If allowing a disgraceful “poor door” is what it takes to get 55 units of affordable housing in a swanky neighborhood like the Upper West Side, who can blame the city for approving it? New York, even more than Boston, suffers from outrageous housing prices. And as demeaning as the separate entrance for tenants at the affordable units in the planned 33-story complex is, it’s actually a better way of meeting housing needs than the approach developers subject to affordability requirements sometimes take in Boston, which is to shunt low-income renters into entirely separate buildings in poorer neighborhoods. That way of segregating renters rarely generates headlines, but it risks more serious harm.
Of course, the critics of the New York tower are right: The poor door is appalling and takes the indignities often suffered by New York’s affordable-unit tenants to a humiliating new extreme. Although the developer in New York, Extell, hasn’t made the separate entrance part of the tower’s marketing strategy, the New York real estate world is rife with stories of landlords barring affordable-rate tenants from gyms or roof decks, in the name of making units more attractive to the wealthy Manhattanites who buy or rent market-rate units and apparently can’t stomach the thought of rubbing shoulders with poorer neighbors.
Would it be better if rich New Yorkers weren’t such awful people? Sure. But those slights are, by and large, superficial. Boston housing officials are proud that a poor door would never fly here, because the city requires market-rate and affordable units under the same roof to have similar amenities. But that’s only when developers are held to requirements to build them on-site in the first place. Boston’s practice of letting some developers simply buy out of affordable housing requirements, and instead pay for affordable units elsewhere in the city, has its own risks. Off-site affordable developments reinforce economic segregation. And because so many city services are linked to geography, from schools to sanitation, it means low-income residents miss out on amenities that may be available in wealthier neighborhoods.
Indeed, many Boston developers build poor doors, too — it’s just that theirs might be located in Dorchester or Roxbury, making the difference between the treatment of market-rate and affordable renters much less vivid. For sheer crassness, those units will never match New York’s poor door. On the other hand, New York City, unlike Boston, now forbids developers from building their affordable units in faraway parts of the city. So however ugly the Upper West Side plan is, New York’s approval of the project gives moderate-income residents a chance in a neighborhood that would otherwise be out of reach. Boston’s history of allowing developers to move poor doors elsewhere might be easier on the eye. But if allowing the real thing would coax more developers into creating actual mixed-income housing, it might be worth it .Alan Wirzbicki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.