The Worst Thing About the ‘Poor Door’ Might Be Its Naysayers

A building doesn't create, foster, or even emphasize inequality. It can, however, act as a mirror, the revelations of which are occasionally uncomfortable.

Construction at One Riverside Park.
Construction at One Riverside Park.

In an unusual, albeit muted, concession to tabloid-style punning, the New York Times ran an (already much-circulated) front-page story today titled “‘Poor Door’ in a New York Tower Opens a Fight Over Affordable Housing.” The “poor door” in question, at Extell’s yet-incomplete 1 Riverside Park building, on the Upper West Side, is not news. The development’s plan for separate entrances for wealthy condo owners and modestly-situated beneficiaries of affordable housing lotteries has been widely reported—and debated. (Condos at 1 Riverside currently start around $2 million and will offer typical luxury amenities, river views and an extra-special lobby; renters, who will be eligible for tenancy only if they make up to $50,000 a year, will have no aquatic vistas or amenity access, although they will get their own—less opulent—ingress.)

Extell’s income-distinguished entrances are also not the city’s first. A handful of other developments, including Williamsburg’s the Edge, which features in the Times story, have similar arrangements. And the conflict to which the headline alludes—and which has in fact long been “open,” running quietly in the background—is truly less about affordable housing than what might be called spacial semantics. It’s unsurprising, then, that Extell president Gary Barnett seemed a bit incredulous in speaking to the Times about his design, which, after all, meets the standards of the city’s inclusionary housing program.

“We wouldn’t be able to do affordable,” if the rentals had been integrated with the condo tower, he said. “It wouldn’t make any financial sense.” Mr. Barnett is above all practical, and when we spoke recently with an executive at a leading multifamily lending institution about another Extell development—in the vicinity of the Seaport—that has not only separate entrances, but altogether different buildings for luxury condos and affordable rentals, he generally supported Mr. Barnett’s reasoning. Splitting the property types “makes the affordable units much easier to deliver at a reasonable price for the developer,” he said. “It’s more cost effective to market and sell, and anything better for the project’s economics is better for the lending side.”

He continued, “You know, the city wants to build so many affordable units. It doesn’t say they all have to be luxury…There’s a cost consideration, and at a certain point the developer moves ahead or doesn’t move ahead. The lower that cost can be, the greater the chance is that he’ll want to proceed.”

And yet, and yet. New Yorkers, especially official ones, are displeased. Alicia Glen says that separate doors do not align with the mayor’s “principles of equality,” according to the Times. As a mayoral candidate and City Council Speaker, Christine Quinn insisted that she she would not “stand for this or discrimination of any kind,” that the arrangement would “negate the inclusiveness.” (The de Blasio administration will allegedly be working to change the rules that currently allow “poor doors.”)

In the face of the city’s very real affordability crisis, such chest-beating over the division of rich from not-so-rich in a particular building—the whole of which, mind you, stands in a desirable neighborhood—seems a bit silly. As Vox editor Matthew Yglesias has pointed out, “the typical building in Manhattan has no need of separate entrances for rich and poor because the main entrance is only for rich people.” (Italics are his.) We would go further: the typical Manhattan neighborhood, increasingly, is only for rich people.

To act as though people in New York and elsewhere are not near-universally segregated along economic faults is absurd, and a building doesn’t create, foster, or even emphasize inequality. It can, however, act as a mirror, the revelations of which are occasionally uncomfortable.

One Riverside Park, Mr. Yglesias writes, “works as a potent metaphor. But the building is not a metaphor. It is, in fact, a building. A building in which people live. A building whose construction employs people, and whose existence expands the New York City tax base. Even better, it’s a building that created subsidized dwellings in a desirable location for 55 lucky families.”

It’s tough to argue with those benefits. Indeed listing them highlights the oddity of the vigor with which many politicians, columnists and community leaders react to the mention of the “poor door” arrangement. (“Segregation!”) But the building, or rather, New Yorkers’ vocal displeasure with it, does act as a metaphor—perhaps more effectively than for the the city’s inequalities—for the dissonance between how we enjoy thinking about ourselves and the way we actually like to live.

Mayor de Blasio swept into office on a wave of populist sanctimony in a city ostensibly sick of Michael Bloomberg’s Wall Street swagger and pro-billionaire rhetoric, and which prides itself on left-leaning politics and cultural sophistication. Nowhere was liberal economist and Capital in the 21st Century author’s Thomas Piketty’s “rock star treatment” more adulatory than here.

But signs point to residents more attached to preserving their sense of moral high ground than actually living in economically diverse communities. According to a study of the top 10 metropolitan areas where renters and homeowners live adjacent to one another—and where they don’t—released today by Trulia, New York represents the fourth-most segregated owner vs. renter market in the country.

The recession hampered Americans’ inclination to divide along these lines, according to the study, as segregation “dropped between 2000 and 2010 – especially in the hardest-hit metros where home prices fell, and the foreclosure crisis turned some single-family homes into rentals.” We needn’t look far, of course, to find evidence in New York of that trend’s rapid reversal. And Mayor de Blasio’s home borough provides an illuminating glimpse of the city’s liberal id in the ongoing kerfuffle over whether affordable housing will rise in Brooklyn Bridge Park, which is already home to luxury condos in the form of One Brooklyn Bridge Park.

One resident recently objected to her neighbors’ concerns that nearby affordable housing would cause additional congestion and lower property values, telling the Times “It felt very Nimby, like ‘We don’t want poor people in the backyard.’” She continued, ““After two months of those comments, I sent out an email to everyone. I said, ‘You are making me ashamed to be your neighbor, please stop.’” Other locals seem less open-hearted. One Lori Schomp, a 33-year-old woman who moved with her boyfriend to Brooklyn Heights last year—into a $7.6 million townhouse—and who is the lead plaintiff in a legal suit filed to prevent residential development in the Park, worried that her views of the water during her frequent runs might be obscured.

And all this from the New Yorker-reading intelligentsia of Brownstone Brooklyn!

Economic segregation in the city is general and only promises to become more acute. Its sources run at least in part to very basic, if distasteful, human preferences. The mayor has to know full well that the “poor door” does nothing to breed inequality. And objecting to—to say nothing of outlawing—an arrangement that encourages private developers to build affordable housing in desirable parts of the city, whose superior public services stand to offer a boost to lower and middle-income families, because its aesthetics don’t quite line up with your personal brand amounts to no more than theatrics. It is tempting to call it cynicism.

And if anyone knows a way to get a leg up in that “poor door” lottery, by the way, please, don’t hesitate to drop us a line.

The Worst Thing About the ‘Poor Door’ Might Be Its Naysayers