The Dream Revisited

Housing Priorities: Quality is More Important than the Number of Entrances

by Carol Lamberg | March 2015

I disagree with many of the assertions in Professor Edward Glaeser's blog. Let me start with one of the more modest claims he makes -- that separate doors for low-income residents are "inherently jarring." I just got back from looking at the door in question. It's a nice door. It even has a steel canopy. It does not look a service entrance or anything.

The person who thought up the term "poor door" can really turn a phrase. The brouhaha around 40 Riverside Place would not exist if the building had been described simply as a moderate-income building adjacent to a luxury condominium.

Many affordable developments in New York are located next to luxury buildings. Condominiums and rental buildings have separate entrances. Hotels and condos also have separate doors. So what's the big deal?

Settlement Housing Fund, from which I retired last year after 30 years as Executive Director, created excellent mixed-income developments for families. These buildings provide well-maintained, permanently affordable housing, and the surrounding neighborhoods have improved dramatically. The developments "work" physically, economically, and socially because of sound investments by government and assiduous management and maintenance. One can evaluate success by physical inspection and review of financial statements, including promptness of rent payments. I have seen many other successful mixed-income developments owned by nonprofit and for-profit entities throughout the United States. Although we like the mixed-income model, we would never oppose developments for specific populations, as long as the buildings are secure and well maintained.

In addition to developing and owning buildings, Settlement Housing Fund acts as marketing agent for the low-income portions of "80/20" rental buildings owned by luxury developers who benefit from tax exempt financing. Some of the recent projects benefitted from very low interest rates, especially those with adjustable rates. The 1984 Tax Act requires the lower income units to be scattered through buildings with this kind of financing. The bottom line is so good that developers line up to obtain the financing for 80/20 buildings--mix or no mix.  

In spite of my lifelong belief in mixed-income buildings, I do not think it is a "holy grail" issue. I do not find 100% moderate-income buildings objectionable and would not sacrifice any affordable housing just because the entrance is around the corner from the luxury building that provided its financing.  The need for affordable housing is too serious to get caught up in relatively unimportant issues. This is especially true when developers can provide more affordable units by creating separate buildings or wings. We spend too much time arguing about how to subsidize housing instead of fighting for the resources needed to allow every American to live in a decent, safe, affordable home.

Professor Glaeser would disagree. In his blog and in his book, Triumph of the City, he prefers to alleviate poverty by giving out cash to low-income individuals, allowing free choice as to how the cash is spent. I agree that a guaranteed minimum income would be great. However, it would not solve the housing crisis in New York City, where only the super-rich can afford market rate rents.

Professor Glaeser is not a fan of subsidized housing. This puzzles me, because he grew up in New York, where successful subsidized buildings abound.  The great Mitchell Lama buildings, the cooperatives sponsored by United Housing Foundation, and buildings renovated or constructed with federal, state, and local funds allow the city to remain diverse. We need many more affordable housing units, with good management and maintenance. Although some subsidized buildings are a mess, almost all the buildings that I have seen are cherished by the residents and their neighbors.

From years of observation, I believe that mixed income housing and community building can stimulate upward mobility, especially when housing is combined with neighborhood amenities and programs, such as the college counseling program at one of Settlement Housing Fund's buildings. It would be great for someone in academia to examine this theory.

Carol Lamberg is the former Executive Director for the Settlement Housing Fund. She tweets at @Lamberg66.

More in Discussion 12: The Poor Door Debate