If you live in NYC, Washington DC, or a number of other cities, you have probably heard of a ‘poor door.’ Depending on whether or not you’ve ever had to use one, you could have a strong opinion about them – otherwise, you probably don’t think too much about them, one way or the other. New York City banned the use of poor doors in 2015, under Mayor Bill De Blasio, but developers are still finding loopholes and ways of separating the affluent from the common folk. Financial apartheid has existed as long as there have been communities, so what’s the solution? Come with me on a journey to explore this topic in-depth, as segregation by class according to income remains a problem that seems to be unsolvable.
What is a Poor Door?
A poor door is “a separate entrance in a multi-unit housing development for those who live in less expensive apartments.” The term was popularized in NYC in 2013, and is credited to the West Side Rag, when they used it to describe an Upper West Side luxury building with separate entrances for market rate and affordable housing tenants. In London, the practice is more widely used and is a huge problem, as well, opposed by vocal leaders calling for a ban. The same issue spread to Canada, as well. But why does this seem to be a fairly new social issue, and how did it originate?
It’s no surprise that NYC has an affordable housing crisis, and a homeless issue to match. The city has attempted to address these issues, such as with the Inclusionary Housing Program. This is a local policy that requires developers to include a certain percentage of housing units designated for lower-income tenants, in an attempt to create more affordable housing. In 2009, Mayor Michael Bloomberg enacted a zoning loophole which went into effect in 2010 that allowed developers to build larger residential or mixed use buildings, in high-density, desirable neighborhoods – as long as they simultaneously built affordable housing units, as well.
To top it off, if they do this, they’re awarded what sometimes amounts to tens of millions of dollars in government subsidies, for doing so. The affordable units can be either on or off-site, with obvious savings for the developer if they can do it without two different build sites. Besides, being able to develop 33% more square footage in higher paying areas (where they’re building luxury apartments) is much more appealing – due, of course, to its profitability. But some developers took advantage of the loophole and exploited it for their own personal gain.
The Creation of the Poor Door
In essence, segregation is what resulted from that legislation, with the creation of the ‘poor door’, and divided housing. In an article from the 2013 West Side Rag edition that first coined the term ‘poor door, Assemblymember Linda B. Rosenthal is quoted as being outraged about a UWS development, saying, “A mandatory affordable housing plan is not license to segregate lower-income tenants from those who are well-off. The developer must follow the spirit as well the letter of the law when building affordable housing, and this plan is clearly not what was intended by the community.” She also says, of the construction plan first drawn to our attention with one of these doors, “This ‘separate but equal’ arrangement is abominable, and has no place in the 21st century, let alone on the Upper West Side.”
One Riverside Park – The Development That Started It All
The building located at 50 Riverside Boulevard, in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, started the whole public outcry in the first place. Out of 274 units, 55 of them were designed as “affordable”, and this luxury residential tower and its developer caught quite a lot of negative press. Originally, the developers applied for tax breaks using 40 Riverside Boulevard, but the building that markets the luxury residences is known as One Riverside Park with the main address listed as 50 Riverside Boulevard. However, access to the affordable housing units comes from a door on 62nd street marked 470.
Yet the developers state that the separate entrance comes due to the fact that the affordable housing at 40 Riverside Boulevard is not directly related to 50 Riverside Boulevard from a legal standpoint.
Community Board Chair Mark Diller told the West Side Rag that “Even though the off-site housing portion of this building is attached physically to the rest of the building, the developer’s argument is that it is separate ‘off-site’ since it does not relate to the rest of the building, and therefore falls under the portion of the Zoning Resolution that requires a separate entrance.”
It’s easy to see why One Riverside Park, has caught so much flack. For example, the ‘rich side’ has amenities that include two gyms, a pool, a movie theater, a bowling alley, a basketball court, and 24/7 doormen.
Below is the door for 50 Riverside Boulevard, the main entrance for One Riverside Park.
