In Defense of the ‘Poor Door’

Posted by Rick Jacobus on October 14, 2015

The other day a 12 year-old schooled me in the difference between equity and equality.  ‘Equity,' he said, is about fairness and ‘equality’ is about sameness. I guess they're teaching this kind of thing in middle schools these days.

Some students, he said, find math easy and others struggle. If you give the kids who need it the most help, that is “equity” but if you give everyone the same amount of help, that is “equality.” 

“Equity” does not require that everything be the same for everyone or even that everyone end up with the same outcome. Not every math student needs to end up with the skills to be a professional mathematician, for example.

I find that this is a very hard concept for adults to grasp, which is unfortunate because it's key to so many of our social policy decisions.

Take the controversy over so called “poor door" developments which spread from New York to London and more recently to Vancouver. In case you missed it, . . .

. . . the controversy began with a story in The New York Times about a luxury tower built by Extell Development that received tax benefits for providing affordable housing but elected to build the affordable units in a separate building on the same site. New York had been allowing this practice for years and the Times had even criticized it previously, but the phrase 'poor door’ captured the public imagination and reminded many of segregation in the Jim Crow South.

Mayor de Blasio had no choice but to distance himself from the practice and push state legislation to ban ‘poor door,’ though he presumably recognizes that this may mean fewer affordable units get built in higher income areas. Developers in New York are (so far) not required to include affordable units. They voluntarily include them in exchange for tax and other benefits. In this context, anything that lowers a developer’s cost increases the number of projects that will voluntarily include affordable units.

The press accounts tended to suggest that developers chose separate doors, not as a cost cutting measure, but in order to cater to the prejudices of wealthy residents. There is no doubt that most well-off Americans would strongly prefer to live in economic isolation, but we have seen few examples of market-rate housing residents resisting low-income neighbors in their buildings. But for the most part, they simply ignore them. It is hard to believe that having a low-income housing project next door is much more attractive to the higher income residents who would presumably prefer the affordable housing be located across town.

Market rate condos in Extell's "poor door" project start at $7 million, so you can imagine the size of the tax benefit that would be necessary to convince a developer to instead rent one of those units for roughly $800 per month. Instead of requiring “luxury” affordable units, many cities allow developers to choose to build separate affordable buildings, and that is essentially what Extell has done. They built a six-story rental building immediately next to their 43-story luxury tower. What is odd about this project is not that it has two doors, but that it is considered one building at all.

Units in a six-story building are both less expensive to build and less valuable to sell.  Smart cities share in this benefit by requiring developers to offer more units when they build off site, but there is no question that off site provision of affordable units can be far more efficient.

The question for most cities is: are we willing to give up integration in exchange for more total housing units? It is a complex question but, fortunately, one for which there is compelling research to help us draw the right line.

Concentrating affordable housing in low-cost neighborhoods is clearly the most cost-effective way to provide affordable shelter, but a growing body of research shows that concentrated poverty leads to many terrible outcomes and economic integration in mixed-income communities offers dramatic benefits, especially to low-income children

But the same research consistently finds that the benefits of integration come from locating in opportunity rich, healthier, and safer neighborhoods and not from direct social interaction with higher-income neighbors. People in all income groups don’t interact that much with their neighbors. So neighbors are not generally providing job leads or helping lower-income residents build “social capital.” This means that while neighborhood-level integration is essential, building-by-building integration may offer no additional benefit.

For inclusionary housing programs, I think this research says that if offsite units are located in a distressed part of town, the public loses something valuable. Cities require onsite units, not because they expect neighbors to barbecue together, but because onsite affordable units provide the best way to actually get affordable homes in higher income neighborhoods where NIMBYs routinely block development of dedicated affordable buildings. But when market-rate builders include affordable buildings on adjacent land, we have a rare opportunity for an even better outcome–we can build more units and help more families without giving up any of the proven benefits of neighborhood integration.

New York has now banned immediately adjacent affordable developments, but they continue to allow across-town offsite development. In fact, most Manhattan developers are providing their affordable housing not next door but in the Bronx.

The intensity of the public outcry against placing low-income units adjacent to luxury development is deeply ironic. Somehow the "poor doors," by making economic separation present and visible, cause a discomfort that we can easily ignore when income groups are segregated by neighborhood. Elected officials and journalists were outraged that low-income residents were unfairly denied access to the luxury pool and spas. But the buyers of Extell’s $7 million condos are similarly "disadvantaged" by their lack of access to the private pools of the $25 million dollar penthouse units. That is the extreme world we have come to live in.

Given this extreme economic inequality, we have to be clearer about what we mean when we call for more equity–we have to focus on what people need. People need more than shelter: our affordable housing needs to offer access to high opportunity neighborhoods. That matters. But achieving that goal does not require us to provide equal access to luxury–not if that means providing for the needs of fewer families.

Real and meaningful economic integration will necessarily be uncomfortable. Some people will have more of everything and when we live together that difference will be awkward. To me, the ‘poor door’ controversy is all about avoiding that awkwardness.

I am not the only one who thinks that a little awkwardness is a fair price for the benefits of neighborhood integration. When Extell’s "poor door" units came up for rent earlier this year, 88,000 New York families applied for only 55 units. That is a lot of people willing to put up with some discomfort in order to get the affordable housing that their families really need.

(Photo credit: "poor door" by Liz Jones via flickr, CC BY 2.0)

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Shelly Goehring
19 Oct 15, 1:37 pm

This is a very simplistic view of what is going on in our cities. It is not just happening in extraordinarily expensive communities like Manhattan.

In Boston, Trinity Financial has built the Carruth in Dorchester with two separate entrances in the same, stacked, mixed-use building. Tax credit rental units have the lower floors and a separate entrance that you hardly notice when looking at the building. The “main” market rate entrance has a distinct look created by a change in the exterior color of the building. They are now moving forward with a similar building across from this one with the same model. Dorchester is no Manhattan.

Samuels and Associates is working on a mixed use building in the Fenway that has separate doors for renters versus owners.

The North Building on Parcel 24 in Chinatown has two separate entrances, separating low income and market rate renters. One member of the development team has said they intentionally created two doors because they can command a higher rent rate for the market rate units if they are separated from low/moderate income units.

To some, more units is more important than increasing segregation based on class, and very likely race. But to me, the question is what kind of city are we creating when we allow developers to segregate people based on class and race in the same buildings? It is a no-brainer that higher income people can afford greater amenities than low income folks. But what does it do to low income people when we are telling them before they even enter the building they live in that they are less than others, they are someone to be afraid of, that higher income people don’t even want to walk through the same door as them? What does it reinforce with higher income people? That they are “better” than others, that low and moderate income people are to be feared, that they don’t have to feel any responsibility for the incredible inequity, YES INEQUITY, that exists in our economy?

Why are more privileged people generally fine with expecting lower income people to have discomfort with where they live, but don’t think that higher income people should feel similar discomfort? The high income folks that the author mentions don’t have issues with the proximity of lower income people because they are totally separated from them. And of course there were thousands of people who applied for the 55 units. We have a housing crisis in our country and low income people feel the greatest pinch.

But it doesn’t make it right or wise to continue to allow developers to segregate people based on class all across our cities. It’s not just Manhattan.

Rick Jacobus
19 Oct 15, 8:12 pm


Thanks for your thoughtful response.  Can you post some kind of link to where the developer you mention says that the separate doors alone enable them to charge more?  That is certainly what I was worried about when I first heard about this trend but as I looked into the New York examples, I found evidence that the behavior was more driven by financing /tax rules. 

I totally agree that it is a bad practice to have two entrances to a single building - for all the reasons you list.  If we are going to have adjacent affordable properties, it seems less upsetting to also have distinctly different looking buildings. And I wouldn’t want cities to allow that separation unless it means more affordable housing units get built.  But I don’t think that having adjacent properties for lower income residents really should be considered ‘segregation’ in a world like ours where most housing affordable for lower income people is located miles away.

Nathan Weber
20 Oct 15, 1:23 am

Rick Jacobus’ article on justifying “poor doors” is off the mark. Creating separate entrances for rich and poor has nothing whatever to do with avoiding awkwardness. It has everything to do with what’s wrong with this country and everywhere else in the world where economic inequality and its disastrous consequences are increasing by bounds. Poor doors—which provide a far less desirable entrance to a building for lower and moderate income residents—simply reinforce the sickening notion that those with more money are inherently superior to the rest of us. They should not be allowed.
    And for the record, “equality” means “sameness” only in math, and it is no surprise that historically this tortured misuse of the term has been favored by segregationists and right wing sophists. Equality is a moral concept, rooted in the reality of a single human race; it implies the responsibility of everyone to treat each other in accordance with that reality. In a societal context, equality’s synonyms include fairness, equal rights, equal opportunities, equity, and egalitarianism.
    The alternative to equality is not “equity” but slavery.

Ted Wimpey
20 Oct 15, 3:37 am

I concur with Mr. Jacobs’ perspective regarding a very high importance of optimizing class/race/ethnic integration in communities with higher opportunities, while placing a somewhat lower value on having class integration in the all the exact same buildings. If inclusive/affordable units are created in and among higher in units in the same building, then having a separate entrance door for the more affordable units is a bad approach. On the other hand if more decent inclusive, affordable housing units can be created in high opportunity neighborhoods in separate and different buildings then I believe that is much better than not creating those affordable housing options in high opportunity neighborhoods at all.
Among other things this points to the need for more mandatory creation of affordable housing on-site, and in-neighborhood by private developers via inclusionary zoning laws.

Catherine Firpo
20 Oct 15, 6:32 am

It seems to me that the real issue with carving out the affordable units into a separate building is that, generally, the ownership entities are also divided. The market rate development ceases to be responsible for the operating and maintenance costs of the affordable units-and here is the important part-for the entire length of affordability. While the argument is that you get more units at deeper affordability is persuasive, the loss of ongoing internal subsidy needs to be addressed as well.

Over time, if the affordable project has not been able to capitalize its reserves enough,  they will need to look for additional government subsidy. We have all been there. If this is the case, how much affordability are you actually getting through the original subdivision? If there are funds, the government entity will have to choose between making these existing units livable for the tenants or creating new units. 

Is it equitable that the tenants live with a lack of investment? How are the market rate developers paying for the positive externality of not maintaining the affordable units, not managing ongoing monitoring of the units and not paying the costs of operating the project for the entire period of affordability? This is a huge benefit to the developers and is not being discussed as part of this conversation. Integrated affordable rental units don’t have this problem as long as the funding entity is monitoring for equal maintenance and investment. 

I suspect in years to come, we will see this division of market rate and affordable projects as neither equitable or equality if we don’t require the market rate units to retain responsibility for the maintenance of the affordable units through some sort of ongoing operating and capital funding.

Lincoln Miller
21 Oct 15, 10:01 am

Great article Rick. As an affordable housing developer we are always faced with tradeoffs and choices. Do we want a very few low income renters to get the obscene luxury that that the rich demand and achieve equality for a few or do we want more sustainable affordable units for real people that need a place to live. To me that choice is easy. Do the off-site development and serve more people. In Boulder Colorado, where I work, we have a very expensive market but we require a 20% inclusionary housing tax from the developer. They are willing to pay because the opportunities for profit are so great. I imagine New York has a much greater profit potential. What strikes me here as the real issue, is not some different doors but the fact that New York does not have an Inclusionary Housing requirement. Developers need to pay for the privilege to build in New York unless they want to provide 100% affordable housing and then fees should be waived. Off site affordable housing is an arrow in the quiver and we need all the help we can get to provide affordable housing. We do not need to take things off the table or shut down options.

In response to Catherine’s comment, in Boulder we solve that by requiring the for-profit to build the off-site and deliver it to the Housing Authority or some other qualified non-profit manager. This will mean that the building is managed in the public interest on into the future.

Fred Freiberg
22 Oct 15, 5:24 am

Mr. Jakobus, while you and I are clearly in agreement on the value of providing affordable housing units in low-poverty neighborhoods that may offer greater opportunities, I’m not sure why you felt the need to cast aspersions on the value of mixed-income housing developments as if the two approaches are mutually exclusive or that we must choose one over the other.  That juxtaposition is as misplaced as your suggestion that we might have to “give up” on integration in exchange for more affordable housing units.  Your arguments do not resonate with me or with the realities on the ground in New York City.  I agree with Catherine Firpo’s excellent comments that sustaining affordable housing units when they are in separate buildings can be challenging and the scenarios can potentially devolve into a “separate and unequal” situation.  There are numerous benefits to having all of the occupants of market rate and affordable units in the same building with equal access to the shared and often high-end amenities, features that would rarely be placed in 100% affordable developments.  The one example you cite in NYC is an extreme and not representative of the vast majority mixed-income rental housing developments in New York City.  Also, you offer no empirical evidence to support your contention that having people of different incomes (which in NYC often means different races, national origins, abilities, etc.) living in the same building has no value apart from your opinion that occupants of market rate and affordable housing will probably not barbecue together or routinely socialize.  I assume you are familiar with the large body of social science research which asserts that intergroup contact can, over time, erode many prejudices and stereotypes.  Also, the fact that 88,000 people applied for a small number of affordable housing units in one development despite the presence of a separate “poor door” entrance is not evidence that occupants of affordable housing units find this practice acceptable much less that a separate “poor door” complies with fair housing laws.  Rather it is an indication of just how extremely desperate many New Yorkers are to secure decent affordable housing in a city where there is a paucity of such housing.

Darrell Davis
22 Oct 15, 11:22 am

Is there really anyone who believes that ANY low income family wouldn’t choose to live in a “segregated” building with access to good schools and services but no access to the luxury pool and spa when the alternative is a segregated neighborhood with poor schools and poor services?  In Columbus, OH there are hundreds of families squeezing 5 and 6 member households into two bedroom apartments so they can have access to quality suburban schools.  The same was true in DC when I lived there.  The affordable housing industry and the politicians have gotten ridiculous with its politically correct agenda.  The single most effective tool to fighting poverty is education.  Period.  Unlike most of you, I grew up in subsidized housing.  When the opportunity came to move to a racially segregated neighborhood with better schools, my mother jumped at the chance.  Our neighbors didn’t like us and we were discriminated against on a regular basis.  But the college graduation rate for the children of families in that neighborhood was probably 3 times the graduation rate of the neighborhood we left behind.  In fact, I don’t know anyone from the old neighborhood that even WENT to college.  And guess what?  The people who get stuck in those poverty ridden neighborhoods across town won’t have access to the luxury pool and spa either, but they also won’t have access to quality schools and services either.  This whole thing has gotten ridiculous.  We will cut off our nose to spite our face and maintain political correctness.  We are willing to throw away the opportunity to send children to better schools so they wont have to suffer the “humiliation” of using a separate entrance and being denied access to a pool someone else payed for, not considering the fact that a life of poverty is a whole different level of humiliation.

Rick Jacobus
24 Oct 15, 6:23 am

I really appreciate all the discussion.  I am as conflicted as anyone else on this topic and I knew that many people wouldn’t agree with what I wrote.  But I think it is a necessarily complex issue and the media coverage has been treating it as if it were simpler than it is. 

Catherine raises a very important issue that I haven’t seen discussed in this context.  Certainly it is a solvable problem though if there is enough incentive to build adjacent affordable projects.  In NYC I think they have seperate buildings on one legal parcel so they have one owner for both the market rate and affordable buildings.  They may still have problems with different standards for maintenance - but I would bet less than when the offsite buildings are in an entirely different neighborhood.

Fred, we also agree on the importance of empirical evidence - which is why I included several links to the social science research that has led me to to take this sometimes unpopular position.  I spend many years believing that neighbors socializing was why economic integration was important.  It was exactly the overwhelming volume of data to the contrary that changed my mind.  I think we have to listen to the research so if you have evidence that people are barbecuing or getting job leads from their higher income neighbors, please provide a link.

Several commenters seem to think that my post is saying that economic integration is not important.  I am sorry that it was not clearer.  The truth is exactly the opposite - I think economic integration is essential and I think that all the evidence supports the idea that it works.  But it is neighborhood integration that seems to matter - from the data we have so far.  If there were measurable additional benefits to integration in the same building, I would change my position.

