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PILOT Action Group Hosts Forum to Call on Tax-Exempt Institutions to Invest in Cities

The Boston City Hall is located in the heart of Boston's Government Center complex.
The Boston City Hall is located in the heart of Boston's Government Center complex. By Mariah Ellen D. Dimalaluan
By Yusuf S. Mian and Charlotte P. Ritz-Jack, Crimson Staff Writers

The Massachusetts “Payment in Lieu of Taxes” Action Group hosted a virtual statewide forum Tuesday to discuss the group’s commitment to calling on tax-exempt institutions to invest in city development.

PILOT — a coalition of labor unions, advocacy groups, and individuals across Massachusetts — advocates for wealthy nonprofit institutions to invest in localities. Tuesday’s forum, which was live-streamed over Facebook, was intended to educate the public on the coalition’s goals.

The event featured guest speakers like Trinity College professor Davarian L. Baldwin, who wrote “In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities Are Plundering Our Cities,” and Boston City Councilor Elizabeth A. “Liz” Breadon, who represents the Allston-Brighton district, which includes real estate owned by three universities.

The greater Boston area is home to a high concentration of some of America’s wealthiest universities such as Harvard. As nonprofits, the institutions are not required to pay property taxes under Massachusetts law.

According to PILOT’s website, 70 percent of Boston’s revenue derives from property taxes, while 49 percent of the city’s land is occupied by government and nonprofit institutions that pay no property tax.

Baldwin said this dearth of property taxes makes cities reliant on donations at the discretion of these institutions.

“This is almost a feudal relationship where residents have to look out or gain access to resources at the philanthropic behest of these power brokers,” he said.

In January 2020, the Boston City Council filed a PILOT ordinance that strengthened existing recommendations for contributions from tax-exempt institutions. The existing measure, spearheaded in 2010, suggests that institutions with over $15 million in holdings contribute 25 percent of their assessed value to the city.

PILOT has also introduced legislation at the state level — H. 3080, S. 1874, and H.3803 — that would enable towns to establish additional programs to generate revenue from tax-exempt institutions.

“These institutions need to pay their fair share to our neighborhood of Allston-Brighton and to our city as a whole,” Breadon said.

Harvard participates in the PILOT program, but the University has not paid its full recommended sum for the past nine years. Last year, the program requested that Harvard pay $13 million for its landholdings in Boston, $6.5 million of which should be paid in cash. Last year, the University contributed $3.7 million, a little over half the request.

One of the leaders of PILOT, Enid Eckstein, condemned the lack of contributions by institutions.

“This is not good policy — local governments need reliable and predictable resources to plan, to have good schools, to have good libraries, roads, et cetera” she said.

Eckstein called on state legislators to standardize how these nonprofits contribute funds.

“Our legislation is an attempt to create a standard framework for PILOT and then give towns the opportunity to opt in and use that as the standard,” she said in an interview after the forum.

—Staff writer Yusuf S. Mian can be reached at yusuf.mian@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @yusuf_mian2.

—Staff writer Charlotte P. Ritz-Jack can be reached at charlotte.ritz-jack@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @Charritzjack.

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