New York

A Tenant’s Home Is His Landlord’s Castle


‘It is not a business to attract men of good feelings. . . .’ So wrote journalist David Blaustein in 1904, when he set out to describe New York City landlords of his day. Blaustein’s attention was drawn to what he called ‘cockroach landlords,’ small businessmen who leased entire buildings from owners in return for the right to collect rents— a pyramid scheme of sorts. Blaustein concluded that ‘the tenant at the bottom of the heap pays for it all.’ The ‘cockroach’ ‘scheme is long gone, and while Blaustein’s severe indictment is 95 years old, his conclusion arguably holds true today. Blaustein’s is one of many views presented in a just-published book on the history of New York City landlords, Urban Castles: Tenement Housing and Landlord Activism in New York City, 1890­1943, written by Jared N. Day and published by Columbia University Press. Although Day’s research ends in a period five decades past, he explores underpinnings that still shape the deeply ingrained and famously cantankerous landlord-tenant relationships of today. Day chronicles the origins of major events like the passage of rent regulations, as well as minor but lasting changes like the initiation of once scandalous but now commonplace security deposits.

The most outstanding persistent trait of New York City housing— its scarcity— was already a problem well over a century ago. In 1850, a bursting immigrant population forced tenants into subdivided homes, flood-prone cellars, and cheaply constructed houses “so tightly built,” in the words of Mayor Philip Hone, “that they could not stand alone, and, like drunken men, require the support of each other to keep from falling.” Landlord-tenant laws were skimpy at best, essentially obliging landlords only to provide a unit, while tenants were required to pay rent regardless of conditions.

Buildings were largely unregulated, and landlords had many ways to cheap out and cheat safety. Fire escapes were brought to legally required thicknesses with a coating of “black wash,” loam dug up from cellars was used in place of mortar, and buildings were erected with retaining walls one brick thick, coated with plaster. Collapses were common.

Even after the turn of the century, owners used “three-months paint,” a chintzy wall coating that turned dangerously flammable within months. In 1911 McClure‘s Magazine warned, “Let a lamp or a candle near enough to it while it is still damp, and fire would go around the room or down the tenement hall as fast as a man could run.”

Housing reforms, usually undertaken by crusading middle-class New Yorkers who aimed to “rescue” tenement dwellers, were endlessly proffered. But landlords could rely on government ineptitude or corruption to ensure that the strictest plans never made it into law, or if they did, that they were not enforced. Landlords kept the upper hand until 1901, when the Tenement House Act set fire, light, and health standards that threatened owners seriously enough to spur them into political coalitions. The main citywide group was the Greater New York Taxpayers Association (GNYTA).

As the 1901 provision became law, tenants began to organize, relying on their own numbers rather than the “goodwill” of outsiders to prompt change. Rent strikes erupted randomly. But tenants often ended up evicted— the law favored landlords— and the strikes fizzled. By the teens, however, tenants had won more legal rights and landlords had been given more responsibility. Rent strikes, often organized by Socialists, became more regular and far-reaching.

By the winter of 1917­1918, wartime coal rationing combined with unusually cold conditions brought tenants— including middle-class, politically mainstream rent-payers— out on strike. Landlords moved for evictions, arguing that leases did not require them to provide heat. But in many cases, judges sided with tenants. To this day, lack of heat remains a key tenant organizing tool since, as a building-wide problem, it draws neighbors into a collective effort. Heatless apartments have given rise to a current tenant motto, a twist on a radical labor saying: Don’t freeze, organize.

One of the most strident tenant communities evolved in Brooklyn’s Brownsville, where tenants organized entire blocks into strikes, protesting not only lack of heat but multiple rent hikes. GNYTA hired thugs to break up picket lines, and violence was not uncommon. GNYTA also retained private detectives to harass strikers. Although GNYTA would later disavow violence because of the bad name it gave landlords, other owners’ groups spun their battle as a patriotic effort, calling tenant unrest “a direct result of Bolshevist agitation.”

The Red Scare of the 1920s did indeed deflate some of the tenant movement, but middle-class renters sustained it, though in a less radical manner. Landlords and tenants alike suffered during the Depression, which spelled the end of the immigrant amateur landlord (including the “cockroach” variety) and ushered in a more professional class of real estate operators. During World War II, rent controls were established nationally. They never expired in New York City, where a preposterously tight market has made for a housing emergency (defined as a vacancy rate below 5 percent), a designation that has not been lifted.

For all the transformations of landlord-tenant relations outlined in Urban Castles, fundamentals remain that keep the balance skewed against tenants. The demand for housing outweighs the supply. Landlords choose real estate because they believe it offers a better return than other investments. As long as this essential commodity remains in short supply and in private hands, it is not likely to generate good feelings among either renters or their landlords.

Jared Day will be speaking about immigrant banks at the Tenement Museum gallery, 90
Orchard Street, on September 23 at 6:30 p.m.

This stairway (above), circa 1905, was nearly destroyed in a fire caused by “three-months paint.” while that mixture is long gone, other tenement holdovers remain. Below, a lower east side tenement still has a shared toilet in the hallway.

Until the 1910s, tenants were liable for the conditions within their apartments, including collapsed walls and ceilings; landlords were obliged only to keep halls, entranceways, and sidewalks in good repair. Housing laws now hold landlords responsible for many conditions inside apartments, but that hasn’t prevented decrepitude, like this falling East 6th Street ceiling (Below).

Tenement dwellers in Fisher’s Court on Oak Street around 1900 (Above). The court, built 40 years earlier, was noted by reformers as a building that had “deteriorated through bad management.” Immigrants crammed into apartments, often run by landlords of similar ethnic background who were looking, as Day says, “to jump up economically and away socially” from the ghetto. Today, Irwin Selwen (Below), who grew up in a tenement at 45 Orchard Street, runs an umbrella store there with his wife, Beatrice. They live, however, in a co-op on nearby Grand Street.

Photographs: Michael Schmelling

Archive Photos: NYC Tenement House Collection, NY Public Library

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