New York City currently faces an affordable housing crisis: put simply there is a disparity between what many New Yorkers can afford to pay for housing, and what housing actually costs. The federal government considers a household to be ‘rent burdened’ if it pays more than 30% of its total income towards housing (including utilities). Double check your lease. Surprised yet?
Recently the approval of the so called “Poor Door” at 40 Riverside Drive, a planned luxury building on Manhattans’ UWS has been making headlines. The development is known as “One Riverside Park” and will provide one entrance for market-rate buyers, which faces the water and will always be bathed in that “just awash with wealth” light. Another door for affordable housing tenants will face the street (are there really any ugly UWS streets, let’s be real), and is noticeably absent from the developments website promising a new level of luxury for Manhattan. Activists, Politicians, and Developers have all weighed in to vilify or support the approval of the project. Now, we all already know that the rent is too damn high, but the details about how New York provides affordable housing (and has the goal of expanding its availability) are murkier than the Gowanus Canal.
What you might not know are the reasons why “Poor Door” is bad policy. Yes you’ve heard that segregation is downright shameful, and rich entitlement sucks, but lets consider the larger implications on why the media frenzy over 40 Riversides’ separate entrances is actually hurting productive conversations about affordable housing.
Instead of writing headlines about how disgraceful the “Poor Door” is, we could be talking about how:
1. Separate entrances are perfectly legal. They exist in part because the developer in charge of building the housing has chosen one Affordable Housing option that allows them to provide affordable market rate units in different buildings. What appears to be one building from the outside is actually two- distinguished by the construction of a firewall. They have different utilities and, by building code, different entrances.
Developers are choosing to implement Affordable Housing in this particular way for a variety of reasons, including the ability to keep prime real estate on higher floors with better views for market rate housing. There are requirements for even interspersing of affordable units in developments that do not create different buildings.
2. Affordable housing isn’t even required. In a city where our hottest resource is land, housing isn’t being built at the rate needed by the people who live here. Developers seek to build to make maximum profit – and it’s scrape up the cash or hit the road. This is where subsidy programs come in, because as a City we say we value diversity and that includes more than just what your cuisine options are. We say we value people who make piles and piles of money and the rest of us because we respect that we are all people, and still need to live somewhere. Instead of demanding that affordability be provided across the board, we offer developers substantial subsidies from cheap publicly owned land, to zoning bonuses, to tax breaks, to low-risk public financing. While you and I cannot use groupons in triplicate, the City lets developers take advantage of multiple perks at a time. So why aren’t we prioritizing all of the people over all of the money by making affordability mandatory?
3. What even counts as affordable isn’t for many New Yorkers. Instead of focusing on this outrageousness we should be taking a hard look at what we mean when we say ‘affordable’. Affordable Housing is housing provided at 160% of the Area Median Income*. According to HUD, 80% of AMI is considered low income and in NYC for a single person in 2014 is a whopping $47,000, and for a family of 4 is the more reasonably surprising $67,100. Surprised to find yourself “qualifying” for low-income affordable housing? While you and I absolutely deserve to have affordable housing options, we do not even begin to scrape the surface of New Yorkers whose housing choices are extraordinarily limited. I have a problem with ignoring the fact that we are giving developers a pat on the back for providing housing for the highest possible bracket of the least affluent people. We should perhaps reconsider arguing about separate entrances for the Rich and the Only Somewhat Less
4. How we stigmatize people who need lower rents. While the policy itself might not actually create real affordability, the conversation around Poor Door seems to focus primarily on Rich V. Poor. Does this mean that as a precedent we are going to stigmatize anyone who may need a housing subsidy? Ignoring that market-rate apartments are increasingly inaccessible to many New Yorkers reduces the conversation to a dichotomy and prevents addressing how to provide a range of options for a range of income needs.
The real reason why “Poor Door” is a disappointment to the people who live in New York City is not that it so shockingly underscores the growing inequality in our city, but that the approval of the plans for a developer to follow the law are gaining more attention than the issue of actual sustainable affordability for all 8 million of us. “Poor Door” is bad policy because it distracts us from having a meaningful conversation about the value of creating mixed income neighborhoods, of establishing mandatory requirements for affordable housing that penalize developers for NOT providing different levels of affordability, and of the danger of creating isolated pockets of affluence or poverty. No, the policy that created “Poor Door” is not a policy in line with the New York City that we like to think we are, but it is also making headlines as a sensational bit without much attention being paid to its deeper implications. It is imperative that the City bring our policies and our goals under a unified voice. Otherwise it seems like we say we care about providing affordability to all New Yorkers, but ends up looking like we only care about providing it for some.
*Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics: Area Median Income is calculated based on the US Census’ Metropolitain Statistical Areas which, for NYC include East New York and Brownsville as well as Westchester and Dutchess Counties. Not exactly comparable.