What’s Behind the ‘Poor Door’? | The Nation


What’s Behind the ‘Poor Door’?

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Rendering of the proposed plan for the Domino Sugar refinery site in Bkln. NY

Bird’s-eye rendering of the proposed plan for the Domino Sugar refinery site in Brooklyn, New York

Some form of differential rent regulation is surely the most effective way to guarantee both affordability and mix in housing, although there is not a successful formulation for harmonizing rent controls with the appropriate incentives to encourage construction by the private sector to accommodate these tenants—to ensure that they will not, in effect, be segregated. This has been the experience with the Section 8 voucher program, often offered inadequately as redress for the demolition of existing public housing but tending to reinforce existing patterns of segregation. There is no coherent national consensus about housing as a right, and few politicians are willing to describe it, at best, as anything more than a general good (like health, education or sound nutrition).

If we concede that the market is not a system that makes equality its first priority, then we must interfere with it in some way to produce equitable results. The idea of a distributive ethics in the city requires a distributive planning process that embraces not simply use—planning’s traditional interest—but social access. The crunch comes when questions of the allocation of social goods are entertained in the realm of space. For example, there has been an ongoing evolution in ideas about the provision and location of “social” housing that has yielded very different results at different times and in different places. In Vienna (a particularly instructive example), 60 percent of residents currently live in municipally built housing, which is directed mainly toward the middle class. During its socialist heyday in the ’20s and early ’30s, the city built gorgeous housing for nearly a quarter-million members of the working class in the “Red Ring.” In New York, from the nineteenth century to the present day, we have been caught up in a debate that dilutes its focus over four strategies: the remediation in place, the construction of large and concentrated new developments, the scattering of new affordable housing, and the distribution of subsidies via vouchers or rent regulations to allow existing systems of housing production to be more welcoming and useful to those whose resources can not meet the market rate.

As a rule, New Yorkers seem to have far more tolerance for well-motivated forms of “inequality” than might be expected. On the one hand, our huge income gap doesn’t seem to be stirring much insurrectionary rage. On the other, the better-off accept more quotidian forms of tolerance—as can be seen, for instance, among those living in buildings that charge wildly disparate amounts for identical rent-regulated apartments. (In our tenement, I was occasionally sent the rent bill for a next-door neighbor, who paid a quarter of what we did, and I suffered no ill effects.) Nor do Americans more generally appear unable to deal with their banked rage at, say, the other passengers in Row 38 on United Airlines, all of whom are traveling at insanely varying fares. It does seem clear that such circumstances do not, in general, exceed our psychical capacities, suggesting that we are able to accept as “normal” a certain scale of distributive redress as a cure for larger inequalities, as well as to tolerate the inequalities themselves. Indeed, in a city in which the richest census tract and the poorest are just a few miles apart, the lack of revolutionary discontent at this spectacle of inequality is both remarkable and symptomatic.

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What is seldom discussed openly is that inclusionary housing programs are measures for integration, a word largely retired from our ethical and political vocabulary, and no policy can succeed until this value is openly acknowledged. It’s certainly striking that talk of “mixing”—of classes, ethnicities, races—is seldom honored explicitly as an objective for policy, reduced to the more generic and less nuanced issues of “equity” and “fairness.” But one must speak otherwise in any debate about the future, as the income gap only continues to accelerate. The statistics are indeed grim. A paper from the IMF—recently cited by the New York Times columnist Charles Blow—reported that the share of market income in the United States captured by the richest 10 percent grew from 30 percent in 1980 to 48 percent in 2012, and that the take of the wealthiest 0.1 percent quadrupled from 2.6 percent to 10.4, even as poverty rates have failed to budge for years.

In New York, this disparity gets compounded by escalating housing costs. A report by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli found that half the renters in the state and more than a third of homeowners devote more than 30 percent of their income to housing, the federal threshold of affordability. As DiNapoli told the Times, “you’ve got households with less money and costs going up.” Like the income gap, the percentage of those who cannot afford housing is rising dramatically, from 40.5 percent in 2000 to 50.6 percent in 2012 for renters and from 26.4 to 33.9 percent over the same period for owners. The crisis is not simply limited to the city. DiNapoli found that while 57.6 percent of renters in the Bronx were paying more than they could afford, so were at least 54 percent of those in Greene, Ulster, Rockland and Orange counties.

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