home Commentary, Economy, Feature, North America, Politics A New Form of Segregation: New York’s “Poor Door”

A New Form of Segregation: New York’s “Poor Door”

Truly, there’s absolutely nothing more embarrassing and awkward than running into poor people in the halls of your own apartment building. It’s bad enough that they have to live there in the first place in order to subsidize your housing, but is it really necessary to look at them and be reminded that they exist? It would really be much better for everyone if buildings could have separate entrances or some-such innovation.

Oh, wait! New York City firm Extell Development has come up with just that: A ‘poor door’ in a proposed development on the Upper West Side, along Riverside Boulevard. The 33-story building will boast 219 condos for real people — you know, property owners — and another 55 for low-income residents, those making less than the median of $51,010. For the low price of $845, residents will be able to rent studios, and similarly ‘low-cost’ one and two bedrooms will also be available.

But those low-income residents will be entering the building through a different door, dealing with a different property management firm, working with a different elevator maintenance company, and living in effective segregation from their wealthier counterparts in the apartments with the river view on the other side of the building. Not only that, but they’ll be excluded from the building’s amenities, a policy the developer follows elsewhere at similar construction projects.

What fresh hell is this? In a country with gaping income inequality, how is it that developers can be allowed to do something so blatantly classist? Fairly easily, apparently, as speculation over a ‘poor door’ floated about over a year ago, and the city approved it evidently without qualms — though then-Speaker of the City Council Christine Quinn (D) spoke out about it, along with Assemblywoman Linda B. Rosenthal (D).

Why would Extell even bother including low-income units in the first place, if it views low-income people so contemptuously? The answer, of course, is money. Including low-income units in its housing allows the developer to qualify for special treatment under New York’s laughably named Inclusionary Housing Plan, which gives developers extra floor space in exchange for affordable units. Furthermore, the building will qualify for what’s known as a 521a Exemption, a tax abatement that radically adjusts property taxes for up to 25 years for the firm, which will in turn be able to pass those savings on to wealthy residents.

In other words, no matter what the developer wants to say about low-income residents, they are the ones doing the subsidizing, and it is their presence that makes the building more affordable for wealthy residents, not the other way around. New York’s low-income housing incentive primarily benefits the wealthy, not the poor, as it loses out on billions of property tax monies every year that it could be spending on its own affordable housing, including properly integrated housing that offers low-income people the opportunity to be treated like human beings instead of unwanted parcels to be shuffled in through the back door.

The firm insists that the low-income housing is a separate entity, constituting off-site housing, and thus that it naturally needs to have its own door. However, that doesn’t gibe with the building plans, which very clearly show the low-income housing integrated directly into the architecture of the building, occupying floors two through six. There’s nothing separate about that.

Extell’s development is raising national furore as something truly beyond the pale, despite the fact that New York already has several such ‘poor doors,’ and that it’s not the only city with blatantly divided services between rich and poor. It’s not just the gaps that appear as a result of economic divides, like who rides transit and who does not. It’s differential transit services for tech workers in the Bay Area, who take the Google Bus rather than CalTrain. It’s divided, segregated housing across cities with similar economic incentive plans. It’s redlining, though banks are very, very careful to avoid calling it that. It’s huge unpaid water bills by major Detroit companies that go without comment while people owing a few hundred face shutoffs of service: Better that the corporation have water services than the disabled woman with two children at home.

The class differential in the United States can’t be discussed without probing the racial implications, which are stark. Poverty disproportionately affects people of colour, and they are the ones who bear the brunt of the ugly and brutal class discrimination that takes place in every city, in a myriad of ways. While the United States would like to consider itself postracial, it has found another way to keep people of colour in a subordinate social class. Since the Civil War and Reconstruction, Black Americans have struggled to keep economic pace with white Americans, and the same phenomenon has been an issue across racial groups, including, of course, the original inhabitants of North America, who today live isolated in reservations with appalling poverty rates and considerable issues with chronic disease, alcoholism, and limited access to clean water and public services.

The poor door is more than just a single act of injustice being perpetrated by a greedy developer that wants to rake in millions of dollars in subsidies without offputting wealthy condo buyers. It’s also a symbol of class in the United States, and a striking statement on the state of relations between rich and poor. While some media outlets may be cracking Downton Abbey jokes, the poor door is no laughing matter.

Photo by rachelvorhees, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license