Jul 29 11:59 AM

As outrage grows, calls to block New York’s ‘poor door’

The proposed entrance for the wealthy at Extell’s Manhattan high-rise.
Extell Development Company

Extell Development Company made headlines last week when word spread that New York City had approved its proposal to build a new residential building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with two separate entrances — one in the front for wealthy residents who purchase their apartments and one in a back alley for residents who are renting under the city’s affordable housing program.

News of a so-called poor door has sparked considerable outrage from citizens and activists across New York City, and people are calling for an end to the practice, which some say amounts to economic segregation.

Elzora Cleveland, 47, was so angered by the news that she started a petitionone of many — to get Extell to withdraw the plans for a separate entrance.

Cleveland, a New York native, said the notion of a separate entrance is offensive.

“I find it appalling that anyone would find this kind of thing acceptable. Especially in Manhattan,” Cleveland Said. “New York City is so diverse and we’re doing everything we can to keep it diverse — in our schools, our workplaces. Housing should be the same."

“The days of ‘separate but equal’ are long gone,” the petition reads, going on to say that income inequality in New York has made the city more divided than ever, and this is just another example of that division.

Even comedian Steven Colbert weighed in on the controversy with his unique form of satire.

“Yes a poor door. Because if I don’t see something I don’t want to know about, it doesn’t exist and that makes me happy.”

Cleveland, who lives in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, said she’s seen her area change dramatically over the years — going from warehouses at the Chelsea Piers to luxury condos and waterfront businesses — and notes that her neighborhood has benefitted greatly from traditional mixed-income housing, where everyone lives in the same building and uses the same entrances and facilities.

“No one can tell anyone else’s income levels, everyone is wonderful to each other, everyone gets along, their children are growing together and it’s just a healthy environment,” she said.

“From a human level of thinking — what is the goal in separating them? It’s unacceptable, it’s not what we do here in New York, it’s not a common practice, and I’m happy that our elected officials have stepped up and said they will do what they can legally to keep this from happening.”

There has been concern among housing activists that other developers will try to take advantage of the way current housing law is structured and follow in Extell’s footsteps before the law is changed.

Local politicians are aware of this concern and are trying to move quickly to prevent that. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer addressed the issue in a city council meeting last week, calling the two-door building philosophy “an affront to New Yorker’s belief in fairness and diversity.” Brewer is looking for ways to change the law now. 

Mayor Bill de Blasio has said publicly he wants to change the housing laws in the city to make this type of building illegal.  But it’s likely more buildings will pop up with separate entrances before the year ends. According to the mayor’s office, several buildings, including the Extell development on Riverside Boulevard, were given the green light under the previous administration, and it would be too costly and time consuming for the city to stop the buildings from going up.

While the “poor door” may not be ethical, it is also not illegal, says Dennis Parker, director of the racial justice program at the American Civil Liberties Union.

“It’s difficult because the equal protection clause and even the fair housing act deal with a number of categories; income is not one of them. Clearly if they had a policy that black people had to use one door and white people had to use another than that would be a different issue,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Apart from the legal aspect of it, this is just completely offensive,” said Parker. “The factual circumstances as I understand it, certainly bring to mind thoughts of sitting in the back of the bus, so to speak.”

Matters of legality aside, Cleveland said she isn’t going to stop trying to get Extell to remove the separate door.

“Our goal is to continue to fight, to do what we need to do and make it right,” she said. “It’s just not right, it’s not right.”

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