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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Real Poor Doors

There has been a lot of discussion about the "poor door" scandal in New York City. The New York Times covered it in depth yesterday. Some developers taking advantage of affordable housing incentives have been segregating their below-market units from the more affluent residents with separate entrances.

As insulting and socially destructive as that is, this whole discussion does not do justice to the housing challenges of New York City's poor. The "affordable" units in the new buildings are still positioned at incomes around the city's median household income. This is not housing that is within reach of the poor.  This fact provides some support to the push back against the critics of this practice; many people just aren't that sympathetic to the insult to residents who could afford a typical apartment but have won the opportunity to move into a much nicer unit because they happened to win a lottery.

This situation is typical of the public discourse around affordable housing in New York City. There is attention and programs for the middle-class, with public debates back and forth about how much support professional workers really need and deserve. Meanwhile, the units that are inhabited by the working poor, who spend so much of their earnings to inhabit apartments with much worse conditions than new construction with a side entrance, are places that remain invisible to public discourse.

The poor have always inhabited the residual spaces of the middle class. Sometimes these were neighborhoods of speculative middle-class housing that were left over from a glut of  housing bubble,  ultimately becoming crowded ghettos as the houses were chopped up into apartments. Other times, and increasingly in New York City today, it is extra space in one- and two-family houses in neighborhoods where the working class moved in after the original middle-class owners moved on. These less affluent owners often can no longer afford the entire space for themselves as they struggle to pay the mortgage and maintenance on the structure. Many turn to renting out rooms for supplemental income. These are the illegal apartments that fill basements and cellars, and dangerously partition floors in houses throughout the city's sprawling residential districts.

To see a poor door, look for two-family houses with three buzzers. Look for tenants climbing the steep stairs from basement doors. These are the places where exploited immigrants dwell in a city of fabulous wealth. These are not the worst places, either. The truly horrendous conditions are more hidden, with no buzzers or mailboxes that might draw attention to the exploitation crammed behind their nondescript doors.

Every once in a while, there is a little discussion about the housing needs of the city's actual poor. Chhaya, together with the Pratt Center for Community Development, studied the potential of legalizing some illegal apartments. As noted by the Times, even if safety issues can be resolved, there is a NIMBY reaction: "Relaxing the rules, though, can be a tough sell among neighbors who see illegal units as a drain on schools, hospitals, parking and other resources." Of course, the illegal units press into residual spaces when they are not formalized. The impacts on city services remains, is worsened, in fact, due to the difficulty of collecting accurate data to plan for emerging needs. Worse, there are no protections for the tenants against hazardous conditions that threaten them and the neighbors alike, and the potential of eviction provides more leverage for exploitation. So complaints about the dignity of middle class housing dominate media attention while the housing needs of the poor go unnoticed or are ignored to placate the anxieties of middle class homeowners.

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