Though such a system might smack of Victorian England — or worse, the Jim Crow South or apartheid South Africa — plans for it existed in New York City until last week, when Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) inserted language into a rent-regulation bill that was passed the state legislature outlawing some “poor doors.”
The key sentence, as the New York Post reported: “Affordable units shall share the same common entrances and common areas as market rate units.”
De Blasio added the language to a tax program called 421a, signed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo Friday, that offered developers a tax abatement for providing affordable housing. Some eager for the break — but not necessarily eager for low-income tenants — designed buildings with separate entrances, a move many deemed contrary to the American way.
“Buildings that segregate entrances for lower-income and middle-class tenants are an affront to our values,” Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer told the New York Post.
After reports from the West Side Rag and the New York Post, one planned structure became the center of the poor-door controversy: 40 Riverside Blvd., a 33-story building slated for 274 units — 219 to be sold as condos, 55 to be rented to those making 60 percent or less of the area’s median income (or $51,540 for a family of four at the time).
“You know that show Downton Abbey?” the West Side Rag wrote. “Where the servants have to come and go through separate entrances and bow their heads when they see a noble? Well, there could soon be a version of Downton Abbey right here, on the Upper West Side!”
The building soon found its way into the national news. And the poor door’s debut did not go well.
“Now, poor doors are just the latest in a trend that helps us haves not have to see the have-nots,” Stephen Colbert said. “I mean, we haves get skyboxes instead of bleachers, personal shoppers instead of going to a store, and at airports, first class has its own TSA lane.”
Even the developer seemed chagrined.
“Separate entrances doesn’t sound good,” Gary Barnett, the president of Extell Development, said.
Yet the poor door had some defenders — even in the pages of the New York Post, a publication that’s since praised the poor door’s demise. The sheer economics of a world that demands affordable housing, it seemed, also demand poor doors.
“Land and construction costs in the city are so high, developers must maximize the return on their investments,” Steve Cuozzo wrote in 2013. “Requiring luxury condos to share floors with subsidized rentals means a developer must swallow losses on subsidized units at prime locations within a building, which otherwise could be sold for market value.”
Before citizens of another rapidly gentrifying city feel superior to New York, it’s worth noting that poor doors have washed up on the shores of the Thames. London’s mayor, however, has ruled out ruling them out.
“The difficulty is, and this is what the developers will say, is that the high charges, the concierge charges, the charges for all the services in the building, cannot always be met in a uniform way by all the tenants, and that’s why they make this case for dual access,” Mayor Boris Johnson said last year.
Nor are poor doors — or, at least, plans for them — unknown within the Beltway. In at least one location — Portner Place, near the intersection of 14th and U streets NW in Washington — a poor door may come by “poorer” residents’ request. After all, young professionals buying condos and larger families renting apartments often keep different hours and have different needs.
“We were presented with several development ideas for the new project,” Wanda Simms, the vice president of the Portner Place Tenants Association, wrote in a letter to the city supporting the plan, as The Washington Post’s Emily Badger reported last year. “One idea would have scattered us among market rate professionals with different needs and wants than our majority family and elderly community.”
But even when it’s explained that a poor door won’t prevent those living in affordable housing from enjoying the benefits of pricey neighborhoods, the image is too much for some.
“This is a blast from an unpleasant past,” Jonetta Rose Barras wrote in The Post. “… Growing up I experienced separate water fountains, separate bathrooms and separate entrances to restaurants and hotels, among other things. That was a signature of racial discrimination.”
Meanwhile, about 200 miles up Interstate 95, developers will likely seek ways around the new 421a. One may have already found one: The New York Post noted a planned 10-tower project in Brooklyn, taking refuge in extant zoning law, will reserve three towers exclusively for low-income tenants.
It’s also worth noting that, even before future poor doors in New York were banned, 40 Riverside Blvd. had 88,000 applications for 55 low-income units.
“I guess people like it,” Barnett told the New York Times in April. “It shows that there’s a tremendous demand for high-quality affordable housing in beautiful neighborhoods.”
The willingness to put up with a poor door, however, may just show how much government has surrendered to the private sector when it comes to building affordable housing.
“Of course these so-called ‘poor doors’ are shocking, but they are a symptom, not the problem,” Michael Edwards, senior lecturer at the Bartlett school of planning at University College London, told the Guardian last year about affordable housing in London. “We’ve simply stopped building proper social housing, and until that’s addressed then fiddling around with front-door arrangements is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.”