However, on the ‘poor side’, accessed by a door on 470 W. 62nd St, residents don’t even have light fixtures in the bedrooms or the living rooms, and no dishwashers or doormen for them. Their apartment views are of the street, while the rich have riverfront views, and the spacious courtyard opens only to the rich side, who don’t use it but are the only ones allowed to.
Here is the entrance around the corner for 40 Riverside Boulevard marked as 470 West 62nd.
But this developer/owner, Extell Development Company, and various entities of the Carlyle Group, didn’t stop there. In the construction of 40 and 50 Riverside Boulevard, first, a wall was built separating the affordable units from the luxury apartments. Then, separate electrical systems were wired for each side, and separate elevator systems, too creating a feeling of modern-day segregation.
The Argument for Poor Doors
There is a fair argument for why a poor door should exist. Advocates argue poor doors are the price we’re paying for integration and the building of more affordable housing. They say the inclusionary zoning laws are the problem, and point to the alternative of putting the low-income folks in underserved neighborhoods and sub-par buildings, where landlords end up on NYC’s worst landlords lists. A common argument for the ironically exclusionary practices under inclusionary laws, is that the people paying market-rate prices are actually making up for the lower paying tenants, so they’re already paying extra to be able to use these amenities and live in higher class digs.
The fact is, exclusivity appeals to the affluent, and developers cater to the higher paying residents. They say that paying higher prices should mean better services, and higher quality homes. The developers, protagonists argue, are being forced to build affordable units along with luxury units, thus are dealing with impossible situations the best they can. They say how can they justify higher rents if not for better services and amenities? A 2013 Insider article states: “Getting mad about the “poor door” is absurd. The only real outrage is that Extell had to build affordable units at all.” This article doesn’t just blindly support poor doors, though; it offers another solution.
“Upzone land so more housing units can be built to meet supply. Let developers decide what to build and what to charge for it based on market forces. Charge developers substantial fees to access those newly-created development rights. Collect full-freight property taxes on new property that gets built. Use tax and fee proceeds to pay for projects of broad use to New Yorkers, including housing subsidies.” Not really a bad idea. Still, with developers using excuses like low-income tenants being “lucky” to have a place at all in their luxury buildings, it’s going to be a point of contention.
The Argument Against Poor Doors
At the time of its existence, taking the incentive was voluntary during this time, not forced, and only in certain designated, high-density areas. Furthermore, these developers are already getting rich off New Yorkers paying some of the highest rents in the country, so there isn’t much sentiment for them. They care about one thing, primarily, and that’s how to maximize profits. People tend not to have a lot of sympathy for these kinds of problems, especially when struggling to make ends meet.
For another thing, there isn’t a big outcry from outraged rich people wondering why some people in their building don’t pay as much as they do. Even if they did, they wouldn’t be granted much support from the general public. Especially when the areas where these optional city incentives applied were some of the nicest neighborhoods in the boroughs – notorious for having the least amount of affordability. However, there is a darker undertone.
First of all, let’s keep in mind that approximately 73% of low-income renters are minorities, and that was in 2017. The use of separate entrances has an obvious negative connotation going back to the racial segregation of decades ago. This is only exacerbated by the continued use of tools that separate one income class from another. In addition, children of the buildings can be impacted as well as there are cases documented where children suffer not only in their own homes, but by exclusion and not understanding why they cannot access a playground.
Banning Poor Doors in NYC
The banning of poor doors in NYC occurred in 2015 under Mayor Bill de Blasio. This was done through a rent regulation bill with language inserted that states, “Affordable units shall share the same common entrances and common areas as market rate units.” After that, voluntary Inclusionary Housing laws were replaced in early 2016 with Mandatory Inclusionary Housing laws. This change not only makes the inclusion of a percentage of new housing affordable, but also to be permanently affordable. It gives developers two options for the percentage required. Although developers have said they will follow the law, this has only altered certain policies, and many have developed other ways of bypassing the language of the laws. Still, these ‘major’ changes were seen as big praise for the Mayor. (Kind of hilarious when the New York Post discovered De Blasio had actually voted for Bloomberg’s 2009 legislation that enabled poor doors in the first place, after condemning the administration publicly for the policy.)
