News reports surfaced on Tuesday from New York City that a plan from developer Extell to build a 33-story luxury condo in Manhattan was approved. What makes this development deserving of (any) attention is the developer’s desire to create what’s been described as a “poor door.” This is essentially a separate entrance for lower-income renters living in publicly-subsidized units, all in a section of the building physically segregated from their wealthy neighbors.
Cue the Downton Abbey jokes, right?
Well, sort of. Spatial segregation along class lines is nothing new, and as Bryce Covert mentions in her response poor doors exist elsewhere in the city. Moreover, NYC may well be unique in that such segregation is actually less prevalent than in other metropolitan areas — simply because sheer housing expenses discourages its existence in the first place.
So some folks might just shrug. (I can think of at least one reasonable right-of-center writer who would do so, and in the process use it as an example of lefties whining about things they don’t understand). Sure, it’s an unsightly name for an unsightly phenomenon, but a poor door is better than no door in a place facing serious housing problems and severe homelessness. That’s true so much as it goes. Yet that doesn’t mean that the poor doors are inconsequential either. Thus, I can think of at least two objections worth raising.
First, as Ariella Cohen explains in this very helpful piece, there is a substantive criticism vis a vie NYC housing policy, in that Extell’s poor door is a profit-seeking result of a city program designed to encourage mixed-income housing:
But what raises the hackles of critics is the fact that the developers building separate entrances for two classes of residents are receiving subsidies for the affordable units through an inclusionary housing program intended to create mixed-income communities. These developers are receiving lucrative tax abatements in exchange for the creation of affordable units and sometimes, like at One Riverside Park, also receiving a valuable floor area bonus in exchange for units. In the case of One Riverside, Extell is selling that floor area bonus for a profit to a developer looking to build nearby.
“These developers are getting these very valuable tax credits for inclusionary housing when in fact people are being segregated by income,” said Upper West Side Assembly member Linda Rosenthal. “Imagine living in an apartment building and not being able to enter your building at the same door as your neighbors who happen to be wealthier. Is this what we as a city want to subsidize?”
Using an inclusionary housing program to profit off building explicitly exclusionary sections is probably not what housing affordability advocates had in mind, to say the least. Delving into that bit of (albeit important) policy requires more knowledge than I have, although it’s enough for me to think that such criticism is relevant and not easy to automatically dismiss.
Secondly, and more broadly, I’m one to believe that these forms of separateness are just generally objectionable. Hiding a certain group of people does not serve the better parts of our nature. It also reinforces social distance in an already increasingly non-egalitarian environment, and social distance has real consequences. In her study (pdf) of fortified enclaves in São Paulo, Brazil, Teresa P.R. Caldeira gets to this more ephemeral, but still important, effect:
When some people are denied access to certain areas and when different groups are not supposed to interact in public space, references to a universal principal of equality and freedom for social life are no longer possible, even as fiction.
Cities of walls do not strengthen citizenship but rather contribute to its corrosion. Moreover, this effect does not depend either on the type of political regime or on the intentions of those in power, since the architecture of the enclaves entails by itself a certain social logic.
Simply delete “enclaves” and type “buildings with poor doors” and the warning remains relevant. How spaces and places are constructed, and for whom, matter. Your mileage on the absolute importance of a single, or handful, of poor doors may vary. For myself that almost doesn’t matter, as the necessity itself is worth lamenting.