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“Poor door” discussion misplaces outrage, masks solutions

The ongoing media discussion of the “poor door” development in New York City misses the forest for the trees by focusing on segregation within an individual building, rather than the more pernicious segregation of our nation’s neighborhoods and schools.
At the center of the media controversy is the city’s inclusionary housing policy and the developer of a luxury housing property on New York’s Upper West Side. Under the terms of the voluntary policy, the developer priced 20 percent of the homes at below-market rate rents, in perpetuity, in exchange for a zoning bonus. The developer also gained access to public subsidies, including a lucrative property tax exemption, by building the affordable units “on-site.” But the developer clustered the affordable units within a low-rise building while placing the luxury units in an adjoining tower, and made key amenities available exclusively to luxury tenants. Furthermore, the property is designed so as to appear to be a single building, but has separate entrances for the affordable- and market-rate-units.

Clearly there’s room for improvement here: if you’re going to offer extra financial incentives to developers for complying with the “on-site” option in inclusionary housing (as NYC does), these mixed-income properties should meet higher standards of integration and communicate that all residents are welcome and afforded equal rights as tenants. If anything, the poor-door controversy clarifies why most of the nation’s 500+ inclusionary housing policies include basic guidelines to ensure the residents of the affordable apartments or condos aren’t stigmatized or treated unequally.
But we mustn’t lose sight of the ultimate goal of inclusionary housing: improving location choices for lower-income families, and increasing the availability of decent, affordable homes in neighborhoods with good schools, quality job access, and healthy living environments. The Extell development on the Upper West Side needlessly offends with its design, but it’s also creating 55 affordable, quality homes in an amenity- and opportunity-rich community that is increasingly off-limits to poorer residents. Developments such as these may be better termed “off-site” or “adjacent.” But with small design improvements (like just making the buildings separate!) they are a significant improvement to the status quo of exclusionary, segregated neighborhoods.
New York City and jurisdictions throughout the country continue to have many highly segregated communities – a legacy of decades of exclusionary zoning, redlining, and the market’s inabilities to create balanced neighborhoods. This leads to separate and unequal schools, and restricts too many opportunities to those with means. Inclusionary housing policies help restore the promise of equal opportunity by linking market-rate development to affordability, fostering mixed-income neighborhoods, and helping lower-income households access better schools and healthier living environments where they can thrive.
But for inclusionary housing to work, we need developers to build new housing. To avoid stifling the market, inclusionary housing policies need some degree of flexibility.  The economics of creating mixed-income housing is tricky on certain properties and in many high-cost areas. For this reason, many jurisdictions structure their policies with a menu of options, including the option to develop the affordable homes “nearby but off-site.”  These homes still have access to the same neighborhood schools and amenities; they’re simply distinct properties. And in many cases this arrangement makes it easier to deepen the affordability of the below-market-rate homes.
As inclusionary housing policies become more common and sought-after in cities and town centers, it’s important to keep the big picture in mind, and keep our inclusionary housing policies flexible. Mixed-income buildings are ideal.  But we need to be creating multiple pathways to more inclusive neighborhoods.
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