Human Rights

What's Odious and Dickensian? 4 Discriminatory Ways People Suffer Income Segregation

“Poor doors” simply reflect the inequality inherent in our society.

Photo Credit: Tony Taylor Stock/Shutterstock.com

A few weeks ago, when New York City approved Extell Development’s plans to create two entrance doors for its lavish condos—one for wealthy tenants who can afford the market rate pricetag and another for lower-income, subsidized tenants—housing advocates were furious, calling it a discriminatory “separate but equal” ruling. 

But segregation like this is not new, at least not overseas. TheU.K. Guardianhas reportedthat in London, “even bicycle storage spaces, rubbish disposal facilities and postal deliveries are being separated.” That trend is expected more in the U.S., as developers try to reap government subsidies for mixed-income housing, while still marketing units to those who can afford higher pricetags.

Housing discrimination is not new, but new forms appear to be surfacing. Sometimes, it results from both government and developers failing to understand the realities of what low-income residents will experience. As Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts wrote last week, “poor doors” simply reflect the inequality inherent in our society:

“A New York Times pundit called it 'odious.' CNN called it 'income segregation.' The Christian Science Monitor called it 'Dickensian.'

“The door is all those things, yes, but it is also the pointed symbol of a truth we all know but pretend not to, so as to preserve the fiction of an egalitarian society. Namely, that rich and poor already have different doors.

“The rich enter the halls of justice, finance, education, health and politics through portals of advantage from which the rest of us are barred.”

The following are five examples of "poor doors" low-income residents are facing, or may soon face in their mixed-use affordable housing arrangements.

1. Nice pool—now keep out.

In Los Angeles, a developer’s proposal for extending a West Hollywood building includes separate amenities for low-income residents. The Community Development Department, which disapproves of the large size of the project, noted in its report:

“The current configuration has the affordable units looking down on a pool they are prohibited from using. This very obvious delineation of amenities runs contrary to West Hollywood’s policies of inclusiveness and equal access for all… Housing staff remains unable to support the proposed project because there would be separate amenity areas for the affordable housing tenants and the market-rate homeowners.”

The developer’s plan would create 64 residential units in a so-called mixed-use building, with only eight being affordable housing units. But adding these units helps them avoid some of the city’s more arduous zoning requirements. The Timeshas previously reported on similar bans on amenities for low-income residents in New York City.

2. Private elevator for the wealthy.

Writing about NYC’s poor door for Slate,Kristin Hohenadel pointed out that a mixed-use building in the city has private elevators for the wealthy. She wrote:

“At 5 Tudor City Place in Manhattan, for example, a multimillion-dollar penthouse has a private elevator, while 20-some other floors of 1920s microapartments, many of which are too small to be legally built today, share a block of four elevators.

The Guardiandescribed how this circumstance rolled out in London:

Brown said that the lifts kept breaking down and she often had to take the stairs to her ninth-floor flat. "When both the lifts weren't working they did say that if you were pregnant, had a health problem or a baby in a buggy you could use the main entrance," she said. Otherwise, the tenants said, they were "locked out" of the main lobby.

3. Low-income housing… with a perfect envelope and credit score.

Nine luxury residential buildings will be coming to Brooklyn in the next few years that will include mixed-use units, some with rents as low as $546 per month. But developers, who are required to give priority to local residents, say they are having trouble filling the affordable housing units. It’s not because people aren’t applying; in fact, Rob Solano, director of Churches United For Fair Housing, said applicants are being denied for ridiculous errors and mediocre credit scores.

"They won't even look at applications that are sent in large envelopes or via Priority Mail,” he told a local reporter. “They will throw out paper applications that have whiteout on the sheets."

That news report found that most applicants were getting rejected because of bad credit, such as “late payments on student loans, credit card bills and rent checks.”

These are circumstances many low-income people face because of the economy, which begs the question: Are developers really trying to fill these affordable units? If so, with whom? They accepted the tax credits and special construction permissions for their mixed-use project, but they appear to be balking at accepting tenants from the community.  

4. Republicans in Congress push for federal probe into housing vouchers.

Since 2011, about 700 low-income tenants in Chicago were given “super-vouchers” to live in high-end buildings, in what the Chicago Housing Authority calls “opportunity areas.” These are neighborhoods with good schools, access to employment and low poverty rates. These buildings don’t have poor doors. Instead, residents share pools, gyms and other amenities the building provides. Sounds nice right? Wrong, says Rep. Aaron Shock (R-IL). To him, it sounds like a waste of tax dollars.

"The idea of people living in the definition of luxury at taxpayers' expense I think speaks to the type of abuse that should agitate everyone," Shock told ABC, saying he has requested a federal investigation into the trend. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will be looking into CHA’s use of these vouchers.

A resident of one of the buildings shared Shock’s contempt for his working-class neighbors, telling ABC-TV, "It's not fair because we work hard to live in a place like this."

This idea that working-class people don’t work hard or are undeserving of affordable housing is absurd, and underscores why affordable housing initiatives are needed in the first place. Hopefully, HUD will not eliminate the vouchers in Chicago, which only account for less than 2 percent of CHA’s nearly 40,000 vouchers.

As the political finger-pointing swirls around a few hundred tenants who are getting the opportunity to live in a nice home, it's worth remembering that 15,000 people are on CHA’s waiting list. The need for affordable housing options is not going away.

Alyssa Figueroa is an associate editor at AlterNet. 

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