Inequality and the Ripple Effect

Something I've been meditating on recently is the importance of actions and deeds and their long-term impact around the world. I've never been one to believe that the actions of one impact the greater good, but I'm starting to think that I was wrong. Is the ripple effect for real?

A particular piece of news from these past two weeks is helping me change the way I think. On July 20, the New York Post reported that the city government approved a “poor door” entrance for a new building on the Upper West Side to be constructed by the company Extell. The planned building follows city rules that allow for verticality and number of units provided that a certain percentage are rent subsidized for lower income residents. This particular building would have 219 units facing the Hudson River, and 55 “affordable” units in a separate “building segment” facing the street. The entrance to these 55 units would be separate from the entrance for the other 219 units. What is lacking from any of the reports I've seen is what qualifies as “affordable” and what the rent will actually be, other than 75% below “market rate”. After a protracted lottery process, who will actually move into these apartments? Does this building solve our nation's affordable housing shortage? No.

However, If this apartment building goes ahead with its side door for low-income residents, then what does it does it symbolize for our city's and nation's values? How will this particular building impact what happens across our city and the interaction between people of different economic backgrounds?

In practice, this building will likely have little impact on the quality of lives of the residents living there. Rich folk will carry on as before, and the “low-income” tenants will carry on as well, with the added bonus that they get to live in a convenient neighborhood. That's the argument that many people okay with this building concept likely will repeat to make their case.

However, it's this segregation between rich and poor that worries people. In our modern first world existence, people pay people so that they do not have to see the grotesque underbelly of our communities. We are legitimately afraid of what our neighbors can do and do do. It's for this reason that we have a police force and a medical corps. It's for this reason that we don't know about orphanages. It's for this reason that we know so little about facilities and treatment for the mentally ill. The wealthy use their wealth to seclude themselves from others. I don't think that for them it's as much about showing off their wealth, as it is more to separate themselves from the rest of humanity. I imagine that if I were wealthy I would do the same.

But here we have this development in the heart of New York City, one of the densest places in our nation. Here, thousands of people literally live on top of one another in a celebration of verticality. One way of looking at this building is that it will actually bring rich and “low-income” closer together. The Upper West Side is extremely expensive, and with the exception of public housing to the west of Lincoln Center and a few other NYCHA buildings, much of this part of Manhattan is a wealthy enclave. Bringing a degree of economic diversity, even if it is somewhat segregated, might create a degree of change.

However, it is the symbol of separate entrances, not equal entrances, that leaves a sour taste behind. If Extell had announced it were building a secondary low-income structure in, say, The Bronx to satisfy its affordable unit requirement, then it wouldn't have made the news. It's the fact that these two entrances are in the same building that makes us uncomfortable. Why? We Americans have bought into a self-identification mythology of equality and justice, even though data prove our fantasy incorrect. To see what I mean, check out this intelligent series by Reuters about rising income inequality in our nation.

I'm no psychologist, but I'd wager that this rich door, poor door building makes us confront inequality in a way we don't want to have to do. I'm not defending Extell and its building as this article by Matthew Yglesias does, but I do think that the building itself is not the problem. The real problem is inequality. The solution lies in what each of us can do to make equality an important political issue in our everyday lives.