The front door is for the market-rate folks. The back door is for the low-income renters. It conjures an image of segregated water fountains and “for colored people” entrance signs in stores in the South from generations ago. Welcome to modern-day New York, where Extell Development Company’s plan to build a 33-story luxury building in the Upper West Side has been approved this week with a back entrance for those in the 55 units set aside for low-income residents.
The “poor door,” as it was quickly labeled after the proposal emerged last year — along with such monikers as the “service entrance,” “the debtor gate,” and “the 99 percent door” — will be exclusively for the affordable rental units located on floors two through six. The developers designated that area as a “building segment” that requires another entrance with its own elevator, as established by the city’s zoning rules.
The so-called “poor door” might conceivably be justifiable if there were indeed two separate buildings, but all these units physically share a wall and are presumably going to share the same address. Ironically, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign theme was “A Tale of Two Cities” — the rich and poor and the gap in between that increasingly defines the city. His administration approved Extell’s plans all the same, even if the mayor’s swift response after the fact deserves some credit. De Blasio pledged to make changes to the zoning code so that it would be illegal to create buildings with separate entrances that segregate affordable-unit tenants from market-rate residents.
The two-door setup, aside from its profound symbolism, defeats the fundamental idea behind inclusionary housing. New York’s own inclusionary housing program was established in the late ’80s to promote “economic integration in areas of the city undergoing substantial new residential development.” The city offers the developer a “floor area bonus in exchange for the creation or preservation of affordable housing.” In other words, Extell won’t only be getting tax breaks for including housing for low-income tenants; it also stands to make millions of dollars in extra floor space for market-rate units. By virtue of being there, low-income residents are essentially subsidizing the luxury building, too.
The two-door setup, while perfectly legal, is an extension of the separatist spirit of New York luxury apartment and condo building owners who conspire to keep rent-regulated tenants away from amenities typically found in those buildings, such as the gym, pool, storage rooms, and rooftops. Thankfully, the jeering is growing about the “poor door.” Charles Dickens might wonder why so little has changed since the 19th century.