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Mixed-Income Housing - Feature

Front Door, Back Door: Mixed-Income Housing

December 11th, 2014 by

There has been a lot of chatter recently about a mixed-income building in New York City with an entrance dubbed the “poor door.” The project, 40 Riverside Boulevard on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, features 219 market-rate units and 55 affordable units. What makes the building a hot topic, however, is that the affordable units are accessed from a separate entrance at the back of the building.

Interaction between residents of varying economic means can benefit everyone. Yet when residents of the affordable units are made to enter through a separate entrance and not given access to the same amenities as other residents, something has gone awry.

It is common for local governments to provide incentives like low-interest financing, cash subsidies, and free land in exchange for incorporating affordable units into a development. In this case, the project received a higher FAR (increased square footage) in exchange for incorporating affordable units. A common belief is that the market-rate units “support” the affordable units, but government incentives can turn that premise around.

Over the past few decades, mixed-income housing has grown in popularity for both non-profit and for-profit developers, as a number of studies demonstrate that concentrating poverty into isolated neighborhoods does not work. Mixed-income neighborhoods blend affordable units, workforce units, and market-rate units into the same vicinity. This allows workers who are essential to the community — teachers, police officers, firefighters, and other municipal workers — to live in the neighborhoods where they work.

Burgess Mill

Mixed-income neighborhood at Burgess Mill Station nestled in Ellicott City

At Marks, Thomas Architects, we recently completed a 200 unit mixed-income neighborhood in Ellicott City, Burgess Mill Station, with 75 affordable units. The development also includes a new recreation center open to the community and the public. This project replaces a 75 unit public housing project in poor condition. By significantly increasing the density of the project, we were able to maintain the same number of affordable units while incorporating market-rate units. There is no difference between market rate units and affordable units.

Burgess Mill - Playground

A community at work — Burgess Mill Station

I went out to Burgess Mill Station recently and saw firsthand that the community is working. Children frolicked on the playground and played ball out on the green. Families poured in and out of the recreation center, and a group of teenagers played basketball at the outdoor court. The community is 100 percent leased — and active and thriving.

Mixed-use neighborhoods can happen naturally, as well, especially when developers make certain decisions. Take, for instance, Park Avenue in Baltimore, where we currently have two ongoing projects. One is the adaptive reuse of the Hoschild Kohn warehouse into 171 market-rate apartments geared toward young professionals. The other is non-age restricted 68 unit affordable housing two blocks down at Mulberry and Park.


Baltimore’s West side: Mulberry and Park Ave.

The projects are both within the Baltimore Westside, a transitional neighborhood. If other developers take the same initiative with vacant lots in the area, a thriving mixed-income neighborhood will form.

As for the Upper West Side project in New York City, the developer and city officials found a way to address the much-criticized arrangement. The entrance to the affordable units will be specially designed not to feel like a “back door.” How? The entrance will face a four-acre public park, and residents will have shared access to a courtyard and roof deck overlooking the Hudson River.

What do you think of the “solution”? Let us know in comments.

For further reading, I recommend: