Housing Discrimination Doesn’t Begin or End with ‘Poor Doors’

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Darwin Bell

Last year, a widely publicized “poor door” at a mixed income development in New York City captured the public’s imagination as a visible symbol of an unfair housing practice. A developer constructing a residential building in Manhattan with 219 high-end condominiums and 55 affordable rental units adopted a design, with approval from New York City, which includes separate entrances to the building. One entrance is for condo owners and another back entrance is for renters residing in the affordable housing units. In mixed-income developments, affordable units are often disproportionately occupied by people of color and people with disabilities while the luxury market-rate units are primarily occupied by affluent, non-disabled whites. It is understandable that civil rights and affordable housing advocates along with local political leaders urged the city to prohibit such practices in the future.

For many of us, the “poor door” issue harkened back to another era in our nation’s history when explicit policies were enacted and barriers erected to keep the races apart, to segregate or institutionalize people with disabilities, and to systematically discriminate against populations based on sexual orientation, family status, and other protected characteristics. As with the “poor door,” housing discrimination frequently conjures up a vivid image of a door slammed in someone’s face, a discriminatory advertisement or sign posted that proclaims “for whites only” or “adults only,” or a racial slur or statement uttered by a housing provider aimed at denying a home or apartment to an otherwise qualified applicant.

Make no mistake, this type of discrimination still occurs, but today these overt tactics are clearly the exception to the rule. Like these blatant acts of housing discrimination, the “poor door” evoked a strong reaction because it was such a palpable symbol of inequality.

Contrary to popular perception, illegal housing discrimination is still pervasive. While the discrimination may be less obvious today, its ability to restrict housing choice and reinforce patterns of residential segregation is no less effective. The late civil rights leader James Farmer, Jr. once stated: “Institutional practices, it seems, perpetuate themselves by their invisibility.” So too, structural and systemic housing discrimination functions with stealth-like qualities creating “invisible doors” that ultimately lead to exclusion, diminished opportunity, and segregated living.

While separate “poor door” entrances are offensive, what about an entrance that permits no access at all? In 2006, the non-profit Fair Housing Justice Center (FHJC) conducted an investigation by sending “testers” to over a dozen new mixed-income housing developments in Manhattan. All of the developments tested contained inaccessible features that violated fair housing laws and prevented persons with disabilities from accessing and using the housing. While posting a “No Disabled Need Apply” sign might evoke a more visceral reaction by the public, inaccessible design features are just as effective in discriminating against people with disabilities.

When predominately white suburban communities use exclusionary zoning to preclude the development of any affordable rental housing for families, they are erecting an invisible door that locks out lower-income families of color from entering neighborhoods that often have high-performing schools, employment opportunities, low crime rates and good services. Other suburbs impose residency preferences when making affordable housing or rental subsidies available. Some have even incorporated these discriminatory preferences into their zoning codes. While these communities do not erect billboards that proclaim their housing or housing programs are available to “Poor White Residents Only,” time and time again these preferences effectively accomplish that objective.

When governments incentivize developers to place nearly all of the publicly assisted or subsidized housing for families in high poverty and minority areas, they effectively constrain the housing choices of low- and moderate-income minority families. While these public agencies would certainly not boast that they specialize in concentrating poverty and segregating neighborhoods, that is precisely what results from these policies.

Consider what happens when lower-income African American or Latino families, domestic violence survivors, people with disabilities, and homeless persons obtain Section 8 housing choice vouchers or other rental subsidies and begin to search for affordable housing in the New York City region. The vast majority of these households encounter barriers based on race, national origin, sex, disability, source of income, or other illegal factors and most end up renting distressed and overpriced housing in unhealthy high-poverty neighborhoods, areas that often lack quality schools, safe streets, and other vital commercial and recreational amenities. Every time this happens, we escort another individual or family through an invisible “poor door.”

When city neighborhoods gentrify and landlords force or harass tenants out of existing affordable housing, it is just another way of showing the invisible door to the poor, a door that too often leads to increased homelessness and concentrated poverty.

Recent investigations by the Fair Housing Justice Center (FHJC) reveal that many buildings and neighborhoods in the city and suburbs are still off limits to African-Americans and Latinos. These practices can be so subtle and carried out so politely that it is virtually impossible for ordinary renters or buyers to even suspect that illegal discrimination has occurred. FHJC’s documentary, A Matter of Place, illustrates why testing is often the only way to document discriminatory housing practices.

Today, the image of housing discrimination as a slammed door must be replaced with an invisible revolving door where people are courteously escorted in, out of, and ultimately away from the desired housing and away from areas that may offer greater social, educational, and economic benefits and opportunities.

Separating people on the basis of race, national origin, disability, or source of income is not confined to establishing a “poor door” at one mixed-income development in Manhattan. It is emblematic of a persistent and systemic problem of discrimination in our regional housing market that we must all work hard to eliminate. These invisible doors fuel a pernicious cycle of inequality that reinforces patterns of concentrated poverty and residential racial segregation. Hopefully, we can move beyond our righteous indignation over the “poor doors” that we can see by also insisting that our government eliminate all of the “invisible doors” that perpetuate segregated living patterns.

Specifically, we need government at all levels to 1) more vigorously and proactively enforce fair housing laws; 2) adopt policies and programs that expand opportunity, increase accessibility, deconcentrate poverty, and reduce residential racial segregation; and 3) devote greater resources to dismantling the structural barriers and invisible doors that continue to deny many New Yorkers an equal opportunity to freely choose a place of residence.

We have a clear choice. We can maintain the status quo and continue to force many New Yorkers to endure the devastating inequalities and perilous consequences that flow from housing discrimination and segregation or we can chart a new course and devote our collective energies, intellect, and resources to creating an opportunity-rich metropolitan region of more open, accessible, and inclusive communities.

Fred Freiberg is the Executive Director of the Fair Housing Justice Center (FHJC) based in New York City.