Is New York Developer's 'Poor Door' Plan Un-Jewish?

Separate Entrance for Affordable Apartments Draws Fire

yoni weiss

By Hody Nemes

Published July 22, 2014.

A New York City developer plans to create a so-called “poor door” entrance for affordable housing residents in a luxury condo — an arrangement that critics slammed as fundamentally at odds with Jewish ethics.

City officials have signed off on Extell Development Company’s controversial plan to cut off lower-income renters from those paying top dollar in one of its luxury condominiums on Riverside Drive on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the New York Post reported.

Gary Barnett
Gary Barnett

“I’m appalled that this arrangement passes muster,” New York Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, whose district includes the new development, told the Forward. “It sends a horrible message to hardworking New Yorkers that somehow they’re second class.”

Extell, which is owned by Orthodox Jewish real estate mogul Gary Barnett, plans to include 55 affordable housing units in its new 33-story high rise in order to qualify for the city’s Inclusionary Housing Program. Under the program, developers are granted the rights to develop extra floor space, but only if they also build lower-income housing units on-site or elsewhere.

The rent-protected residents of Extell’s development will occupy apartments facing the street, while their wealthier neighbors will take in views of the Hudson River.

But it’s the idea of a separate access door that has proven particularly divisive.

“If they could just walk through the main door, that would solve a lot of issues,” Rosenthal said. “Why do they have to walk through a different door, as if people of greater means would not want to associate with people who make less money?”

Rosenthal sees the “poor door” issue as part of a larger move by landlords to deny rent-regulated tenants access to building amenities, like gyms, roof decks, and free shuttles.

She is currently pushing a bill that would fine landlords $25,000 and prevent them from raising rent until they give their poorer residents access to amenities. A separate bill, also sponsored by Rosenthal, calls for affordable units to be equally distributed throughout buildings, which would make separate entrances an impossibility.

Mayor Bill De Blasio’s administration has not opposed the Extell plan, but says it wants to avoid “poor doors” in the future. Officials noted that the condo was approved initially during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s reign.

“This specific project was given a green light by the previous administration and had multiple stories already built by the time we walked in the door,” De Blasio spokesman Wiley Norvel told Next City.

A spokesman for Extell declined to comment on the matter. But papers submitted with the company’s application suggest that it views the separate entrance as a legal necessity: it claims the floors devoted to affordable housing are actually part of a separate building, which requires its own entrance under city zoning rules.

Gary Barnett, Extell’s owner, was born Gershon Swiatycki and grew up in ultra-Orthodox enclaves on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and Monsey, New Jersey, according to New York Magazine. He has ten children, and is himself the son of an esteemed Talmud scholar.

Elise Goldin, a young Jewish tenant organizer, is troubled by the plan put forward by Barnett and Extell’s plan. “As a Jew, I don’t think its within Jewish values to be blatantly discriminatory or making people feel lesser,” she said, noting that Barnett is not the first Jewish real estate developer under fire for in controversial real estate practices. “On the other hand, there are a lot of Jewish organizers and [Jewish] people who are working on the other side of the issue, who are using Jewish values to say we are fighting for justice.”

Two of the prominent opponent’s of the Extell plan are Jewish politicians: Rosenthal and City Council Member Mark Levine, the chair of the Council’s Jewish caucus, who has sponsored a bill that would protect rent-regulated tenants from discrimination.

Orthodox activist Rabbi Ari Hart also takes issue with the Extell plan.

“When you hear stuff like this it makes you think: What are our societal priorities?” said Hart, who co-founded the Orthodox social justice group Uri L’Tzedek. “Things like this rob us of the opportunity to recognize the shared humanity of all people, rich and poor alike, and it does a disservice to all New Yorkers.”

Contact Hody Nemes at nemes@forward.com or on Twitter @hodifly



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