The ‘poor door’ and the pattern of legalized segregation in Boulder

Market rate pool at Diagonal Crossing.

Many in the Gunbarrel community are concerned that the proposed development located on the Celestial Seasonings property will continue Boulder’s affordable housing history of classism and racism. As a result of the acceptance of the status quo, Boulder permits the “poor door,” a reference to separate entrances or income-segregated buildings. When a development segregates those in market-rate housing from those in affordable housing, the separate and unequal residences force isolation of families in the affordable housing program, effectively creating a poor door, a practice now banned in multiple cities.

As market prices for Boulder single-family housing soar, the City is scrambling to meet its goal of 15% for all housing units to be affordable for low-, moderate- and middle-income households. In the midst of it all, luxury apartment developers continue to be allowed to segregate affordable housing from market rate housing, and in the case of Diagonal Crossing, prevent lower income residents from using the same amenities provided for market rate residents.

A resident of the recently constructed affordable housing units at Diagonal Crossing told us, “I live in this community and I was one of the first folks to move in. Not only do they not let us use the nice community center, they have never opened ours to us and they blame it on COVID. I guess the rich folks with the nice community center can’t spread COVID, just us poor folks. The pool that they created for us is offensively small and they have never let us use it. I think the hot tub at their community center is bigger than our ‘pool.’ They could at least allow us community members to use the main community center for a small fee…” A call to the Diagonal Crossing leasing office confirms that the affordable housing pool has yet to open and that the market-rate pool is unavailable for use to affordable residents. 

We hear many justifications as to why this segregation of housing and amenities is allowed:  

1) It will cost developers too much to integrate both the market rate and affordable housing. 

2) As a result, Boulder will not draw developers and will not meet affordable housing goals.

3) Financials for affordable housing and market price need to be managed differently.  

In Boulder, developers who build rental properties are required to allocate 25% to affordable housing. Colorado law provides a twist to this affordable housing “charity” wherein developers can forgo the affordable housing piece onsite and instead pay cash-in-lieu of. This money is then allocated to purchasing affordable housing in other locations, often closer to the city center with better transit and amenities. 

Boulder has developments in the area where affordable and market rate units are not segregated. These issues can be handled, enabling a more socially just treatment of low- and moderate-income households. 

Diagonal Crossing & The Celestial Seasonings Development

 Diagonal Crossing is one of the most recent developments that holds true to this kind of legalized segregation. Both Diagonal Crossing and Celestial Seasonings are projects designed by Andy Allison and Coburn, and both projects separate market price buildings from affordable ones.

To understand the full impact this is having on the individuals who live in these developments, we visited Diagonal Crossing and spoke with several of its residents on both the affordable housing and market pricing sides. Many of the affordable housing residents are people and families of color. 

Market rate residents recognize the separation between the two sides, but gave the differences little thought. One resident said, “That complex over there [affordable housing] is its own thing.” This sense of separation points to a failure by the developers, who pitch that there will be permeability between both sides. They portray both sides feeling connected as one community. However, in reality, this flow is nowhere to be found; rather, there was a sense of the poor door.  

Residents of Diagonal Crossing’s affordable side also recognize their separation from the market rate side. They repeatedly stated that the market rate pool and community center are guarded and off limits to the lower income residents. 

“I live here and the nicer community has heavy security. They have a guard that patrols around and a number of gates to get to the pool and community area that you need a special code and fob for.” (Again, confirmed by the leasing office.)

Gunbarrel Community Alliance Affordable side pool at Diagonal Crossing.

The developers received federal tax credits for the Diagonal Crossing build because of the 40% affordable housing requirement stipulated by the purchase. When federal dollars are involved, housing advocates like Sasha Harnden with the Western Center on Law and Poverty told NPR’s Morning Edition that builders may be violating federal fair housing laws “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.” 

The Fair Housing Act says, “It is illegal discrimination to take any of the following actions because of race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status, or national origin, including, (1) provide a person different housing services or facilities, and (2) limit privileges, services or facilities of a dwelling.” Both of these exist at Diagonal Crossing. 

Andy Allison and Coburn initially segregated both pools and buildings at the proposed Celestial Seasonings build, but after the outcry from neighbors at the Planning Board meeting, they modified the plans to have one pool. Michelle Allen, Boulder’s Inclusionary Housing Program Manager, confirmed that because Diagonal Crossing utilized an old annexation agreement that did not specify anything about shared amenities, they could not require that outcome from Allison and Coburn. The Celestial Seasonings development will meet the minimum inclusionary housing requirement of equal access to amenities.  

The segregated buildings of the proposed Celestial Seasonings development will have a different look and will use different materials, creating a very clear poor door. The development will already have a working-industrial feel. For example, on the north side of the property where the affordable housing will be located, semi-trucks thunder in and out of the developments a dozen times a day. With inadequate public transportation in both the short-and long-term, and a 35-minute walk to the nearest grocery store, the location is car dependent, a food desert and lacks the amenities to support another 650 people. This location is nowhere near being Boulder’s desired 15-minute neighborhood. To dismiss this reality compromises the quality of life for current and future residents of this Boulder neighborhood.

 At the May 12 “Good Neighbor” meeting regarding the proposed development, Allison was specifically asked about the segregation of affordable and market price housing and he said, “We just completed a project, Diagonal Crossing, that has this same type of set up and it’s working great.” The Gunbarrel Community Alliance disagrees with his assessment, and the City of Boulder should too.

Can Boulder Be Better?

 New York City banned the poor door in 2015 and a bill was introduced to the California legislature in 2020 to block developers from creating separate facilities for low-income and market-rate residents. Boulder is a unique and progressive city that needs to hold their developers responsible for better conditions. We should stop congratulating developers who Boulder has permitted to become wealthy while meeting the bare minimum affordable housing requirement. 

The Celestial Seasonings development will be a repeat of this same kind of unequal and unacceptable treatment of neighbors in our community. We encourage the Boulder Planning Board and City Council to review the housing conditions and experiences of Boulder residents in affordable housing while considering the highly controversial Celestial Seasonings proposed development. 

We support the recommendations of City Council, the Planning Board and organizations including PLAN-Boulder who prioritize a subcommunity plan for Gunbarrel, particularly since the City allowed the previous Gunbarrel Community Center Plan to be cast aside for development. 

No more Poor Door.

Boulder needs to recognize and ban poor door practices, effective immediately. Our community’s acute concern for social justice cannot turn a blind eye to fundamental abuses enabled by the status quo. This move would be supported by the emphasis on social equity throughout the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan (BVCP) and align with Boulder’s social justice efforts. The 2005 BVCP defined social equity as ensuring that “the needs of all members of the community, including those who are low income and marginalized, are considered and included in the planning and decision-making process.” 

It’s time for Boulder to cease the practice of allowing segregated affordable housing that undermines equity and reinforces the stigma and unequal access that comes with segregating housing by income.  

Gunbarrel Community Alliance Board of Directors include: Kit Fuller, Wanda Fuller, Julie Dye, April Lyons, Ardith Rietema, Rod Rietema, Mike Chiropolos, Counsel.

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.