Contributed by NU Students Against Institutional Discrimination
By virtue of stepping foot on Northeastern’s campus, you’ve heard all about the wonders of co-op. Employment opportunities in almost forty states and ninety countries, guaranteed resume superiority over your friends back home, and six month breaks from enrolling in classes… yeah, we’ve been indoctrinated with all of the fast facts. But co-op also has a dark side that *they* don’t want you to know about: taxes. That first paycheck exposes you to the entire range of emotions - anticipation, joy, confusion, blind rage, you name it.
After a little internal negotiation, the taxes usually end up being something students can accept, or at least tolerate. They’re a basic function of society, and a burden we all have to carry. Well, almost all of us.
As a “non-profit” institution, Northeastern is exempt from federal taxes, state sales taxes, and local property taxes. In 2012, Boston realized the absurdity of unabashedly catering to multi-million dollar institutions, and the city implemented Payment in Lieu of Tax (PILOT) guidelines. With PILOT, the city suggests that property tax-exempt institutions (primarily universities and hospitals) make annual payments to offset the cost of the taxpayer-funded city services provided to them (See Payment in Lieu of Tax Program via boston.gov). So to be clear, Northeastern is taking your tuition and room & board, and then they’re utilizing city services - that your taxes will help fund - for free.
Although PILOT is a step up from Boston’s previous policy, it’s a non-binding program. Every year, the city suggests how much money each tax exempt institution should contribute through PILOT, and every year, each exempt institution decides how much of the suggested amount it would like to contribute. In 2016, Northeastern only paid 23% of its suggested PILOT contribution (See Fiscal Year 2016 Payment in Lieu of Tax (PILOT) Program Results via boston.gov).
Now, the policy of tax exemption is based on the premise that in place of financial contributions, exempt institutions make significant social contributions. These social contributions are accounted for in the city’s PILOT calculations, so they don’t excuse Northeastern’s poor performance on that front, but are NU’s social contributions even weighty enough to justify the university’s tax exemption in the first place?
To answer that question, and for the sake of fairness, we should highlight some of Northeastern’s “community benefits” initiatives:
- Non-student residents are allowed to access the Marino Center - between 5am and 9am, and only if there are less than fifty of them.
- Northeastern has committed to meeting 100% of demonstrated financial need for Boston Public Schools alumni who attend the university. However, less than 2.5% of Northeastern’s students are from Boston zip codes, and even fewer are graduates of BPS (See Northeastern’s 2016 IMP Community Benefits Annual Report).
- Northeastern has placed a focus on purchasing from women & minority-owned, as well as small and local businesses, but they have not yet met most of their stated goals on this front (See 2016 IMP Community Benefits Annual Report and Northeastern’s Community Benefits Annual Report 2015).
- In 2013, Northeastern made a commitment to identify and support affordable housing initiatives in surrounding neighborhoods… but despite the affordable housing crisis in the city, the university claims that there have been “no opportunities” to do so thus far. (See Northeastern’s 2016 IMP Community Benefits Annual Report).
- This year, Northeastern announced its plan to create a $2.5 million fund to help grow local businesses. Hopefully they find more opportunities to do so than they have to support affordable housing. (See Northeastern’s 2016 IMP Community Benefits Annual Report).
Those are some relatively positive - though clearly flawed - efforts, but they really shouldn’t be exploited as a basis upon which to make Northeastern tax exempt. If anything, these initiatives should be viewed as (inadequate) attempts to offset the university’s harmful effects on the neighborhoods that it borders. Kind of like the rationale behind the PILOT program, but in reverse - a Payment in Lieu of Terribleness, if you will.
If you’ve been on a tour of Northeastern, between the multiple references to co-op, you probably heard the cute story about how Northeastern was founded in the YMCA of Greater Boston and gradually grew into the prestigious institution that it is today. The land surrounding the YMCA wasn’t empty, though. It was residential, belonging to vibrant neighborhoods like Roxbury, the South End, and Fenway. To acquire and build on the 7.35 million square feet of land it now owns, the university had to change the fabric of those neighborhoods (See Northeastern’s 2013 Institutional Master Plan).
The International Village side of Ruggles is the most poignant example of that disruptive process. There are six (soon to be seven) Northeastern residences between IV and the Davenports, and that stretch of Lower Roxbury has endured the direct impacts of Northeastern’s development. According to census data, in 1960, before much of Northeastern’s expansion, that area’s residents were 80-95% Black. Today that number has decreased to around 30% (Via Social Explorer). For many of us students to be able to live where we now do, families and individuals were pushed from their homes.
Northeastern has created the illusion that its development is participatory, but the university essentially imposes its will. Many of the residents of surrounding neighborhoods are low-income renters rather than homeowners, so Northeastern is able to disregard their voices with relative impunity. The university has created a number of advisory councils for a small number of community members to sit on and voice their concerns, but each of the councils are powerless. The Boston Planning & Developing Agency (BPDA - formerly known as the Boston Redevelopment Agency) is the only organization with formal power to oversee Northeastern’s approach to development, but the BPDA itself is complicit in gentrification and displacement throughout the city. As things currently stand, the nearby residents have little-to-no say in shaping the futures of their communities.
The current processes for development in Boston, and more specifically, at Northeastern, directly inhibit residents’ ability to build and preserve healthy local communities. In an attempt to challenge those processes, Students Against Institutional Discrimination (SAID) placed a referendum question on the ballot for the 2017 Student Government Association election. We asked students to call upon Northeastern to give residents of surrounding neighborhoods final decision-making power in University development and community projects that would affect their communities.
We were thrilled when the student body approved the question with 69% of the vote. If implemented, this policy would set an important new precedent for relations between urban universities and the communities they encroach upon. Unsurprisingly, Northeastern administrators have been stonewalling our attempts to engage with them on this issue. To push Northeastern away from its exploitive development processes, we know we’ll have to continue organizing as a student body. We hope you’ll consider joining us.