Civil Liberties

'Poor Doors' Are Only the Tip of the Affordable Housing Iceberg

The controversial practice has everyone up in arms, but there are much more pressing housing policies that need to be changed.

Trump Place
Photo Credit: Flickr/Shinya Suzuki

“Cities are difference engines, and one of the qualities they assign is the place of class in space.” — Michael Sorkin, The Nation

On the shores of the Hudson River, where Riverside Park tapers into a strip of bike lane and busy highway, a row of glass behemoths punctuates the skyline. Rising 30 to 40 stories above street level, these towering residential condominiums are self-contained worlds of steel and glass, their backs to the city behind them. The Trump Place apartments have long been reviled for their architectural blandness and isolation from the surrounding social fabric of the neighborhood. But they will soon have a new, equally glittering neighbor that has taken on a more loaded role in the city’s architectural landscape: poster child for rampant income inequality.

Last fall, the Extell Development Company received approval from the city to construct a 33-floor luxury condo with two separate entrances: one for residents paying market rate for their riverfront views, and another for affordable housing tenants. Housing advocates, outraged locals and city councilmembers have pointed to the development as a prime example of how New York City prioritizes the interests of its wealthier residents, relegating those in need of affordable housing to the status of “second-class citizens.” Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal said the poor door was a “separate but equal arrangement” that “has no place in the 21st century.” Public Advocate Letitia James called it “segregation.” And New York Magazine proclaimed that with the construction of 40 Riverside, the city “moved just a little closer to all-out class warfare.”

Extell’s development is part of New York City’s inclusionary housing program, under which developers set aside 20% of apartment units for low-income tenants in exchange for incentives including cheap financing, significant tax breaks and permission to build 33% more square footage than would otherwise be allowed. The affordable units can either be scattered throughout the project (onsite) or located within the same community district (offsite). In the case of 40 Riverside Boulevard, the building where the affordable units are housed is immediately adjacent to the market-rate tower. But this still technically qualifies as offsite, meaning that constructing two separate entrances is perfectly legal, just one of the many creative ways developers have managed to undermine the inclusionary intention of the program. 

New York City lawmakers are taking steps to correct this loophole and prevent the implementation of similar “separate but equal” policies in developments currently under construction. Gale Brewer, the Manhattan Borough president, has promised to reject plans for future developments that have separate entrances. And a cohort of elected officials on the Upper West Side, where 40 Riverside is located, wrote to the heads of New York’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development urging them to change the zoning resolution’s language. As Helen Rosenthal, a councilmember from the Sixth District and one of the lead authors of the letter, said in a phone interview, “It’s a question of fundamental dignity and human rights that people should be able to walk through the same door to get to their homes.”

Their efforts are laudable, and in keeping with the spirit of Mayor de Blasio’s campaign promise to loosen the Dickensian economic strictures that define life in this most unequal of cities. But, like the outpouring of articles condemning the poor door, they don’t address the root causes of our national affordable housing crisis or confront the profound difficulties of finding a reasonably priced place to live in our most populous urban centers. In his column this week, the New York Times’ Paul Krugman argues that affordable housing is the key to job creation and regional growth—which explains why people are moving out of the prohibitively expensive Northeast to locations further south. But as Krugman warns,

“In a fundamental sense, they’re moving the wrong way, leaving local economies where their productivity is high for destinations where it’s lower. And the way to make the country richer is to encourage them to move back, by making housing in dense, high-wage metropolitan areas more affordable.”

Krugman is exactly right. These five factors explain why the “poor door” uproar doesn’t begin to address the complexity of the affordable housing conundrum in America.

1. Building for the Rich

Starting with the basics, many apartment complexes like 40 Riverside don’t just have a separate door for low-income residents; they also have gyms, spas, elevators, rooftop gardens, storage areas, and playrooms that are available only to tenants who pay market rate. Developers have tried to explain this away, insisting that affordable housing tenants are lucky to get a spot in their buildings, regardless of their access to these amenities. Free-market advocates and conservative publications have vigorously come to their defense, with the New York Post labeling critics of such policies “wealth-distribution advocates” who are “satisfied merely to play the ‘racism’ card.”

But these arguments only highlight how transparent the motives of the developers are. They want to build luxury apartment buildings, and they include as many amenities as possible in order to attract those who can pay top dollar. But they leverage the affordable housing units, which provide them with tax incentives and permission to build larger and taller buildings, to their advantage without giving the low-income residents anything in return. This is why it is so disingenuous to hide behind the argument that Extell is legally allowed to have two separate entrances for its two buildings. These decisions are not just accidental quirks of design; they are intentional ways of isolating affordable housing tenants and preventing them from feeling at home in their own apartment buildings.

In a piece on the widespread use of these practices, the Times noted that tenant advocates “view the policies as ways to demoralize people who pay less than the going rate and to not so subtly encourage them to move elsewhere.” This isn’t a New York-specific issue; low-income residents in cities from Los Angeles to London have reported similar incidents of systemic exclusion.  

2. The Elusiveness of Integration

One of the goals of inclusionary housing programs is to promote social mixing between individuals from different economic backgrounds, avoiding the concentrations of poverty that plagued sprawling midcentury affordable housing developments. But as Henry Grabar argues at Salon, “If there’s one aspect of mixed-income housing that has most obviously fallen short, it’s the promise of new social dynamics and inter-class bonding.” While low-income and wealthy tenants may live in proximity to each other in inclusionary housing buildings, studies by the Department of Housing and Urban Development have shown that little interaction actually occurs between them. Needless to say, isolating affordable housing tenants in their own buildings and preventing them from sharing elevators, lobbies and facilities with their higher-income neighbors only exacerbates this divide.

