Despite Mayor de Blasio banning the notion of “poor doors” in New York City, developers continue to find new and creative ways of discriminating against low-income residents when it comes to affordable housing.
The 421a tax program was established in 1971, engineered to incentivize the development of real estate in underutilized areas by significantly reducing property taxes for a certain amount of time. The tax abatement was extended to developers who agreed to provide affordable housing among glossier, high-end apartments. Many developers were greedy and managed to benefit from the millions of dollars in tax breaks along with added developmental rights like higher and wider buildings than normally considered standard. However, they were less enthused about coupling affordable units with their luxury ones. While the verbiage is politically incorrect, “poor door” is attributed to separate building entrances and, in reality, income-segregated properties often have separate amenities, as well, which can only be accessed by apartment owners or tenants with a higher income.
De Blasio took action in 2015, adding language to the legislative loophole, which was signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo, to supposedly outlaw “poor doors,” stating that affordable units “must share the same common entrances and common areas as the market-rate units.” This policy came into effect following the outcry over One Riverside Park in 2013, when the development company Extell announced their plans for a new complex. Subsequently, Extell constructed a luxury condominium only to put the low-income renters in a separate wing, accessible from a different address at 40 Riverside Boulevard. Although the entrance was located just around the corner, the financial disparity was glaring. Affordable housing tenants repeatedly complained about faulty buzzers, missing light fixtures, and views of a courtyard attainable only by apartment owners. However, Extell’s building, like many others, was grandfathered in.
Nevertheless, what began as a “poor door” has now evolved into the concept of a “poor building.” One Manhattan Square, which began closings this year, is another luxury residential skyscraper by Extell. This time, they built in the Two Bridges neighborhood of the Lower East Side. The condominium tower has forever altered the city skyline, the colossal 800-foot structure imposing upon the neighborhood and surrounding areas. The affordable housing portion of the building is, once again, located at a separate address: 229 Cherry Street. Only this time, it’s at an entirely separate structure on the same grounds with the smaller 13-story building sitting next to the hotel-like luxury condo.
While residents in the affordable housing section can access a shared parking lot, the differences in wealth equate to the lower-income residents not having access to the posh amenities at One Manhattan Square. Such features include a spa, fitness center, pool, bowling alley, cinema, and tea garden among others. 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.
When under fire, developers have often claimed that this is the price to be paid for integrating neighborhoods, blaming city officials for forcing inclusionary zoning policies. These companies declare that the focus should be on creating more affordable homes rather than on where people enter. Housing advocates refute that this form of financial apartheid is an affront to American values and rights, uprooting the general sense of community and furthering the wealth gap within an already alarmingly gentrified city. Supporters argue that the city should allocate funds for building affordable housing rather than with tax abatements for luxury developers.
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? The real question lies in the matters of how far and how long developers will be able to continue to segregate New Yorkers until city officials will, once again, intervene.
Shelby Welinder is a freelance journalist.