Economy
2:59 am
Wed July 30, 2014

New York Skyscraper's Separate 'Poor Door' Called A Disgrace

Originally published on Sat August 2, 2014 12:50 pm

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration is under fire for signing off on a building plan that allows a new luxury high-rise on Manhattan's western edge to have a separate entrance for low-income residents.

About 20 percent of the units in the 33-story tower will be reserved for low- and middle-income residents. But all the affordable units will be grouped in one area, and those tenants will have to enter through a separate door.

"This developer must go back, seal the one door and make it so all residents go through the same door," City Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal said. "It's a disgrace."

Rosenthal is demanding an end to what some here have dubbed the "poor door."

Civil rights attorneys say a significant number of tenants in the subsidized apartments could be minorities. Lawyer Randolph McLaughlin says that makes the building's design more than disgraceful — and possibly illegal.

"To permit developers or encourage them to create separate and unequal buildings and take tax credits and benefits from the city," he said, "I think that's a constitutional violation."

The developer, Extell Development, defends the two doors, saying it complied with zoning laws by essentially creating two separate buildings.

Housing advocates say Extell is exploiting a loophole in the laws, while City Hall blames the prior administration for creating those laws and approving the deal. De Blasio swept into office promising to address income inequality.

"The plans for this building were submitted and construction commenced on the project in 2013, prior to the new mayor being elected," said Alicia Glen, the deputy mayor for housing and economic development.

Extell's president, Gary Barnett, said the zoning law is aimed at creating more affordable housing. In this building, he said, the affordable units will rent for about $15 a square foot, whereas market-rate units will fetch five or six times that.

"Would you rather not have the affordable housing? Ask any one of the thousands of people who are applying for that, and they don't give a damn," he said. "They want to have a beautiful apartment, in a beautiful neighborhood, and you know, at a super price."

But some New Yorkers aren't persuaded by that super price.

"Once again we're putting segregation right upfront, and we're making it legal to segregate people," a caller from Queens said on WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show.

On streets near the new building, it was hard to find a resident who would mind a separate entrance in exchange for a sweet, cheap rental.

"I definitely understand why people would be upset, but I would not take it too personally," said Roman Golubov, who lives in a subsidized apartment. "If I had the opportunity to live in a skyscraper and I had to walk through the poor door, I'd get over it."

Meanwhile, City Hall is trying to get over the controversy. Officials are promising a comprehensive review of the zoning laws and say they will work to close the poor-door loophole.

Copyright 2014 WNYC Radio. To see more, visit http://www.wnyc.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was elected after a campaign concentrated on doing something about income inequality. Now seven months into his term, the mayor's administration has signed off on a building plan that allows a new luxury high-rise to have a separate entrance for low-income residents. And that's not going over well many New Yorkers, as Janet Babin from member station WNYC reports.

JANET BABIN, BYLINE: The 33-story tower butts up against Manhattan's western edge, next to the Hudson River, and will offer some tenants expansive, waterfront views. About 20 percent of the units will be reserved for low- and middle-income residents. But they'll have to enter through a separate door and that sparked outrage among some New Yorkers.

HELEN ROSENTHAL: This developer must go back, seal the one door and make it so all residents go through the same door. It's a disgrace.

BABIN: That's City Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal. She's demanding an end to what some here have dubbed the poor door. Civil rights attorneys say a significant number of tenants in the subsidized apartments could be minorities. Lawyer Randolph McLaughlin says that makes the poor door more than disgraceful and possibly illegal.

RANDOLPH MCLAUGHLIN: To commit developers or encourage them to create separate and unequal buildings and take tax credits and benefits from the city - I think that's a constitutional violation.

BABIN: McLaughlin's referring to the building's design, which groups all the affordable units in one area with that separate entrance. The developer defends the two doors saying he's simply complying with city zoning laws. City Hall blames the prior administration for creating those laws and approving the deal. Alicia Glen is the deputy mayor for housing and economic development.

ALICIA GLEN: The plans for this building were submitted and construction commenced on the project in 2013, prior to the new mayor being elected.

BABIN: The company building the skyscraper is Extell Development. Its president Gary Barnett says the zoning law is aimed at creating more affordable housing. In this building, he says the affordable units will rent for about $15 a square foot, whereas market rate units will fetch five or six times that.

GARY BARNETT: Would you rather not have the affordable housing? Ask anyone of the thousands of people who are applying for that and they don't give a damn. They want to have a beautiful apartment in a beautiful neighborhood at a, you know, super price.

BABIN: But some New Yorkers aren't persuaded by that super price, like this caller on WNYC's "The Brian Lehrer Show."

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE BRIAN LEHRER SHOW")

BRIAN LEHRER: Robert in Queens, you're on WNYC - hi Robert.

ROBERT: Hi. Once again, we're putting segregation right up front. And we're making it legal to segregate people.

BABIN: On city streets near the new building, it was hard to find a resident who would mind a separate entrance, in exchange for a sweet, cheap rental. Roman Golubov himself lives in a subsidized apartment.

ROMAN GOLUBOV: I definitely understand why people would be upset, but I wouldn't take it too personally. If I got an opportunity to live in a skyscraper and they made me walk to the poor door, I'd get over it.

BABIN: Meanwhile, City Hall is trying to get over the controversy. Officials are promising a comprehensive review of the zoning laws. They say they will work to close the poor door loophole. For NPR News, I'm Janet Babin in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.