There is something repugnant about a building with two different entrances to separate its well-heeled homeowners from less fortunate social housing tenants. Although there are logistical arguments for constructing a mixed-use building that way, such as not wanting to stick social housing operators with concierge costs, at a gut level, the “poor door” concept feels wrong.
So, it’s not surprising that when Vancouver City Council approved a West End tower with separate doors for market strata and social housing residents, analogies to segregated drinking fountains, train cars and hotels in America’s south immediately surfaced. In the United States, the defence for segregation before it was abolished by the Civil Rights Act in 1964 was “separate but equal.” It never was equal, of course.
Nor does Vancouver’s affordable housing director Abi Bond’s assertion that “separation does not mean second class” ring true. The two lobbies of the West End building will be finished to different standards, she told The Globe’s Andrea Woo. Blowback at an earlier public hearing on the project kiboshed initial plans for separate play areas. But the poor doors remain.
If these comparisons seem over the top, try imagining, as did OneCity Vancouver School Board trustee Carrie Bercic, how hard it would be to explain separate playgrounds to a child. It would be just as difficult to explain why some people enter their home through a plush lobby and others through a bare-bones entryway from a side or back door. Children will learn quickly enough there are people in the world wealthier than their own families. But to have the lesson taught so bluntly and so close to home entrenches class divisions that Canada has assiduously tried to break down.
In London, Mayor Sadiq Khan called poor doors an “appalling form of social segregation” and vowed to eliminate them, although it hasn’t happened yet. And in New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2016 banned them in developments that receive a tax break for including some affordable units. Mixed-income projects are still going up, although most are in rental-only buildings. We should follow New York’s lead and ban poor doors here as well. If developers can’t find ways to have everyone enter home through the same threshold, we should look to better forms of social housing.
Take co-ops for example, which provide a mix of market and non-market housing and require some participation by tenants to run the building. Amit Tandon, who now lives in Helen’s Court Co-op in Kitsilano, grew up in such a building in Ottawa. His parents immigrated to Canada from India and never grew totally comfortable with English. When it came time for Mr. Tandon to write resumes, cover letters and eventually apply to university, they couldn’t help.
Mr. Tandon house-sat for a university-educated neighbour who had two large shelves filled with books that he encouraged Mr. Tandon to borrow. Their friendship made Mr. Tandon feel comfortable enough to ask the man for help with applications. It was assistance he couldn’t get from his parents and would have been too shy to ask for from a stranger.
Another neighbour in the same co-op was doing very well in computers in the industry’s early day. And in the 1980s, when Mr. Tandon’s father grew convinced computers were going to be an important societal force and bought the family’s first Apple, that neighbour helped with set up and instruction.
Both neighbours had more money than Mr. Tandon’s family. And it didn’t much seem to matter. They were neighbours who, due mostly to proximity and some structured participation in the co-op, had become friends. Co-ops may not be the ideal housing solution for everyone. But they do accomplish one of the city’s goals with social housing, according to Ms. Bond: To encourage people to interact in mixed communities.
There are good reasons cities have moved away from building large tenements which reinforce class distinctions, and toward mixed housing developments which, when designed artfully, can break down those barriers. Mr. Tandon’s experience growing up in a co-op never would have happened in a building deliberately designed to separate rich and poor.