TENEMENTS. The New York City Tenement House Act of 1867 defined a tenement as any rented or leased dwelling that housed more than three independent families. Tenements were first built to house the waves of immigrants that arrived in the United States during the 1840s and 1850s, and they represented the primary form of urban working-class housing until the New Deal.
A typical tenement building was from five to six stories high, with four apartments on each floor. To maximize the number of renters, builders wasted little space. Early tenements might occupy as much as 90 percent of their lots, leaving little room behind the building for privies and water pumps and little ventilation, light, or privacy inside the tenement. With a large extended family and regular boarders to help pay the rent, which could otherwise eat up over half of a family's income, a tenement apartment might house as many as from ten to twelve people at a time. These tenement residents often also worked in the building in such occupations as cigar rolling and garment making.
From the beginning, reformers attacked tenement conditions. In New York City, early attempts at reform included fire-prevention measures, the creation of a Department of Survey and Inspection of Buildings in 1862, and the founding of the Metropolitan Board of Health in 1866. Meanwhile, city tenements were getting increasingly
crowded: by 1864, approximately 480,400 of New York City's more than 700,000 residents lived in some 15,300 tenement buildings.
New York State passed a Tenement House Law on 14 May 1867, the nation's first comprehensive housing reform law. It established the first standards for minimum room size, ventilation, and sanitation. It required fire escapes and at least one toilet or privy (usually outside) for every twenty inhabitants. However, enforcement was lax.
An 1879 amendment to the 1867 legislation required more open space on a building lot and stipulated that all tenement rooms open onto a street, rear yard, or air shaft. The measure was designed to increase ventilation and fight diseases, such as tuberculosis, that ravaged tenement neighborhoods. To meet the standards of the 1879 law, builders designed the "dumbbell tenement" with narrow airshafts on each side to create a dumbbell-like shape from above. Despite slightly better fireproofing and ventilation, reformers attacked these buildings as only a limited improvement on existing conditions.
In 1890, Jacob Riis's How the Other Half Lives rallied middle-class reformers to the cause of improving tenement life. His photos and essays drew attention to the health and housing problems of tenement neighborhoods.
The most significant New York State law to improve deteriorating tenement conditions was the Tenement Act of 1901, promoted by a design competition and exhibition held by the Charity Organization Society in 1900. By that time, the city's Lower East Side was home to the most densely populated buildings on earth. The neighborhood's Tenth Ward had a population of 69,944, approximately 665 people per acre.
The 1901 legislation, opposed by the real estate industry on the grounds that it would discourage new construction, improved tenement buildings. The law mandated better lighting and fireproofing. Most important, it required that privies be replaced with indoor toilet facilities connected to the city sewers, with one toilet for every two apartments.
Beginning in the New Deal era, reformers' strategies changed. Drawing on a tradition of "model tenements" and new government interest in housing construction, reformers designed public housing projects. Their plans emphasized open space, much as an earlier generation had passed laws to provide more light and fresh air for urban working-class families. The imposed standards, however, often created new problems. Building closures and slum clearance displaced many working-class families, while new high-rise public housing often fell victim to segregation and neglect. Although reformers continued to attack working-class living conditions, social pressures sustained many of the problems of poverty and overcrowding.
Bauman, John F., Roger Biles, and Kristin M. Szylvian. From Tenements to the Taylor Homes: In Search of an Urban Housing Policy in Twentieth-Century America. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.
Day, Jared N. Urban Castles: Tenement Housing and Landlord Activism in New York City, 1890–1943. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
Ford, James. Slums and Housing, with Special Reference to New York City: History, Conditions, Policy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1936.
Hall, Peter. Cities of Tomorrow: An Intellectual History of Urban Planning and Design in the Twentieth Century. New York: Blackwell, 1988.
Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Home page at http://www.tenement.org.
Plunz, Richard. A History of Housing in New York City. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.
Riis, Jacob. How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York. New York: Scribners, 1890.
Tenements (also called tenement houses) are urban dwellings occupied by impoverished families. They are apartment houses that barely meet or fail to meet the minimum standards of safety, sanitation, and comfort. Emerging in U.S. cities during the late 1800s, tenements took many shapes and forms: multistoried buildings, row houses, frame houses, and even converted slave quarters.
Between 1870 and into the early 1900s, U.S. population growth (buoyed by immigration in record numbers) outpaced construction. Housing was scarce, particularly for working-class families. In unprecedented numbers people crowded into the low-rent districts of cities, including New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, Charleston, and New Orleans.
Living conditions were deplorable: Built close together, tenements typically lacked adequate windows, rendering them poorly ventilated and dark, and they were frequently in disrepair. Vermin were a persistent problem as buildings lacked proper sanitation facilities.
The plight of tenement-dwellers became the object of reformers who waged campaigns with government to pass laws requiring landlords to meet certain standards of safety and sanitation. Legislation was passed (New York became the first state to adopt legislation in 1867, which was furthered in 1879 and 1901), but the laws did not require owners to retrofit existing buildings to comply with the new regulations.
Some improvements came as a result of scientific and technological advances, including water purification and sewage disposal systems; steel-frame construction, which made tall buildings (including skyscrapers) possible and allowed for a more efficient use of limited urban space; electric lighting; electric elevators; and steam heat. While the lives of many working class families improved with the expansion of the economy, many others remained in poverty. With their attendant problems of crowding, disrepair, lack of sanitation, and crime, tenements have continued to exist.
See also: Slums, Urbanization
ten·e·ment / ˈtenəmənt/ • n. 1. a room or a set of rooms forming a separate residence within a house or block of apartments. ∎ (also ten·e·ment house) a house divided into and rented in such separate residences, esp. one that is run-down and overcrowded. 2. a piece of land held by an owner. ∎ Law any kind of permanent property, e.g., lands or rents, held from a superior.
A comprehensive legal term for any type of property of a permanent nature—including land, houses, and other buildings as well as rights attaching thereto, such as the right to collect rent.
In the law of easements, a dominant tenement or estate is that for which the advantage or benefit of an easement exists; a servient tenement or estate is a tenement that is subject to the burden of an easement.
The term tenement is also used in reference to a building with rooms or apartments that are leased for residential purposes. It is frequently defined by statute, and its meaning therefore varies from one jurisdiction to another.