What Has Resulted From The Changes
The changes that have taken place have unfortunately not had much effect. Many offending developers have gone out of their way to bypass the new legislation. Take for example Greenpoint Landing, in Brooklyn. In June of 2015, developers Greenpoint Landing Associates and L+M Development Partners at 21 Commercial Street decided to alternately construct separate poor buildings for their affordable housing units – which would not only have a separate entrance, but zoning that requires it, as a separate address.
Greenpoint landing, above, is a mixture of many buildings, both affordable housing and market value.
This is how that intentional practice began, and also incidentally how One Riverside Park similarly continues to evade the spirit of the law, and its intent.
Interestingly, current Mayor Eric Adams was, at that time, the borough’s President – and he weighed in on the issue. “The poor door is no more, and there should be no facsimile of an effort to replace it.” But so far, this type of avoidance of the provisions in the law have remained.
The Developers Taking Advantage – Extell Development Company
Let’s take the time to talk about the developers who seem to continually take advantage of the laws in one way or another. One of the biggest offenders in these cases, of course, is Extell – the original developer of One Riverside Park. This company has made many bad press mistakes, but some say the acts themselves were deliberate. After the debacle at One Riverside Park, whose headlines are still being talked about today, and whose infamous poor door goes down in history as NYC’s first, this company goes the extra mile with their next major development – joining the infamy is One Manhattan Square, in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
One Manhattan Square is a luxury tower that boasts 800 feet in height, and is another development that received tax breaks for including affordable housing that instead of a poor door, has a poor building, complete with its own separate address: 229 Cherry Street. This time, the building itself is separate, but on the same grounds and standing next to the tall, hotel-like counterpart. One article says this about the developer; “Extell isn’t alone in its outlandish interpretation of the affordability mandate, but the company certainly hasn’t seemed to care or learn from its previous history and PR blunders.” It also makes a great point; “When developers have a clear history of income discrimination, why do officials continue to approve their plans and allow them to benefit from government incentives?”
Other Developers and Developments Taking Advantage
At the Windermere West End, on the Upper West Side, the NY Times covered one couple, the only ones in the co-op who had a young child, who were prevented from using the building’s new playroom, and other amenities free for market-rate tenants. There are nearly 140 rent-regulated units here, and those tenants are prohibited from amenities, such as a new spa with a pool, yoga studio, and gym. The developer here is Stellar Management, who was also adding a sky lounge, a bar, and planters to the roof – and restricting rent-regulated tenants who were formerly allowed roof access.
Other locations include 230 Riverside Drive, a condo conversion on the Upper West Side, whose rent regulated tenants are excluded from amenities. Stonehenge Village on West 97th Street, managed by developer Stonehenge Partners, is another Upper West Side rental building that excludes rent regulated tenants from amenities. The developer here is quoted as saying their luxury building’s new gym “is aimed specifically at new and prospective tenants who expect certain amenities and incentives that are commonly available to market-rate renters.” Another major development at 15 Hudson Yards also has a separate entrance at 53 West 30th for low-income tenants.
In Brooklyn, in the Williamsburg neighborhood, Northside Piers by developer Toll Brothers keeps low-income tenants in a separate ‘poor’ building and restricts the use of amenities to market rate tenants. The Queensboro Development in Long Island City is managed by Wavecrest Management, who removed a fenced-off so-called ‘poor porch’ in lieu of bad press from a New York Post article in 2015. The company removed fences which formerly blocked out low-income tenants and made the rooftop terrace available to all tenants, but – made them sign an agreement that included: no drinking, not using their patios as storage space, no hanging of signs or flags, no kids without adult supervision, no barbecues and no bird feeders.
Certain Developers Who Stand Out
Just as there are developers and landlords who go out of their way to avoid the law, there are some who actually embrace it, and they deserve to be mentioned. Although One West End is now owned by Elad Group and Silverstein Properties, they purchased it from Extell Development Company and the Carlyle Group. The building (notably) has a separate entrance and its own lobby for low-income units, however, the new owners were making the amenities available to everyone. These amenities included a 75-foot glass-walled pool, cantilevering out from the tower and giving swimmers the illusion of being suspended over West End Avenue, and a 12,000 ft² rooftop terrace with recliners, cabanas and barbecues. They also advertised a market with fresh produce and meats. At least the new owners seemed to be adopting the right attitude.
And there are others. The Royal York, an Upper East Side co-op, goes out of its way to accommodate all partners. The co-op built a new gym in 2007 and voted to allow any residents to access the gym for the same $375 annual fee. This is their perspective on all amenities. But many co-ops throughout the city have exclusionary policies, and Board Members are often notoriously difficult to get past. Unfortunately, the ‘good’ developer stories are fewer and farther between. These aren’t the only good examples, just the ones who made headlines.
The Problem With Inclusionary Housing Laws
Obviously, huge problems still exist. For one thing, mandatory inclusionary housing only produced 2,065 units according to a Bloomberg December 2021 article. “The disappointing reality is that inclusionary zoning produces far too little housing to be considered a serious engine for generating affordable housing in a city of 8.4 million.” This truly sums it up, and is in part what some people have proposed in exchange for mandatory inclusionary housing. Their idea has been to abolish the mandatory or otherwise inclusionary housing laws and let the developers decide what to build and charge where, and then tax them maximally to fund more affordable housing units elsewhere.
And even voluntary Inclusionary Housing laws in place since 2005 didn’t cut it. A report from a 2014 article stated that city council member Brad Lander found that in the 8 years, at that point, that the program had been in existence, it had produced only 2% of multifamily units built in all five boroughs. These laws obviously fall terribly short, doing little for the existing affordable housing crisis to this day.
The Affordable Housing Crisis in NYC Rages On
Meanwhile, headlines raged; “88,000 applicants and counting” in a housing lottery for just 55 units in a building with a ‘poor door’. This is a recurring old story, in an overpopulated metropolis that has to host a lottery for the few units that become available, because the amount of people who qualify is so incredibly overwhelming. In February of this year, 2022, TRD reported efforts being made to change current legislation to demand more affordable housing from its signature policies. The article brought up the recent rezoning of the SoHo and NoHo areas, and how council members are removing option 2 from the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing laws increasingly, as of late. Option 2 allows developers to mix higher-income units that apparently exceed the Brooklyn borough’s average resident’s ability to pay, say council members. This recent vote seems to indicate that there will be a tendency to exclude option 2 permanently, at least in this borough.
A new survey just released by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) shows the city’s overall median income level would need to double in order to afford the median asking rent of $2,750/a month. This report also reveals that the vacancy rate for homes under $1,000/a month is less than 1%, the lowest number in 30 years. Mayor Eric Adams said of the report. “The findings are clear: Our city’s affordable housing crisis is as dire as ever.”
More recently, Adams hopes to incentivize more affordable housing units through recent updates to zoning laws in his “City of Yes Plan.”
Recently, Governor Hochul proposed the 485-w program to incentivize affordable housing development, however, action was not taken for the new plan, nor the old legislation for 421-a.
“Tinkering around the edges may be what developers want, but it’s not what New York City needs,” said City Comptroller Brad Lander in March.
There is no current strong alternative to help with the affordable housing issue in New York City
Rochelle Harris is a passionate writer originally from Phoenix, AZ. who credits her success to integrity and determination. She has a great sense of humor, loves music and her family, and writes fiction and poetry in her spare time. She is excited about the New York experience and lifestyle! Follow Rochelle on Twitter at @LinguisticAnRky or get in touch at [email protected]