Aug 28 8:00 AM

'Poor door' opens a window on housing affordability crisis

Will New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio be able to reach across the affordability gap?
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Behold the power of assonance!

The debate over a New York zoning deal that allows luxury developments to build separate entrances for the tenants in “market-rate” apartments and those in “affordable” units has garnered what is now weeks of coverage, despite a relative paucity of new events to push the narrative forward. The law, or variance in the law, such as it is, still stands. The buildings being built in this fashion are still being built. The number of new buildings going up with the same format, while likely noteworthy, has not really been noted.

But what the story does have is a really good bit of shorthand that captures the metaphysical reality of the physical realty; a concept, offensive on its own, that speaks to a broader offense; a metaphor poised to become metonymy.

What this story has is the “poor door.”

That is not meant as a criticism — not of the catch phrase nor its power. The practice, however — that’s a different story.

Now seemingly recognized as unpalatable by all but one-percenters, real estate developers and willfully ignorant contrarians, the poor door leads to a discussion of the bigger purpose of urban housing policy and the broader meaning of worth.

One can see the arguments, whether made crassly by developers who argue anyone who gets to live in a nice neighborhood at a discount price should jump for joy, or with more nuance by those who favor market-based approaches to the housing shortage: Separate entrances are part of the package of incentives — make that concessions — government extends to the private sector in exchange for needed units of affordable shelter, and it’s less bad than the alternatives.

The obvious alternative is no housing at all. The 55 rental apartments to be built behind the poor door at 40 Riverside Boulevard (the development that sparked the most recent debate) are 55 units, the argument goes, that otherwise would never exist.

But those units come at a price to the city, and only part of it is the consternation of most of its residents. The luxury high rise is substantially bigger than would have been allowed without the variance allotted in exchange for the affordable apartments. Developers also get a very healthy tax break for their beneficent troubles.

That’s not nothing — and as has been pointed out, the money lost in tax revenue to the city could pay for more than 55 units in a less tony part of town.

But that is the alternative that conjures up the foreboding image that hangs over all discussions of so-called affordable housing: The poverty-dense complexes of mid-century urban renewal — Cabrini-Green, Pruitt-Igoe, the Robert Taylor Homes — which represented a failure on multiple levels:

Shunting the poor into marginal, self-contained ghettos has always been a lamentable policy on a symbolic level. But there’s ample theoretical underpinning of mixed-income housing, too: Economic integration means safer neighborhoods, superior schools and hospitals, and, more complex and possibly more important, a retreat from “the social pathologies” of high-poverty neighborhoods. Virtually everyone in the business of providing public housing, whether on the supply side (subsidies for specific buildings) or the demand side (vouchers for needy families) agrees on the benefits of what’s euphemistically called “dispersal.”

The chronic underfunding of public K-12 education (exacerbated by budget shortfalls that are themselves exacerbated by over-generous tax breaks to the likes of real estate developers) could make superior schools a little less superior, and in New York City, even some very nice neighborhoods have seen their hospitals demolished to make way for luxury housing. But the overall point remains: Dividing rich and poor is unhealthy for people, cities, and society.

From interaction to integration

But at what level need the integration occur to accrue the benefits? (Those 55 poor-door dwellings are in, after all, what is considered a nice neighborhood. And one that still has a good nearby hospital, at that.) Well, if the goal is not just a nice place for 55 families, but a better future for everyone, then the answer is: Every level it possibly can.

The studies on this basically say it is hard to measure the full social advantage of integrated common space, but they also make it pretty clear that with no common space, the advantage trends toward zero. As a 2013 paper from the Urban Institute observed [PDF]:

Elements of building design, such as lack of common areas or shared building entrances, can serve to limit informal interactions, which otherwise could serve as the basis for developing more significant ties.

Some of those same studies question whether these mixed-income housing schemes are the most efficient way to combat the affordable housing shortage or the growing disparity between rich and poor. Instead of giving tax revenue away to developers for a few crumbs (poor door or no), why not, ask some, demand from those builders upfront fees that could then go to the housing and other infrastructure an integrated city would need?

Probably lots of reasons, the first being: “Never gonna happen.”

Remember, New York City was already giving out the variances and tax breaks when it added the allowance for the poor door. The number of affordable apartments is a mere fraction of the total units in these buildings. In the case of Atlantic Yards, one of NYC’s largest and most contentious developments of the last decade, city and state are now actually providing additional incentives to the developers to get some of the long-promised affordable housing built by … wait for it (no, really wait for it) … 2025.

And in urban centers strapped for cash, it is hard to imagine why any fees of this ilk, even if they could be levied, wouldn’t just go into a general revenue pool, where schools and sewers and sidewalk repair would compete with any housing goals.

Further, in areas where urban centers are gentrifying, where new developments and the redevelopment of older housing stock work their way out from one desirable neighborhood to the next adjoining one, how far out do cities build new affordable housing to forestall the next wave of displacement?

‘Affordability crisis’

In New York, home to those famous poor doors-to-be and a relatively new mayor elected on a platform of closing the gap between Gotham’s “two cities,” this question is not just academic.

In the 25 largest urban centers in the U.S., housing and transportation costs are up 44 percent since 2000, while incomes have advanced only 25 percent. New York City rents have increased 10 percent (or is it 75 percent?) over the last decade, while the city’s median income has actually fallen. With hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers being priced out of the city, housing advocates and government officials alike have have dubbed it an “affordability crisis.”

In response, Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed the city add an additional 200,000 units of affordable housing. But without changes to the development model, that ambitious plan will suffer from the same pitfalls and loopholes that have created the current shortages — and allowed for “innovations” like poor doors.

The structure of New York City’s developer subsidies and rent abatement reduces that much-touted 20 percent affordable units carve-out to something much lower. For instance, a recent study found that in downtown Brooklyn, between 2008 and 2012, a period of rapid development for that area, only 6 percent of new apartments turned out to be true affordable units [PDF].

The sponsors of that study, Real Affordability for All, a coalition of tenants and local community organizers, contend that with changes to NYC’s rent abatement laws, the mayor and the city could do much better. Citing expert analysis from the Mutual Housing Association, the group says that a 50-50 split between affordable and market-rate units in New York’s most desirable neighborhoods, and a model that includes more moderate-rate units for the outer boroughs, is not only attainable, but, given the up-zoning that will come with the new housing push, it’s still exceptionally profitable for developers. No poor doors required.

But it took a change in the law to create poor doors (a change that, it so happens, then-City Councilman de Blasio voted for, though he recently told the AP that he didn’t then understand the “nuances”), so it will take a change in the law to make them go away. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer is pressing for a zoning change, while members of the city council have suggested adding protections for “class of renter” to NYC’s antidiscrimination laws. Even the mayor says he will seek a change when zoning provisions next come up for review.

Alas, all that official agitating and telegraphing, however well intentioned, has a downside, too.

With increased visibility, public sentiment may frown on more poor doors, but right now, the law is all smiles. As has been witnessed with other restrictive zoning changes in the city, developers rush to start projects under the more favorable law. If laws are not changed almost instantly or written to be retroactive, New York’s poor doors will likely live on as a prevalent social and architectural feature — with or without their catchy name.


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