Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Poor Doors: An Era of Economic Segregation

By Leor GinzburgPublished October 22, 2015

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Until a recent NYS ban, dual door installations, or "poor/rich doors," allowed NYC builders to take advantage of government zoning and tax breaks while segregating low-income and market-rate tenants. This city-level issue begs the broader national question of to what extent wealth should determine a citizen's quality of life?
By Leor Ginzburg 10/22/2015
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50 Riverside Boulevard: the origin of a half-year dispute over century-old zoning practices. For years, building developers have incorporated low-income rentals into their blueprints in exchange for tax breaks and "inclusionary zoning," or permission to construct more square footage than city rules typically allow.
 
With government's leash loosened, development companies such as Extell erected luxurious towers decked with 75-foot swimming pools, private movie theatres, and indoor rock-climbing walls. How's that for the lap of luxury?
 
Unfortunately, low-income tenants will have to stick to board games because only market-rate renters are given access to these amenities. To make matters worse, subsidized renters also have to enter through a special door designated for low-income apartments.
 
Permitted as recently as 2009 by one of Mayor Bloomberg's programs, dual door installations allowed city builders to capitalize on government kickbacks all the while separating business and pleasure; that is subsidized and unsubsidized renters. 50 Riverside brought such practices to the forefront of city housing dialogue earlier this year.
 
The "poor door" as it's come to be called tests the limits and values of American progressives and left-leaning politicians alike, evoking darker, less equal times in American history. While legally permissible, do such features accentuate American income and lifestyle inequality, continually reminding affordable renters what they don't have?
 
Mayor Bill DeBlasio was the first to try to respond to this question, firing the shot heard all the way in Albany. In June, New York State passed a "poor door" ban as an amendment to legislation renewing the statewide 421a tax break program. The NY law requires that "affordable units share the same common entrances and common areas as market rate units."
 
As successful as this sounds, the ban won't affect existing housing and will only begin to control the construction of new high-end projects. That said, as of now, the city and state governments have not called for compliant retrofitting so low-income residents of finished projects continue to enter via the "poor door." The job already done, the government is left to think up new ways to push  "equality renovations."
 
Although only a minority of residential projects adopted the two-door policy, the prohibition of this practice may become financially burdensome on future projects. With exorbitant land and construction costs, some argue that for developers separating subsidized rentals and luxury condos is a matter of maximizing the return on their investments by placing market-rate renters in prime locations within the building rather than a case of elitism.
 
Across the Atlantic, our Anglo sister cities are hinging on poor doors more tightly. Last year, London Mayor Boris Johnson explained, "The difficulty is, and this is what the developers will say, is that the high charges, the charges for all the services in the building, cannot always be met in a uniform way by all tenants, and that's why they make this case of dual access." The argument here lies in developer's financial sensitivity rather than their economic stability or deliberate apartheid.
 
So let's say it's settled. Poor doors are wrong. But how about air travel? Passengers pay different prices and consequently receive different treatment; those that can afford first-class seating stand in special TSA checkpoint lines and lounge in more comfy deluxe seats. How are airplane tickets any different than condominiums, where quality of common areas and lobbies depend on how much you pay?
 
But that's not it. How about theatre seats? Not everybody can have an orchestra view so ticket prices vary. Then what about Amazon Prime rewards, Costco memberships, or Flashpasses at Six Flags for smaller examples? In each case, differences in payment warrant differences in treatment. So are these wrong too?
 
In the next decade, the government at all levels will have a major question to address: to what extent should inequality—of income, wealth, and lifestyle—be regulated? When choosing between a Trump and a Bernie, the American people must assess their own tolerance for economic inequity. But as Michael Edwards, senior lecturer at University College London, said most articulately: until the problem is left alone or undertaken completely, "fiddling around with front-door arrangements is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic."