Open the Door to an Inclusive NYC

08/13/2014 12:22 pm ET Updated Oct 13, 2014

Coauthored by Corey Johnson and Helen Rosenthal

At its best, New York City is a place where people from all walks of life live together and interact with each other. But a new residential tower rising on Manhattan's west side tears at that tradition: the building will have separate entrances for low-income and luxury residents, ensuring that the two groups won't ever mix in the hallways, on the elevators, or in the building's gym.

Incredibly, this so-called "poor door" development is being subsidized by our tax dollars. How could this be?

Extell, the developer of this controversial building rising at 40 Riverside Boulevard, has been able to pursue the dual-entrance plan by exploiting a gaping loophole in the city's zoning laws.

A zoning amendment passed in 2009 aimed to prevent -- not allow -- residential segregation by income. It mandated that when developers received the bonus for setting aside a portion of units for affordable housing, the subsidized apartments must be disbursed throughout the building. Extell is getting around this at 40 Riverside Boulevard by carving its building up and declaring the two sides -- one facing the river, one facing the street -- to be two entirely separate buildings for zoning purposes. But, since both buildings are on one lot, the all-luxury building is able to utilize a loophole and gain a lucrative tax exemption intended for mixed-income buildings.

Extell's plan, to our chagrin, is legal under the current zoning code. But that doesn't make it right. Placing affordable units on the lower floors in the back of the development in an attached but legally separate building plainly renders low-income residents second-class tenants. It also allows Extell to exclude those living in affordable apartments from using the amenities available on the luxury side, such as a gym, pool and roof deck. It is unclear whether Extell will even manage the affordable section of the building, or offload its responsibility to another entity. This is no way to create sustainable and economically integrated communities.

Moreover, there is no viable economic argument to justify this practice. We must dispel the notion once and for all that developers can't afford to build without segregation. Even with units spread over 65 percent of floors, the most lucrative penthouse units will remain undisturbed and developer profit margins unaffected. No developer has any substantial monetary reason to walk away from millions of dollars over their insistence for a poor door.

In fact, for some developers, including a "poor door" in their initial proposal has simply become a tactic. It is often the first thing to come off the table but decreases leverage when the city and local community ask for the developer to include community space, a school, more or deeper affordable housing, or provide support for a nearby park.

We are all acutely aware of the benefits that mixed-income communities provide. Programs aimed at creating economic diversity consistently succeed in giving low- and middle-income families access to better schools, transportation and quality of life, and create an environment for economic empowerment and true social mobility. For example, a recent study of inclusionary housing beneficiaries in Williamsburg showed lower rates of asthma symptoms, marginally lower rates of depression and anxiety, and significantly greater perception of safety.

But Inclusionary Zoning is about more than just producing housing, it's about the kind of communities we're trying to build. While everyone in the neighborhood might have access to the same parks, shops and schools under "poor door," a truly inclusive community goes well beyond just amenities. An equitable city is one that not only builds for a broad and diverse range of people, it also fosters a sense of equality and a unique feeling of interconnectedness. Can you imagine the emotional damage done to the child who, when walking back home from school with his or her friends who live in the very same buildings, has to peel off to use the "poor door" around back? There is no school in the world good enough to make up for that.

We are delighted that the de Blasio administration is already exploring potential solutions to make the letter of the law match the spirit of the law. Last week, we sent a letter to HPD Commissioner Vicky Been and City Planning Chair Carl Weisbrod offering a few suggestions to help close this loophole and guide developers toward proposing more equitable and inclusive developments:
  • Every application to the City requesting inclusionary housing incentives should provide a plan for meeting the objective of neighborhood integration and residential fairness
  • Revise the "off-site" provision to stop developers undermining its intention of spurring more inclusionary development
  • Create new rules for HPD under their governing stipulations so that egregious plans like Extell's would not meet the definition of a public benefit
  • Amend the 421-a statute, which currently enables poor door developments to take a very lucrative tax exemption on the entire building, to condition or withhold eligibility for a development that promotes segregation based on housing status.

These actions will close the "poor door" loophole once and for all. That way instead of dividing New Yorkers into unequal worlds we can bring people of all backgrounds together in fairness and mutual respect.

Corey Johnson, Mark D. Levine, and Helen Rosenthal are New York City Council Members representing the 3rd, 7th, and 6th districts in Manhattan.