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Developer Tries To Exclude Low-Income Renters From Luxury Amenities

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Some developers who build high-rises that have both market-rate and affordable housing units are trying to exclude the low-income renters from luxury amenities. A high-rise in downtown San Diego has ignited a debate over whether this is legal. From member station KPBS, Claire Trageser has more.

CLAIRE TRAGESER, BYLINE: When she thinks back on some of the places she's lived, Jackie Hernandez cringes.

JACKIE HERNANDEZ: The roof started to cave in in the bathroom. And I started to notice - there's a bubble.

TRAGESER: Now she uses Section 8 housing vouchers to pay for a nicer place. She can use any part of the building she wants, just like her neighbors who pay full price.

HERNANDEZ: Here's our pool. We can all use the pool. No diving, of course.

TRAGESER: But what if she had the chance to move into an affordable apartment downtown in a brand-new building? There's a catch, though - she and the other low-income renters would have to use a separate entrance and couldn't use the pool.

HERNANDEZ: I don't think it's right. I don't think it's fair. We've got enough division here in this world. We all have the same blood.

TRAGESER: The developer, Pinnacle International, is building three downtown San Diego towers with apartments that would rent for the market rate of around $2,700 for two bedrooms. It would also create 60 affordable housing units for about half that rent. Those units would be in a smaller building connected to one of the towers, and those renters couldn't use the tower's pool, spa or rooftop deck.

Some might argue this is fair; by paying more, you should get access to more amenities. But Armando Nunez with the local carpenters union disagrees. He looks up at one of the towers currently being built and says the plan is basically segregation.

ARMANDO NUNEZ: Everybody's an equal citizen. Everybody's a human being. So why would you classify different levels of citizens in San Diego?

TRAGESER: The city's downtown planning agency rejected the plan, and Pinnacle, the developer, threatened to sue. The two sides are working on a compromise agreement, and neither would agree to an interview. No one from local apartment owners associations would talk about the issue, either. Pinnacle's lawyer sent a statement saying it should be commended for including affordable housing in the development at all instead of paying a penalty, as some other developers do.

SASHA HARNDEN: These types of sort of separate entrances for low-income tenants are nicknamed poor doors.

TRAGESER: Sasha Harnden is a housing policy advocate with the Western Center on Law and Poverty. He says developers have tried this before, and those builders may be violating federal fair housing laws.

HARNDEN: When a given action may have a disproportionate impact on a protected class, such as people of a certain race, elderly tenants, families with children.

MAYA ROSAS: We need to expect more from our developers to truly integrate our housing.

TRAGESER: Maya Rosas with the YIMBY Democrats is standing on a busy street corner downtown. Her group says yes in my backyard to economically diverse neighborhoods.

ROSAS: That's how we create integrated communities. It's how we desegregate communities. And that's how we let families thrive.

TRAGESER: She may get what she wants. A new bill introduced in the California Legislature last week would block developers from creating separate facilities for low-income and market-rate residents.

For NPR News, I'm Claire Trageser in San Diego.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHILIP GLASS' "ESCAPE!") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.