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By Pat Regnier
July 22, 2014
New Yorkers are calling it the  poor door.
New Yorkers are calling it the "poor door."
Photo illustration by Money; —Marcus Lindström/Bronxgebiet/Getty Images

New York City has approved plans for a new luxury high-rise on the Upper West Side of Manhattan that will include a separate entrance for tenants in “affordable” housing, reports the New York Post. Even the conservative Post manages to see the class angle, calling this a plan for a “poor door.” (The quotation marks are the Post‘s.)

This controversy has been roiling in New York for a while. The Daily Mail unearths a 2013 quotation in a real-estate trade paper from the developer of another project (not the one on the West Side) defending separate entrances. It’s one for the ages:

Let’s keep the rich and not-so-rich in separate boats. Nice. You can make arguments for what the developers are doing here—here’s one—but, wow, that’s not it.

If you don’t live in New York and you aren’t familiar with the crazy real estate market here, this story might need a little translation. Your questions answered:

If the developers don’t want to mix different tenants, why include “affordable” units at all?

Because they are getting subsidies—pretty valuable ones—to build them.

There is not enough of any kind of housing in NYC, but housing for people with low-to-middle incomes is especially scarce. The long-term answer to that is to build lots more housing, and there’s a case to be made that building in NYC should just be a lot easier than it is. The fear on the other side is that new construction will mostly go to the luxury end of the market.

One stop-gap has been to encourage developers to encourage builders to include various kinds of affordable units in their projects. There may be tax benefits passed on to buyers of condos in buildings with affordable units, for example. The Upper West Side project, developed by a group called Extell, got zoning rights to build more units, says the blog West Side Rag, and Extell can sell those rights to other nearby developers.

West Side Rag also says the developer argues that, since the affordable units are in a separate part of the building, it legally must have its own entrance. That could have been avoided had the affordable units been mixed throughout the building. But this particular high-rise offers coveted views, including of the Hudson River. Spreading the units around would presumably have meant giving up some prime spots to affordable units, cutting profits for the developer.

What’s “affordable”?

To qualify for these units, a tenant would need to earn less than 60% of the area’s median income, adjusted for family size, says West Side Rag. For a family of four, that’s about $52,ooo a year. That’s twice the Federal poverty line and above the median U.S. household income, though making ends meet in NYC on that much, with a couple of kids, isn’t easy. That family could rent a two bedroom under this program for about $1,100 a month. So yeah, New York’s version of affordable is different than in other places.

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