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Melissa Harris-Perry: Lower-income stigma embodied in 'poor door'

In her weekly open letter, host Melissa Harris-Perry addresses the NYC developer whose building has a separate entrance for lower-income tenants.

New Yorkers like to talk about their apartments--a lot. They talk about where they are, how big they are - and often, how small they are, and most of all, how much they cost. It is because the story of New York City apartments is just so incredible.

The median Manhattan apartment goes for more than $3,000 a month. Just to give you a sense, in a desirable Manhattan neighborhood, in a well-maintained building, a 700-sq. foot one-bedroom apartment easily goes for $3,700 a month.

It has been an issue for decades, but recently the problem has gotten especially bad. Median rental rates for apartments increased 75% between 2000 and 2012. A 75% increase over a period when median real income fell almost 5%.

Manhattan. The site of aspiration, where young dreamers and hard-working immigrant families have woven a complex tapestry of diverse and distinct neighborhoods, increasingly feels like an exclusive island inhabited welcoming only the über-wealthy--which is why the city offers an incentive to developers to include some affordable housing units in their new glass condo palaces designed for the world's one-percenters.

Which is why my letter this week is to Extell founder/president Gary Barnett.

Dear Gary,

It's me, Melissa.

Surely you know that our nation decided more than 50 years ago that separate but equal is actually inherently unequal. But then again, you're not going for equal. You're just going for separate.

Gary Barnett
Gary Barnett looks on as Pete Nordstrom speaks during a news conference as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg looks on Thursday, June 28, 2012, in New...

Given that New York City lost 400,000 affordable apartments between 2000 and 2012, perhaps there is some solace to be taken in the fact that your new 33-floor condo building is slated to include 55 affordable rental units. But I couldn't help notice that the 219 market-rate units will be the ones with the river views, and the 55 affordable units will be on the street side. And hey, maybe that's OK. We all know what a good view is worth.

But why the separate door?

You know, the one for the people in the affordable units so the rich people don't even have to see those of lesser means who call the building home. Don't even have to walk through the same doorway as them.

We really wanted to know why, so we called your office. The response? No comment.

But the posted plan for the building claims that a zoning resolution requires the separate door because the 55 affordable units will be in their own "building segment." Translation: the 55 affordable units will not be mixed in with the 219 market rate units at all.

Your message is clear: one building, two classes.

And let's be fair: I understand that you are following the rules. You are providing the affordable units necessary so that you earn credits allowing you to build more floor area. But you didn't have to. Did you? You could have mixed the affordable units in with the others eliminating the need for a separate door altogether. But that would have meant some loss of profit.

You responded to criticism of your luxury buildings in February in an opinion column in the New York Observer in which you proclaim: "demonizing the wealthy might feel good, but it hurts New York."

You know what I think hurts New York? That its residents increasingly can't afford a roof over their heads. And what "might feel good," Mr. Barnett, is that when they are able to access affordable housing, they don't have to enter through a separate door. That their home doesn't reinforce the idea that having less means being less.

So I am encouraging you to show a little courage and try developing with an eye toward actual integration. You just might find that those in a lower tax bracket make pretty extraordinary neighbors.

Sincerely, Melissa