York alumnus, was criticized by his alma mater for his 5 percent mid-year cut to the school. “I guess no one should be surprised because since he took office, Mayor Adams has undermined CUNY at every opportunity, eliminating nearly 300 faculty lines due to attrition for our nationally renowned University system since his first budget, leaving the community colleges short of faculty and staff, and students without the support they need to succeed,” said CUNY’s staff and faculty union. 

Messrs. Mamdani and Liu believe that eliminating these tax breaks for Columbia and NYU will provide the city and state with a new opportunity to invest in the city university system. Combined, the two elite universities have endowments worth nearly $20 billion, compared to CUNY’s 2023 budget of just $4.3 billion. 

“The union definitely supports this legislation strongly,” the CUNY union president, James Davis, told Gothamist. “We feel like it’s long past due.” Mr. Davis says the money will be used to remedy the “years of underfunding and years of deferred maintenance on the physical structure of the university.”

The New York Sun

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