A House Divided: The “Poor Door” Controversy in the Upper West Side

Poor Door Controversy on the Upper West Side

While it goes without saying that affordable housing is nearly impossible to find in Manhattan, especially with realty prices soaring, the development project at 40 Riverside Boulevard is offering mixed-income housing with luxury condos and affordable apartments in the same building. Among the 274 planned units of the 33-story building, 219 will be luxury condos on the upper floors facing the Hudson River while the remaining 55 units will be designated as affordable housing units with a designated separate entrance, that has become known as the controversial “poor door.” The site’s developer, Extell, has sparked a classist controversy and outrage for this plan to have income-segregated entrances. Extell plans for a mixed-income building due to the potential tax breaks it will receive through the 421a tax exemption program, yet the perceived separate-but-equal logic of the segregated entrances has produced considerable backlash against Extell.

Further straining the issue and bringing it into the public spotlight is the attention from politicians such as Christine Quinn, who recently made a stand against Extell’s “discriminatory practices.” According to The Post, Councilman Robert Jackson has proposed a bill that would require city buildings receiving affordable-housing subsidies to provide access to the same services, amenities and entrances to all tenants of a particular building regardless of rent price. Yet some have spoken in defense of the “poor door” (some with better articulated arguments than others), citing the incentive to build (and create more affordable housing in the process) a company receives from such tax abatements. However, Extell’s defenders appear to be few and far between and the issue can complicate the development of the site and others like it in the future. Extell’s response to the controversy, viewable here, nevertheless defends its policy of mixed-income buildings. 

While it is easy to target Extell on this issue, it is important to realize that Extell is by no means the first building in New York City to segregate tenants based on their rent prices. The Times explored the issue of segregated housing in Williamsburg’s Northside Piers and the Edge where a similar policy exists. While these areas have traditionally been lower-income, low inventory in Brooklyn has caused realty prices to spike as demand rises for a dwindling number of apartments and condos. For example, at Northside Piers, where entrances are also separate, condo residents have luxury amenities like doormen, pools and balconies while the affordable-housing residents cannot access any of these perks. While some residents expressed frustration at being treated differently, others understood that the rent difference exists for a reason and were even grateful that they had received such a good deal by living affordably in a new building in a neighborhood like Williamsburg. Yet such sentiments are by no means universal as made apparent in recent discussions of segregated housing.

It is clear that New Yorkers are largely against segregated housing despite its prior existence in other similar neighborhoods. The upcoming mayoral election has doubtlessly influenced the large amount of negative attention 40 Riverside Boulevard has received. Whatever the outcome of the controversy, it is apparent that the current income-based residence divisions may not stand much longer.