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Monday, October 17, 2016

Major Housing Pivot for Emeryville: Mixed Income Out, Poor Door In

Sherwin Williams Project: ‘Poor Door’ Housing Comes to Emeryville

What’s Old is New Again in Urban Housing Policy: Separate Entrances for Poor People

News Analysis
The City of Emeryville is poised to violate its own mixed income housing policy guidelines to begin a new era of housing segregation based on income if the City Council follows through with the Sherwin Williams development plan Tuesday that would allow the developer of the apartment project to corral all the poor people renting there into a separate building containing only the required below market rate (BMR) rental units.  The move, the first overt separating based on income of Emeryville residents in modern history will put Emeryville in the middle of a nation-wide debate on the increasing use of the so called 'poor door'; the use of separate entrances (or buildings) for poor people by developers forced to include below market rate housing in their projects while attempting to keep the poor people out of sight of the rich people in their projects.
The wealthy in New York City pay a premium for
housing with poor doors but
Mayor, Bill de Blasio has called on a
poor door ban.

The debate about the use of poor doors has generally elicited the ire of city planners and social critics and notably some cities who have banned them outright or are in the process of doing so but also some defenders, a list that now is to include the City of Emeryville.  
The societal benefits of mixed income living have been settled city planning for generations and poor doors have been shown to be not only alienating for the poor but for the wealthy as well. The Urban Institute, a Washington DC based social policy think tank has railed against poor doors' tendency to increase social inequities, observing,  “Elements of building design, such as lack of common areas or shared building entrances, can serve to limit informal interactions, which otherwise could serve as the basis for developing more significant ties.”

As America slides into income and wealth inequality not seen since the Gilded Age, the stratification of society can’t help but be reflected in how a city develops in the physical sense regardless of how egalitarian a municipality imagines or less, claims itself to be.  The return of the ‘poor door’ not seen since the robber baron era resplendent as it was with its separate entrances for servants but now cropping up in new residential development in wealthy urban enclaves, was inevitable given the riven plutocratic society we have built.  

To mollify would be critics of the income segregated housing project scheme at the Sherwin Williams site, Lennar Urban, the lead developer says the BMR apartment building will look as nice as the market rate towers in the project and it will be located next to a planned small park space the poor would be allowed to access.  Talk like that was enough to satisfy the City Council when they approved the Environmental Impact Report for the project at the September 6th Council meeting.  Further, Lennar noted that government agencies who's charge it is helping the poor would be assisted if they were all consolidated in one building.  And they would receive added tax incentives from the federal government.

Sociologists may decry the Dickensian undemocratic nature of poor doors but their use, it has been noted, allows developers to make more money based on wealthy people's general aversion to mixing with poor people and keeping the poor out of sight increases the market rate for market rate housing. Kevin Ma, Lennar's point man for the Sherwin Williams project, refused to answer questions about this point.

Some might find this new direction epitomized by the poor door, redolent of a sociopathic and alienating old direction, to be worth debating in our town, especially since it is counter to the City's own housing policy.  But it is a debate that has not happened as the City Council quickly prepares to move Emeryville into a new era of what can only charitably called 'separate but equal' housing.


  1. Once again, Emeryville is at the cutting edge. Watch now as poor doors flare up all over the Bay Area. Emeryville leads and the rest follow. Way to go Emeryville!

    1. At the Sept. 6 Council meeting, the Planning staff was clear:
      Planning regulations state the "unless the City finds compelling
      reasons to the contrary, the rental affordable units shall be
      dispersed throughout the development." They went on to list
      the pros and cons of a stand alone affordable building, including
      in the cons the segregated entrance, saying, "It will be obvious who is
      low income in the project." (57:23)

      When it came time for the Council to explain the compelling reasons
      for the stand alone, they could barely find one amongst themselves.
      Council member Asher had "mixed feelings" and hoped for an
      agreement to share amenities between the affordables and the market
      raters. Member Atkin noted the benefit of deeper rent reduction
      and the centralizing of services for the affordables but then went on
      to discuss ownership housing instead of stand alone issues.
      Member Davis bemoaned the loss of the Redevelopment Agency and
      then called the poor door thinking "baloney and rhetoric." Member
      Donahue brought up disqualification for tenants with rising incomes,
      an issue germane to affordable housing but not to stand alone reasoning.
      Member Martinez said, "I'll just cosign with my fellow Council members."
      So much for compelling reasons.

      The stand alone affordable apartments will be the only building
      without parking in the same building; a required fresh air walk for the
      affordables. The location (setback) of the building in relation to
      Sherwin Avenue will preclude a full public right of way
      and not allow for either street trees or street parking along the building's
      frontage: Less greenery or street parking for the affordables.
      An exterior loading area next to the stand alone will be a noisy addition
      to the concrete canyon between it and the Horton St. office building.
      Right from the get go there are at least 3 design decisions which ding the affordables.

      The public commenter at the Sept 6 meeting, after the dazzling sales pitch by
      St. Anton ( the housing company which will own and run the affordable apartments), called the proposed stand alone affordable apartment building "economic segregation", noted the lack of compelling reasons for the thing,
      and then called it for what it will be: "a stain on us."

  2. Note: A reader wished me to post the following:

    Bob Hughes said...
    Excellent column Brian. It should be noted that at the Sept. 6th Council meeting Jac Asher was quick to bring up the 'poor door' situation. That would have been the meeting that could have gained momentum and changes, since the leverage was on our side. Will this Tuesday's Council Meeting be able to address and change that ill fated situation? If so, let's fight for it . . .

  3. Duh, what do you think the minimum wage was all about? Best way to push the poor out of your city is to push out their jobs. SF, Seattle, Oakland, Emeryville. Poor out. Upper class in. That's why it had to be the highest in the country. Wouldn't have worked otherwise.

    1. Ever read any George Orwell? Remember Newspeak? I can see you massaging the language at an anonymous desk in the Great Hall of the Ministry of Language turning up into down and hot into cold to support Big Brother. Remember, he's watching you.

    2. The allusion to 1984 is apt. We see it in the national election, where the media decide which candidate won a debate based on their manner and not on the truthfulness of their responses.

      And now we have someone who "supports" the poor by advocating low wages.

      People who get by financially nowadays come in two varieties: those who favor poor doors and those who don't. Emeryville serves us more justly by rejecting poor doors.