Back in the 1930s and ’40s, real estate courses unabashedly taught students the Gresham Law of Neighborhoods, which posited that lower-ranking racial or nationality groups would drive out good families and depress neighborhood values. Instructors even provided a hierarchy of races and nationalities for ready reference: English, Germans, and Scandinavians made the best neighbors; Mexicans, blacks, and Southern Italians were at the bottom of the list.
It’s hard to imagine such a detestable ranking today. Unless, of course, you were to consider the so-called “poor door” policy in New York City. In this updated version, developers grab some tax abatements and build a more profitable, denser development than zoning would otherwise allow by agreeing to set aside some units for low-income families in deluxe, high-rise developments. But to ensure — in the Gresham sense — that bad money does not drive out good, the low-income tenants are steered to a separate entrance in the back. In some developments, “rent-regulated” tenants — who are more likely to be elderly or minorities — are required to keep their dirty mitts off the gym equipment, sky lounge furniture, and other amenities.
The 33-story Extell development project on the Upper West Side of Manhattan is the latest to trot out the poor door policy. Residents of the 219 luxury units are invited to walk through the front entrance. Residents of the 55 affordable units are slated to enter their homes on floors two through six through a back alley. New York City housing officials actually approved this cockamamie plan. Could it be that the city that never sleeps is suffering some form of cognitive impairment as a result?
Developing affordable housing units in New York, Boston, and other cities with high land and construction costs isn’t a picnic. But there are ways to do it without making people feel like dirt. In Boston, for example, developers of large-scale commercial and institutional properties seeking relief from zoning restrictions are required to pay into an affordable housing trust. Large-scale residential developers have the option of setting aside some units for low- and moderate-income families on site, building affordable units off site, or paying into a housing fund. And those developers who choose to marble the affordable units into the wider residential complex manage to do so without launching a class war.
Over the last decade, several of Boston’s worst public housing developments have been transformed into well-appointed, mixed-income complexes where people who pay market rents live and play side by side with subsidized families. No one seems to make a big deal out of it. The same holds true for the award-winning Harbor Point in Dorchester, a former public housing project that found new life as a private, mixed-income development. Everyone into the pool!
Mixed-income developments are becoming a normal part of the urban landscape. City dwellers, by and large, enjoy living in economically diverse neighborhoods. Developers who pursue poor door policies are selling both their market rate and subsidized tenants short.