Another Door for the Poor


By Lisa Autz

Photo courtesy of Lisa Autz.

America’s growing wealth disparity is an unsettling reality that was recently named “the defining issue of our time.”

Consider New York City, where median rental price for an apartment is nearly 40 percent of median annual income. Plus, if all goes as planned, housing inequality in an apartment building will be physically embodied in the form of a separate door for the poor.

The separated “poor door” entrance is part of a recently approved building project under the Inclusionary Housing Program–which requires new residential developments to set aside units for low-income housing. Planned for completion in 2015, the 33-story building will stand at 40 Riverside Boulevard with 55 affordable housing units oriented towards its back. Meanwhile, the 219 luxury units will have access from the Hudson River side.

The housing division saw two rounds of heavy backlash. Uproar occurred in August of 2013 when the plan was proposed, and revamped recently in June 2014 upon its final approval by New York’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development. The “poor door” continues to create infuriated protests that declare the development as a regression to “separate but equal” standards.

“The stark contrast is part of what is firing everyone up,” Assemblymember Linda B. Rosenthal says to BTR. “It’s something that goes against what NYC stands for and it tears up the fabric of society in the form of segregation.”

Rosenthal represents the 67th Assembly district, which includes the Upper West Side in Manhattan. She is concerned with the legality and controversy that 40 Riverside Boulevard entails.

“[The developers] are double dipping,” says Rosenthal. “They are getting two different benefits for the same 55 apartments.”

Extell Development Company, the owners of the building in question, will reap benefits from the Inclusionary Housing Program and 421a program. The former incentivizes developers to build 20 percent of the building’s units for lower income tenants in exchange for 33 percent more square feet than otherwise permitted. On top of that, the company will receive 10 to 25 years of tax abatement from the 421a program, which rewards developers for building “onsite” affordable rentals.

However, here is where the controversy arises.

The claim that these segmented units are “onsite” grants the developers free range for both programs’ benefits. Though on-site, the construction has segmented the back portion of the building requiring them to create two separate doors according to the city’s Zoning Resolution.

The Inclusionary Housing Program has been a campaigned cornerstone to Mayor de Blasio’s plan to create 80,000 new affordable housing units in the next decade. These specific units cater to those making 60 percent or less of the area’s median income, which is about $51,540 for a family of four, according to NYC Housing and Development Corporation. The intention was to provide local municipal workers the means to live and serve in the same area in the city.

Aside from 40 Riverside Boulevard, New York’s real estate landscape is filled with sky rise buildings that designate the first couple of floors to affordable housing. In fact, the building right next door to 40 Riverside Boulevard has affordable housing towards its lower levels. However, the new development marks the first site in Manhattan to build a segmented section for the affordable units.

BTR went to the construction site to ask local residents their take on the controversial “poor door.”

Neighbors next door to the controversial construction do not seem to be bothered by the idea. Some even think it is a smart move on the developers’ part.

Andrew Bassin, resident to the adjacent 60 Riverside Boulevard, told BTR that his personal belief was that no matter where the housings are placed in the building, their existence alone offers a great chance for cheaper, affordable living in the city.

“I don’t have a problem with it,” says Bassin. “I think of it as an opportunity to buy a terrific apartment in a terrific location.”

Bassin continues to explain that he feels the situation is blown out of proportion. The back tower is designated for the affordable apartments so it only makes sense to create a separate entrance for the front, he reasons. When asked, Bassin admitted to not being an affordable housing tenant in his building.

David Rodriguez, a resident at 60 Riverside Boulevard and businessman in the condo market, agrees that when you look at it from a marketing perspective, the idea of giving equal amenities and riverside views to all renters is ludicrous.

“How are you going to adequately sell the more luxurious apartments when the affordable ones are given all the same options but for cheaper?” Rodriguez poses.

Other developers have a similar opinion, claiming that the separate entrance is logical. Rentals or condos below market rate insinuate a different type of expectation than if you were to pay for an expensive unit.

“No one ever said that the goal was full integration of these populations,” said David Von Spreckelsen, senior vice president at Toll Brothers, a leading luxury home building company told The Real Deal. “I think it’s unfair to expect very high-income homeowners who paid a fortune to live in their building to have to be in the same boat as low-income renters, who are very fortunate to live in a new building in a great neighborhood.”

Mandating inclusionary zoning for major developers in certain rezoned areas of the city is the eventual goal of de Blasio’s solution to the city’s housing problem. However, due to high subsidies for the creation of these affordable units, fewer than 3,000 affordable units from 2005 to mid-2013 have been developed, according to an analysis made by New York councilman Brad Lander. Additionally, the approval of a project with such a blatant distinction of units has caused community disapproval to the program altogether.

New York City Council Member Jumaane D. Williams and Assemblymember Linda B. Rosenthal created an online petition calling on de Blasio to end “poor door” policies. The petition gained 5,000 signatures as of Aug 22, with signees emphasizing the importance of unity in the community no matter the difference in income.

Rosenthal also created a bill to allow for low-income tenants to gain the option of paying a monthly fee for amenities that they are projected to be exempt from in the building.

“We have to make inroads on these problems and I expect we will start in the state coming this January, as all rent and housing laws are to expire coming this June 2015,” says Rosenthal.