Columbia and New York University are two of NYC’s biggest landowners, but they pay almost nothing in property taxes. Socialist state legislator Zohran Mamdani has proposed a bill to change that — and put the funds toward the city’s underfunded public colleges.

Low Library at Columbia University in New York City. (Wikimedia Commons)

Columbia University, the New York Times recently reported, is now the largest private landowner in New York City, with over 320 properties whose total value is close to $4 billion. The private New York University (NYU) is also among the top-ten biggest private landlords in the city. Yet thanks to a nearly two-hundred-year-old provision in the New York State constitution, both universities pay basically nothing in property taxes. As a result, Columbia saves about $182 million in taxes annually, while NYU saved $145 million this year.

Socialist New York State Assembly member Zohran K. Mamdani is hoping to change this with two pieces of legislation he introduced earlier this month. The bills would remove the property tax exemption for private universities that had more than $100 million written off their taxes in the prior fiscal year — effectively repealing Columbia and NYU’s tax-exempt status while leaving smaller universities alone. The new tax revenue would go to fund the City University of New York (CUNY), New York City’s flagship public college system, which has long struggled thanks to underfunding.

State senator John Liu has introduced companion legislation in the New York State Senate; the bills are supported by Professional Staff Congress (PSC), the union representing faculty and staff in the CUNY system. Last week, Jacobin contributor Sara Wexler sat down with Mamdani to discuss the legislation and the need to fully fund New York’s public colleges and universities.

Sara Wexler

On Tuesday, December 12, you introduced legislation to end property tax exemptions for Columbia University and New York University. You refer to the legislation with the acronym REPAIR. Can you talk about the specifics of the bill and the motivation behind it?

Zohran Mamdani

These are two pieces of legislation that would allow for a repeal of a portion of the state constitution, specifically the portion that creates a property tax exemption for institutions of higher education. It would then specifically repeal the exemption for any universities that receive more than $100 million a year in those property tax exemptions.

The acronym itself stands for Repeal Egregious Property Accumulation and Invest It. The motivation for introducing this legislation is that, while New Yorkers’ public universities are being subjected to yearly budget cuts and only have 8 percent of buildings in good repair, Columbia and NYU are not only exempt from paying property taxes, they are also two of the largest property holders in New York City. It’s time for us to repair this situation and to ensure that every New Yorker can receive a quality higher education.

Sara Wexler

What would the additional tax revenue go toward if this legislation passes?

Zohran Mamdani

It would go directly toward CUNY.

Sara Wexler

A spokesman from NYU described NYU and Columbia as two charitable nonprofit organizations, and a Columbia representative similarly argued that Columbia is a major driver of economic growth in New York. What do you think of these arguments for letting Columbia and NYU have tax-exempt status?

Zohran Mamdani

When the state constitution was originally written, the intention was to provide tax exemptions or for institutions of higher education so they could focus their institutions primarily on their mission, which is education. What has happened instead is that the exemption has allowed Columbia and NYU to grow their property accumulation to the scale that the New York Times has described Columbia as the largest private property owner in all of New York City, and NYU is in the top ten.

These universities have gone beyond the primary purpose of educating their students and now also serve to amass property. Their property holdings have tripled over the last thirty years. What we’re seeing time and again is these institutions using the exemption to create a market advantage when bidding on and purchasing properties across New York City.

To the idea that they are institutions that have given back to New York City, I think in the absence of context, you might see their charitable contributions as significant. But when you compare what Columbia and NYU have given back to New York City with the annual property tax bill of more than $320 million [that they would be paying without the exemption], you realize that the charitable contributions are a drop in the bucket compared to what they should actually be paying. We should measure their contributions in terms of what any other property owner of this scale would be paying.

Sara Wexler

New York City Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has endorsed a campaign called New Deal for CUNY. It calls for massive state funding of CUNY’s infrastructure and staff. Is this legislation connected to the New Deal for CUNY campaign?

Zohran Mamdani

I’ve been in touch with organizers in DSA and YDSA [Young Democratic Socialists of America], and more than that with PSC, the union that represents staff and employees of CUNY, who are the champions of the New Deal for CUNY legislation. I’ve been a proud and loud supporter of the New Deal for CUNY over the last few years that I’ve served in the assembly.

The REPAIR campaign is part and parcel of that fight for increased funding to CUNY, to finally bring CUNY back to its status as the crown jewel of our city. This legislation should not be seen in any way as competing with or in lieu of New Deal for CUNY; these are parts of the same fight.

When we get to the point where Columbia and NYU start to pay what they owe, we will continue to fight in Albany for increased funding for CUNY through the New Deal for CUNY because there is a need for funding that exceeds the taxes that Columbia and NYU are currently exempt from. And it’s a need that has to be honored by the city and the state.

Sara Wexler

You introduced this bill shortly after Mayor Eric Adams proposed huge budget cuts to CUNY, along with cuts to New York public libraries and  K-12 public schools. Was this a motivation behind the legislation? Do you think Adams’s proposed cuts have helped your campaign gain momentum in New York?

Zohran Mamdani

It’s absolutely helped to highlight the absurd contrasts between Columbia and NYU and CUNY. In this current moment, when NYU has just opened up a $1.3 billion building at 181 Mercer Street and Columbia has recently finished its business school’s $500 million relocation to Manhattanville — one part of its $6 billion expansion in Upper Manhattan — CUNY has faced funding cuts from the city of $60 million in fiscal years 2023 and 2024, with Mayor Adams proposing further cuts.

This legislation, however, was not proposed in direct response to Mayor Adams’s cuts, because sadly cuts to CUNY predate Mayor Adams. For many years, CUNY has been on the chopping block, despite the fact that it serves New Yorkers at a scale that cannot be matched by any other institution of higher education in this city.

Despite the fact that it propels almost six times as many low-income students into the middle class and beyond as all the Ivy League colleges combined, we have seen three hundred faculty and staff positions eliminated at CUNY. We have seen a constant state of disrepair — illuminated by that statistic that only 8 percent of CUNY buildings are in good repair. It’s why students have called [the CUNY school] Brooklyn College “Broke-lyn College.”

This is something that has been urgent and necessary for many years. Mayor Adams’s cruel and unnecessary budget cuts highlight this situation, but they are not the cause of it.

Sara Wexler

What will it take to pass this legislation?

Zohran Mamdani

As the first bill in this package of two pieces of legislation is an amendment to the constitution, it would require the bill to be passed in two consecutive legislative sessions and then be passed by voters at a ballot referendum. So, we’re looking at a little more than two years as the quickest time line in which we could pass this legislation.

However, I’m optimistic and I’m confident, because often when we propose legislation to give working-class New Yorkers what they deserve, there’s so much effort that has to be expended on educating people as to why it’s necessary or what it does. But this legislation has been common sense for anyone that I’ve spoken to. In fact, many people were not even aware that NYU and Columbia do not pay property taxes, or that they are some of the largest private property owners in all of New York City.

These realities power this campaign. So far we’ve already seen hundreds of New Yorkers take action in making it clear that they want to see a New York where every single New Yorker is given a quality higher education, not just those who are fortunate or wealthy enough to attend Columbia or NYU.

It is critical that ordinary people understand their role as a significant one in this campaign, because we will not win this purely on the inside in Albany. This is a campaign that can only succeed if we make it what it should be, which is a mass campaign of hundreds and thousands of New Yorkers calling for the largest property owners in New York City to finally pay their property taxes and have that money go to educate this city’s working class.

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