It is tempting to characterize my position as ‘separate but equal’ and I think that is a fair complaint - I would agree that the poor door buildings are ‘inferior’ (and not just the entrances).  But the phrase ‘separate but equal’ comes from the context of public school segregation where the public provides a fully free service to both poor and wealthy (and white and black) residents.  For a public service ‘equality’ (ie. sameness) is an appropriate standard - anything else could be morally wrong.  But here we are talking about a private good and the question is how can the public sector intervene to make a grossly unfair housing market slightly less unfair.  And in that context, the fact that there are so many people who need help and aren’t likely to get any has to be an important factor.  If we could offer affordable units that are identical to the $25 million dollar luxury homes without serving fewer people, I would not complain about that.  But when we have 88,000 people waiting for 55 units, it seems immoral not to at least give real consideration to any tradeoffs that could allow us to help more families - even if it means that some people have ‘inferior’ entrances to their buildings. 

I know that the same argument can be used to justify concentrating affordable housing in poor neighborhoods - or more units with substandard maintenance and I strongly oppose those options. Everyone will have a different opinion about where to draw the line but I think we are better off leaving more options on the table and having a real conversation about what really matters. Most of the time we should integrate affordable units into market rate buildings but maybe not every single time.

Shelly Goehring
27 Oct 15, 5:46 am

Hi Rick:

The member of the development team that I referenced who said they absolutely created two entrances to increase market rents shared that information in a private setting. It is not discussed publicly. This is part of the problem for me—government bodies providing public funds to developers to segregate low/moderate income folks from market rate folks and then not revealing the real reason(s) behind it. I think it is one of the dirty little secrets in AH construction these days. If it happens in Boston, it undoubtedly happens elsewhere.

I do not think that each building needs to be economically integrated or that affordable units need to look like market rate units (either on the inside or outside). I am a moderate income person and I live in a modest condo. This is what we generally expect in the real estate market.

But the Trinity Financial examples that I gave in Boston are stacked buildings that parade as mixed income, except that the residential units are segregated by use (ownership vs rental) on different floors and then different elevators in different entrances take you to your floor. Hardly mixed income. Really separate buildings stacked on top of each other.

When I was trying to push back on the developer I pointed out that the entrance is the most organic way that economically diverse, and possibly racially/ethnically diverse, residents could interact and build some familiarity. Perhaps while getting mail and riding the elevator, a market rate person and low income person could come to recognize each other. Perhaps then when they see each other on the subway or getting coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts, they would say “hello” and have a short conversation. When you segregate people before they even enter the building, you are removing the most organic way to bridge divides.

People who are different based on the many categories we create to divide ourselves do not integrate naturally. It takes very intentional effort and DESIGN could be used to help facilitate “togetherness.” Via Verde in the Bronx intentionally created one entrance for homeowners and renters, market-rate and low/moderate residents.

I urge you to do a story on the developers who are using design to bring diverse folks together and how they finance these projects. From the little research I have done, it does not appear to be impossible. It does appears that you need to have the vision and the intent to create mixed-income projects that are truly mixed-income.

29 Oct 15, 3:22 am

Rick Jacobus, Great article. you have articulated what I was thinking ever since this controversy began. I am deeply troubled by continuing income segregation. It is deeply troubling that when economic integration occurs we see the stark contrast between rich and poor. Yet instead of trying to solve the divide we try to ignore it by fighting economic integration. Not having access to the same pool and spa as millionaires is not an indignity. Having to commute for hours for work, awful schools and high crime is a real travesty.

Darrell Davis
2 Nov 15, 11:23 am

Well said, Brandon!

Jan Breidenbach
3 Nov 15, 5:51 am

One question that should be asked of every affordable housing policy or program is how well it sequesters the housing from the private market, and for how long. Each time we remove a unit from the world of speculative real estate we strike a blow against the idea that markets are an appropriate way of allocating shelter; we prove that social housing works.  Inclusionary policies do sequester housing, but only to a certain extent.  Inclusionary terms of affordability are quite often shorter than publicly-subsidized ones (and hardly ever in perpetuity), which means we will face an expiring use problem sooner rather than later. Developers who don’t want low-income tenants may not be good landlords to those tenants, monitoring these projects can be costly and difficult, changing owners can change management, etc. These challenges lead in the direction of having inclusionary housing paid for by the developer but owned and operated by nonprofits—nearby, next door or even on top of one another but socially, not privately, owned.

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