This is definitely NOT how affordable housing incentives are supposed to work: New York firm Extell Development just won approval to build a 33-story condo building with a separate entrance for its low-income residents. The media are already referring to it as the "poor door," and many New York residents are not impressed -- including Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal (D), who has referred to the project as "segregation." Shockingly, it's not the only building in New York with this kind of arrangement, it's just the one that people have decided to take notice of.
Why would Extell build a luxury condo building with low-income units in the first place, if it's so afraid that contact with the poor will sully or upset those purchasing $1.3 million condos? The answer to that question lies in two things: New York's Inclusionary Housing Program, and the 521a tax exemption.
Under the IHP, if a developer agrees to create low-income housing units either on or offsite as part of a development, the developer gets more floor area. Created to spur economic integration, the IHP offers a clear incentive to developers: Include some low-income housing, get a bonus you can use to generate more profits on a development.
The 521a, meanwhile, is an extremely byzantine and complex tax abatement that allows developers to avoid property taxes for a set number of years after development on qualifying properties. Given the extremely high price of real estate in New York City, there are a million little green reasons to make sure your property qualifies.
Effectively, the building, located at 40 Riverside Boulevard, will be receiving millions of dollars in subsidies from the city for the 55 low-income rental units inside (an additional 219 units will be sold as condos). To qualify for the affordable units, applicants will need to make 60% or less of New York's median income, around $51,000. Occupying floors two through six, low-income residents will be able to choose from studios ($845), one bedrooms ($908), and two bedrooms ($1,099).
But they'll be entering through the back door. Owners in the complex have an entrance befitting their river-facing luxury apartments, while renters will enter from the street side. Their apartments will be designed in a block facing the street, reflecting the fact that no luxury condo buyer wants a view of the street -- and that developers don't want to waste a scenic view on low-income housing. It's not just the entrance that will be separate: The developer is also using a separate elevator maintenance company and it will be separating out building services.
Furthermore, low-income tenants will not have access to building amenities like the gym and pool. One wouldn't want wealthy residents, after all, having to run the risk of seeing a poor person while they're working out or taking a few laps in the morning. And certainly low-income residents in the rental units shouldn't expect to work out, get fit, and try to lead healthy lifestyles.
Given that many low-income New Yorkers are people of color, there are some racial overtones to the proposal and the building's policies, which will disproportionately impact low-income people of color.
This separate but equal arrangement has many New Yorkers steamed, and not just them. It's such a blatant example of classism that it's attracted national attention, and it has some disturbing implications for other cities with high rents and tremendous pressure on the housing market, like San Francisco. Is New York's poor door controversy the equivalent of San Francisco's Google Bus?
Income inequality in the United States is higher than it's been since 1928. Issues like this highlight that fact; even in progressive San Francisco and the supposedly forward-thinking Upper West Side, wealthy individuals have a squick factor when it comes to interacting directly with low-income people. They don't want them in their buildings, on their transit, and on their streets.
Extell has defended itself in this case by insisting that the low-income housing is "offsite" despite the fact that it's attached to the development and is clearly part of the central architecture of the structure. They've also suggested that some phantom legal requirement is forcing them to separate the entrances, as though owners and renters need legal insulation from each other.
We'll let you share the same general geographic space, but don't get too comfortable, seems to be the general message. And New York's version of "low-income" and "affordable housing" is quite different from that in the rest of the country, where $51,000 would leave many families extremely comfortable, and $850 would rent a whole lot of house (like, in my case, a two-bedroom house on five acres -- with my own river view). If $51,000 is the median income, how many New Yorkers can't even begin to imagine affording studios in the building?
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer claims that she'll be rejecting similar construction proposals in the future. Christine Quinn also spoke out against the project while she was still the Speaker of the New York City Council, and Assemblywoman Rosenthal has introduced a bill in the New York State Assembly that would require equal access to building amenities. A9061B "Requires non-preferential opportunity for use of amenities in certain buildings and apartments."
Like others who have condemned the poor door, they argue that this is not what was intended when incentives were created for low-income housing in New York City. While developers may be sticking to the letter of the law, they are not embracing the spirit, which is economic integration, not building segregation.
As for the wealthy individuals benefiting from these incentives?
No one ever said that the goal was full integration of these populations. So now you have politicians talking about that, saying how horrible those back doors are. I think it’s unfair to expect very high-income homeowners who paid a fortune to live in their building to have to be in the same boat as low-income renters, who are very fortunate to live in a new building in a great neighborhood.