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'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.
 
 
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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,