How the Other Third Lives


Is there a toilet in your building? Not necessarily in your apartment; a commode down the hall will suffice. If there is, you can thank the U.S. Supreme Court. Though it sounds ridiculous now, landlords at the turn of the last century so vituperatively resisted a law that essentially required them to replace outdoor facilities with indoor water closets, they fought the matter all the way to the nation’s highest court. After a three-year battle, they lost. By 1906, landlords across the city installed WCs in hallway compartments, providing one facility for every two families.

Of course in this century, most New Yorkers would consider it unacceptable to live without a bathroom in their own apartment. Or running water. Or windows, fire escapes, hall lights, and the occasional attention of a super. Basic as these things are, they are the result of a law that marked its centennial on April 12. The Tenement House Act of 1901 might sound like a relic, but it has profound influence on the way many New Yorkers live today.

When the act was passed, it set living standards for the 70 percent of the city’s population who resided in tenements (now defined as a pre-1929 building that houses three or more unrelated people who cook in their apartments and share a common hallway). Today, tenement apartments constitute a full 30 percent of New York’s housing stock, accounting for 833,437 of the 2,868,415 units citywide. At the beginning of the 21st century, an estimated 3 million New Yorkers call tenements home.

Tenements not only provide housing; they have been a vehicle for the city’s evolution. Since the mid 1800s, battles over tenement regulation have set the template for much of city politics, defining what responsibility belongs to government, to landlords, and to charities, and giving shape to ever warring landlord and tenant classes. While tenements have typically been viewed as a scourge—and indisputably they were often unhappy and sometimes lethal places—they have also been crucial in making New York what it is today: brilliant and cruel, diverse and exclusive, full of opportunity and inequity. In short, the role of the tenement in New York City history is epic and ongoing.

In each of the past few years, for instance, tenants have filed on average 250,000 complaints, ranging from rat infestations to lousy plumbing and lack of heat, with the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). The agency is the descendant of the Tenement House Department, created to enforce the 1901 act. “One of the most influential voices in getting the 1901 law passed was [photographer and reformer] Jacob Riis, who said that we have three ways to deal with tenements: remodeling and making the most out of the old ones, enforcing the law, and building new model tenements,” says James Story of HPD’s Housing Sense program. “HPD’s mission is to upgrade and preserve the housing stock, rehab and construct new buildings, and enforce the code. We’re now doing the whole of what Riis called for.”

Story discussed housing history last week at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which has renovated an 1864 tenement on Orchard Street to depict its use at various points in history. To celebrate the 1901 law’s centennial, the museum is running an eight-month program, “Inspect This!” where visitors can explore the evolution of housing conditions by inspecting apartments using various standards from 1867 until today.

Housing codes have consequences beyond whether tenants have to use an outdoor privy or merely walk to their own bathroom. Raising standards also changes the nature of landlords and tenants. For instance, light and ventilation requirements of the 1901 law made it impossible to build on single lots, squeezing small-time landlords out of the market. Stringent standards for newly built tenements added to the expense.

“The tenement house is the last time the private market was able to provide housing for working-class people,” says Peter Marcuse, an urban planning professor at Columbia University. “That ended in 1901.”

Higher living standards also mean higher rent. Existing tenements were retrofitted under the 1901 law, but its biggest effect was on tenements built after its passage. Old-law tenements, as those built before 1901 are called, were cheaper and became the refuge of the very poor. New-law tenements were beyond the means of many Old-Law renters.

“Raising housing standards always poses a question,” says architectural historian Andrew Dolkart. “A few years ago a reporter told me that many people live in illegal conditions in Chinatown, but if the buildings were legalized, the tenants couldn’t afford it anymore.” Mayor Rudy Giuliani has suggested relaxing building codes to spur affordable housing.

The supply of low-rent housing plunged in the 1930s after the law was updated to require toilets in many existing apartments. Some owners decided it was cheaper to evict residential tenants, keeping only commercial renters. Upper floors were boarded up. Some remain boarded today. Others have been recently renovated, commanding rents that in a year probably add up to more than what it took to construct the whole tenement a century ago.