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Haves, have-nots divided by apartment 'poor doors'

NEW YORK--One new Manhattan skyscraper will greet residents of pricey condos with a lobby in front, while renters of affordable apartments that got the developer government incentives must use a separate side entrance — a so-called poor door.

In another apartment house, rent-regulated residents can't even pay to use a new gym that's free to their market-rate neighbors. Other buildings have added playrooms and roof decks off-limits to rent-stabilized tenants.

New York is a city where the rich and relatively poor have long lived side by side, with who pays what often a closely held, widely varying secret. But a recent spate of buildings with separate amenities for the haves and have-nots is hurling that question out in the open, provoking an uncomfortable debate over equality, economics and the tightness of the social fabric.

“Nobody treats me like a second-class citizen in my own home,” says Jean Green Dorsey, who filed a complaint with the city Human Rights Commission this spring over her Manhattan building's fitness center. She and fellow rent-stabilized tenants aren't allowed to enter it despite a willingness to pay a fee; market-rate renters use it gratis.

Developers say they're motivated by business, not bias, and reserving some prime features for higher-paying residents is the price of having affordable housing in hot neighborhoods.

But officials are broaching proposals to force more inclusiveness, troubled by seeing landlords use affordable-housing tax and zoning breaks to create what critics view as a caste system.

In a city where Mayor Bill de Blasio was elected last year on pledges to increase affordable housing and shrink income inequality, an outcry erupted after his housing department signed off last month on the affordable bona fides of the Manhattan poor door building; the project was approved and started construction before de Blasio took office. Its creator, Extell Development Co., declined to comment.

“We believe there should be a much more equal approach to all residents,” said de Blasio, who as a councilman voted for the 2009 zoning code change that allowed such arrangements but says the “nuances” of different doors weren't evident then.

His administration is taking a sweeping look at affordable housing programs. Meanwhile, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and other officials are clamoring to change the zoning code to end separate-door layouts. State Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal wants to require landlords to offer amenities to all tenants, with provisions for reasonable fees. Councilmen Mark Levine and Corey Johnson are also drafting a proposal to add “class of renter” to the city's antidiscrimination laws.

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