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One Building, Two Worlds
The stubborn persistence of the “poor door”
By Xinyi Tu
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There are two ways to enter the luxury high-rise at 15 Hudson Yards.
One faces the beehive-shaped tourist magnet called "The Vessel." Door attendants dressed in black suits welcome residents to a lobby where modern artwork hangs on high granite ceilings.
The other entrance is on the back end of the building at 553 West 30th St. This entrance is a level beneath the front plaza. Residents open the door themselves.
One building in the city’s most expensive neighborhood. Two doors. Two addresses. The difference? How much you pay to live here.
Fateema King, a current resident who lives on the "lower floors" of 15 Hudson Yards, said that lower-income residents are prohibited from accessing the market-rate unit floors and the building’s amenities. She explained that the affordable unit tenants receive a different key card, which only grants them access to an elevator that travels to the lower floors where affordable units are located.
"The only things we got access to on my side is the gym, the lounge and the playroom. But other than that, that's it, we don't get access to nothing else they get." King said, "I just get mad ‘cause I can't go to sit in the pool. I can't barbecue on the roof.”
King called the West 30th Street entrance "the back door" and described the front plaza entrance as "the main entrance up the hill." She said all residents are able to access the building through both entrances, but the elevator to the lower floors is located somewhat closer to the back entrance.
King said she uses the front entrance. "The more you show your faith, the more they know who you are," she said. "I try to walk back and forth as much as possible."
The “back door” at 553 West 30th St, also the home address for the 107 affordable units in 15 Hudson Yards, sits underneath the tourist attraction “the Highline.” Photo by Xinyi Tu
The “front door” of the 15 Hudson Yards Apartments, which faces “the Vessel” and neighbors a high-end shopping center. Photo by Xinyi Tu
An employee of the building said the management team told him that "they would prefer him to use the back entrance" on West 30th Street.
When a RentWire reporter was interviewing residents on the sidewalk outside the West 30th Street entrance, a woman who identified herself as a management team member threatened legal action if the reporter continued the interviews. She then told the reporter that the lower floor tenants "are not allowed" access to the amenities on the higher floors, even if they are willing to pay a service fee.
A year ago, three prospective residents who qualified for affordable apartments in the building filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against Related Companies, the developer of 15 Hudson Yards. The suit charged that the building segregated low-income tenants by placing them on specific lower floors and, among other complaints, separating them from the wealthier residents by using a separate "poor address.”
A New York district court judge, however, dismissed the suit in August, saying that the claims alleged by the plaintiffs were insufficient to constitute racial discrimination. Mark Shirian, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, has been quoted as saying he planned to appeal the judge's dismissal and might bring the case to the state court with additional evidence. He declined to comment on the case to RentWire.
In 2018, the three plaintiffs had won spots in the building through the city's housing lottery system – which granted them lower rents for apartments they would not have been able to afford at market rates. In addition to discovering that they could only access their floors through a separate elevator, they were barred from using amenities made exclusive to condo residents, including a fitness center, rooftop deck, screening room and pool.
One of the plaintiffs also claimed that, during an interview with the Related, she was told she was prohibited from using the 15 Hudson Yards entrance. Before filing the lawsuit, the three plaintiffs turned down their leases.
According to legal documents presented by Related, the development consists of three components: a cultural center known as the "Shed," 107 affordable rentals referred to as the "Base Units" on lower levels, and 285 for-sale condominiums located on higher floors. The affordable rentals and condos each have amenities exclusive to their residents.
By setting aside affordable units in new developments, developers receive a lucrative property tax break - known as the 421-a. This program, designed to create more much-needed affordable housing in the city, has long come under fire for inflating the cost of land by allowing for taller buildings, as well as creating what are known as separate "poor doors."
It is illegal for developers citywide to segregate low-income tenants by using a “poor door” or placing them on “poor floors,” based on a 2015 bill passed under Mayor Bill de Blasio. But projects built before the bill was passed can still receive the tax exemption, including the developer of 15 Hudson Yards, which started construction six months before the ban came into effect. Fifteen Hudson Yards is still a tax exemption recipient as of financial year 2021, according to the city's Department of Finance.
Enacted during the Civil Rights movement, the Fair Housing Act prohibits housing discrimination based upon race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability and familial status. However, income or economic discrimination is not illegal under this law.
"Without some data on racial occupancy, a court would be unable to evaluate the case as a claim for race discrimination," Diane Houk, the co-founder of the New York City-based Justice Center, explained in an email, "I really think this is a very narrow decision based on a complaint that did not contain enough facts."
For its part, Jon Weinstein, a spokesperson for Related, called the lawsuit "a frivolous, headline-chasing endeavor." According to a motion to dismiss statement, Related claimed that "disparity related to the economics of what individuals of different financial means can afford is not race discrimination." Therefore, the design in 15 Hudson Yards did not violate the Fair Housing Act as alleged by the suit.
Though the racial demographic in affordable units at 15 Hudson Yards is unclear, city data shows that tenants living in affordable units through the housing lottery are predominantly people of color, according to a report by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development.
The so-called "poor door" is not a new phenomenon in New York City. Coined by a local publication, West Side Rag in 2013, "poor door" was first used to describe the entrance that separated market-rate and affordable unit residents in an Upper West Side development. The term soon appeared in headlines as more publications ran exposés on these separate doors.
Although developers are now barred from using "poor doors" and "poor floors," some are still seeking loopholes to draw an invisible class line, either through setting aside separate addresses, amenities, or even a "poor building." For instance, One Manhattan Square, an Extell development that overlooks the Manhattan Bridge, constructed a smaller building for affordable units alongside the luxury condos, the New York Times reported.
"This practice effectively imposed a kind of Jim Crow in places that hadn't existed before, because of the preferences of customers," said Xavier de Souza Briggs, a senior fellow at Brookings Metro at the Brookings Institution.
Briggs also raised questions as to the developer’s incentive: "Are developers overreacting to that? Are they imagining their market rate customers or prospective customers to be sensitive to housing affordability, and to share space with low and moderate-income tenants in ways that the customers themselves are not?"
Inside 15 Hudson Yards, the gap in economic status is striking. To secure a spot in the lottery for an affordable unit, applicants must make between 50% to 60% of the particular neighborhod’s median income yearly, or between $31,303 to $43,860. In comparison, the residents on the upper floors pay a minimum of $6,000 monthly for a one-bedroom apartment - or as much as $32 million for a penthouse, according to sales records on StreetEasy.
Lower-income residents spend on average around 400 days for the city's housing lottery system to proceed with their applications. The lucky ones, however, soon discover that although they have won an otherwise affordable home through the city's Inclusionary Housing Program, the buildings are not as inclusive as they were advertised.
"They give you false advertisements, they don't give you what you were expecting, they don't fix up anything in the building,” said King, of her side of the building. “It's just for show.” Since moving into the building three years ago, King added, she has never interacted with the more affluent residents "on the other side."
None of the tenants of the affordable units have left the building since it opened, according to Weinstein, spokesperson for Related, which he cited as “a testament to the quality of the building, services and apartments."
Contrary to Weinstein’s assertion, however, some advocates suggested that the residents do not have a choice. Mark Joseph, director of the National Initiative on Mixed-Income Communities at Case Western Reserve University, said low income renters often have to “sacrifice some sense of dignity and self-worth” for housing security.
“They are used to society saying ‘you are not worthy of the top service,’” he said. “So this is just one more dimension of American life, where you're treated like a second-class citizen. It's not new. At the end of the day, shelter is one of the most important human needs. So you've got a choice if you want access to an important need, and it's actually quality housing. If you have to suffer some indignity of being segregated, what choice do you have?”
Joseph added that the segregated design “is a missed opportunity to change the narrative, change the mindsets, change the understanding, address bias, by having people actually get to see like, 'oh, you're a human being just like me.'"
In addition to the fear of losing potential affluent buyers and renters, he added, developers are reluctant to make projects more integrated because they worry that it will increase the cost of maintaining space and amenities shared by more people. Yet, he suggested that an integrated design might be a cost-effective option.
"Imagine a community that is integrated, and the residents feel really attached and responsible for the community,” Joseph said. “They pick up the litter, they avoid damage to the property, they stay at the property longer, they keep an eye out for the community.”
About 90% of new residential developments citywide received tax reductions in the last decade, according to the NYU Furman Center. With the current 421-a tax subsidy having expired this June, city officials have been debating whether the program has successfully ameliorated the city's affordable housing crisis and if it should be reintroduced in the future.
But scholars say that incorporating private affordable housing projects is not the only way to address New York City's long-standing housing problem. Briggs recommended that the city implement "a broader set of strategies," which include investing more in public housing projects that support low to moderate-income New Yorkers.
Under the most recent 421-a tax abatement rules, applicants making as much as 130% of the area’s median income could qualify for the housing lottery. This may change as Gov. Kathy Hochul is proposing to release an upgraded 421-a program, which could lower the income ceiling to 80%. However, lawmakers have not released plans regarding equal access to amenities in developments receiving 421-a benefits.
"There are all kinds of benefits to more inclusive ways of growing,” said Briggs, “including in areas that are gaining population, for example, such that we don't simply reproduce these patterns generation on generation because they are very costly. New York City's history shows that those developments can be very viable over the long haul - given the right support."
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