David Von Spreckelsen, senior vice president at Toll Brothers—another high-end developer operating within the inclusionary housing program—contends it is not the responsibility of private developers to build unified communities. “No one ever said that the goal was full integration of these populations….I think it’s unfair to expect very high-income homeowners who paid a fortune to live in their building to be in the same boat as low-income renters.”

But income levels are not the only distinction between these two groups; race is a critical factor, too. Rent-regulated tenants not only earn less, they are far more likely to be minorities. Seventy-three percent of those who rent at market rates are white, compared to just 47% of rent-regulated tenants. This means that the cries of segregation and “separate but equal” policies are more than just hyperbole; poor people of color are in fact most affected by restrictions on entrances and amenities. 

In a phone interview, Barika Williams, deputy director of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD), a New York-based housing advocacy group, expressed concern that these policies reflect the troubling direction the city is headed. “One of New York City’s most enduring and unique attributes is its diversity. And I think there’s widespread concern that we’re turning away from that and no longer embracing the mixed-income, mixed-race, mixed-religion, mixed-culture quality that really makes New York New York.”

3. The Developer’s Choice

One of the critical flaws with New York’s inclusionary housing program is that it is voluntary. Given the reluctance of developers to participate in a relatively new housing system when they can just as easily make huge profits from constructing market-rate luxury buildings, the current program provides little guarantee that communities will get the affordable housing they so desperately need. Indeed, a 2013 report by city councilmember Brad Lander found that since the program began in 2005, it has generated only 2% of all multifamily units built in the five boroughs.

Critics have used this lack of interest on the developer’s part as a reason to overlook discriminatory policies like the poor door for the greater good of more affordable housing. After all, they say, it’s better to have some percentage of affordable housing units than none at all. But this twisted logic ignores the fact that a voluntary program simply doesn’t do enough to address the city’s staggering housing needs. What the low participation rates really prove is that we can’t simply allow the private sector to dictate how affordable housing gets built. As the Nation’s architecture critic, Michael Sorkin, explained in an article on inclusionary zoning, “If we concede that the market is not a system that makes equality its first priority, then we must interfere with it in some way to produce equitable results.”

A report from Association of Neighborhood and Housing Development found that an inclusionary zoning policy that required developers to participate, rather than allowing them to join voluntarily, could generate 4,000 affordable units annually, instead of the current 400 per year. Mayor de Blasio has made mandatory inclusionary zoning a centerpiece of his ambitious housing plan, which is a crucial step in the right direction, but this still won’t do enough to supply a sufficient number of low-income apartments. As ANHD points out, “rent-regulated units are disappearing fast, either as the result of being deregulated once they become vacant, or because of the demolition of the buildings in which they sit.” (Demolition alone cost the city around 8,000 units between 2005-2012.)

4. Affordable, But Not Permanent

Most of the nation’s affordable housing programs only require temporary affordability, which often expires in 30 years or less. This means that developers will continue to profit from the affordable units in their buildings long after they have ceased to be rented to low-income individuals. In New York, the erosion of affordability seriously undermines the mayor’s goal of providing the city with 200,000 affordable units over the next decade. As ANHD reports, starting in 2017, New York City will begin losing an average of more than 11,000 affordable units a year.

5. The Many Shades of Poverty

One of the most striking aspects of the poor door debate is that these affordable housing tenants are defined as “poor.” In order to qualify for one of the 55 affordable units at 40 Riverside, for example, a tenant would need to earn less than 60% of the area’s median income—which would be about $52,000 a year for a family of four. As Pat Regnier pointed out at Time, that family could rent a two-bedroom under the program for around $1,100 per month. Although the extremely high costs of living in New York City mean that a $52,000 salary doesn't go very far, this income level is still far above what most of New York’s affordable housing seekers earn.  

Writing at Vox, Matthew Yglesias argues that “the real victims are every economically struggling New Yorker who doesn’t get the discount” made possible through inclusionary zoning. And there are thousands of these people. ANHD found that a full two-thirds of New York City’s affordable housing is actually unaffordable to most neighborhood residents; the typical Bronx household would have to make 1.5 times its income in order to afford the majority of affordable housing built in the borough.

* * * * *

The affordable housing crisis will not be solved because of the elimination of one policy, nor will it be solved quickly. But in order to mitigate this urgent crisis there are myriad policies cities like New York can implement, like making inclusionary zoning mandatory for developers; ensuring that new low-income units remain permanently affordable; and preventing the displacement of rent-stabilized tenants. The fight for affordable housing is not just about demonizing developers, or attacking the most visible symbols of inequality like the poor door. It’s about taking more than a piecemeal approach to housing policy, understanding the economic constraints for developers, and guaranteeing a supply of comfortable, safe apartments for the urban residents who need housing assistance the most.

Correction: This article has been updated to include the full street name of the Extell company's Upper West Side development. Not to be confused with 40 Riverside Drive, the new inclusionary zoning development will be located at 40 Riverside Boulevard between 63 and 64th streets. 

Allegra Kirkland is AlterNet's associate managing editor. Her writing has appeared in the Chicago Reader, Salon, Daily Serving and The Nation.