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Editorials

Harvard, Boston, and Taxes: The PILOT Episode

Boston's PILOT, or 'payment in lieu of taxes,' program encourages medical, educational, and cultural institutions to make voluntary contributions to make up for the fact they they are exempt from property taxes.
Boston's PILOT, or 'payment in lieu of taxes,' program encourages medical, educational, and cultural institutions to make voluntary contributions to make up for the fact they they are exempt from property taxes. By Steve S. Li
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

Many Harvard students may have heard, or even said, this infamous line before: “I go to a school just outside of Boston.” But being “just outside of Boston” doesn’t mean that Harvard has nothing to do with Boston. In fact, Harvard is one of the largest property owners in the city — without paying any property taxes.

Since 2011, however, under the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program, Boston has instead requested that nonprofit organizations with property holdings valued at upwards of $15 million — a designation which includes Harvard — voluntarily contribute 25 percent of the property taxes they are exempt from paying.

This year, like every year since PILOT’s inception, Harvard has failed to fully comply with Boston's PILOT request, contributing $10.8 million, which amounts to just 79 percent of the city’s recommended amount of $13.7 million. Additionally, less than half of Harvard’s contributions this year were actual financial disbursements: A total of $6.8 million was paid in
“community benefits credits” — the estimated financial value of Harvard initiatives that are considered of benefit to Boston residents. Initiatives such as the Harvard Law School Pro Bono Program, summer academies for high schoolers, and the Arnold Arboretum fall under this category.

To be clear, we support initiatives that serve local communities. But for such initiatives to account for more than half of Harvard’s PILOT contributions seems disingenuous, especially considering that they rely on the labor of students and volunteers that often do not get paid.

While once again disappointed by Harvard’s actions, we are no longer surprised. As we have opined previously, Harvard is not exactly a model neighbor. From its lackluster Town Gown relations with Cambridge to contentious expansions in Allston, we have repeatedly identified a need for Harvard to be more supportive of its neighbors; this is only the latest example.

For an institution that prides itself on nurturing the next citizens and citizen-leaders, Harvard’s own ability to fulfill its civic duties is questionable. How can Harvard teach responsible leadership when it refuses to lead responsibly in the very communities it resides in? Unfortunately, our university is not alone in dropping the baton: Other nearby universities such as Tufts University, Boston University, and Boston College have also failed to satisfy their PILOT requests. Harvard, along with these peer institutions, should move to pay these dues in full in order to enrich the surrounding community.

Above all, we believe that the real scandal is that institutions as wealthy as Harvard can be tax-exempt for property ownership in the first place. The state of Massachusetts should take legislative action to ensure that Harvard pays a fair, standard property tax at the state level. The specific clauses of such legislation and the extent to which it should be extended to other institutions, of course, are up to actual legislators.

But for now, we just ask our University to fulfill its PILOT requests. If paid in full, Harvard’s contributions can generate a meaningful increase in tax revenues for Boston — an increase that, with so many potential benefits, we see no reason to not support.

Some traditions are worth breaking: As Harvard moves to exit the chapter of its history under President Lawrence S. Bacow, who is set to step down in June 2023, we urge the new President and general administration to revisit the institution’s contributions and correct past inadequacies. This new chapter of Harvard’s history is not yet defined, but we hope it will feature at least one thing — Harvard’s renewed support for and commitment to the city it resides in.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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