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Tenement Housing
Born: May 03, 1849 in Ribe, Denmark
Died: May 26, 1914 in Barre, Massachusetts, United States
Other Names: Riis, Jacob August; Riis, Jacob
Nationality: American
Occupation: Journalist
UXL Encyclopedia of U.S. History. Sonia Benson, Daniel E. Brannen, Jr., and Rebecca Valentine. Vol. 8. Detroit, MI: UXL, 2009. p1530-1533.
Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning
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Page 1530

Tenement Housing

As cities grew throughout the Industrial Revolution , so did the influence of government on their growth. Urban planners tried to combat overcrowding through garden cities (planned communities designed to keep green spaces) and zoning (division of cities into sections for homes, businesses, and factories). The first zoning law was passed in New York City in 1916 and gave the public control over the use of land and construction. Within ten years, more than one thousand cities across America would pass zoning laws in hopes of controlling not only how land was used, but also the height and use of buildings.

Urban growth problems

Although the passage of zoning laws signaled a major transition toward governmental intervention in the marketplace, the laws were largely negative in their results. The zoning laws did not encourage adequate housing, nor did they provide a basis for coordinating housing and city planning. The result, instead of well-planned cities, was major overcrowding and a type of residential (living) building called tenement housing.

Tenement housing was the first style of apartment buildings. By 1903, New York City's eighty-two thousand tenements housed nearly three million people, nearly all of whom occupied the lowest economic rung of society.

Tenement housing offered few advantages other than cheap rent. The buildings were erected close together so that there were no lawns. The Lower East Side of New York at the turn of the century was a typical Page 1531  |  Top of Articletenement ghetto (a poor, crime-ridden section of the city). There, the basic tenement buildings were five stories high and contained twenty three-room apartments, four to a floor. Each apartment or flat contained a front room, small bedroom, and kitchen, for a total of 325 square feet. The only room to receive light or ventilation (air) was the front room. As other tenement buildings were constructed around it, however, both light and ventilation were cut off.

Tenements built before 1867 did not have toilets, showers, or even running water. Common (used by all tenants) toilets were situated in between buildings, toward the rear of the lots, and may or may not have been connected to public sewage lines. Garbage was disposed of in a large box kept in front of the buildings, but it was not picked up on a regular basis. Many tenements were without heat. The buildings that had heat posed a serious health threat. The fumes and smoke from the coal-burning heaters had nowhere to go without proper ventilation.


Tenement houses offered cheap rent but overcrowded, squalid conditions.

Tenement houses offered cheap rent but overcrowded, squalid conditions. THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Page 1532  |  Top of Article

Reforms enacted

The first housing law, passed in 1867, required tenements to have one toilet for every twenty residents. Those toilets had to be connected to sewer lines whenever possible. The next law was passed in 1879 and required that all new tenements had to be built so that every room received air. Under the old tenement floor plan, most existing inner rooms had no access to outside walls. Building engineers solved this problem by developing a “dumbbell” blueprint in which the air shaft running through the building was indented, thereby providing air to all rooms.

This same law required toilets in all tenements to be hooked up to sewage lines and equipped with a way to flush after use. It was not uncommon for raw sewage to be strewn throughout a tenement yard.

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Jacob Riis, Reporter-Turned-Reformer

Jacob Riis (1849–1914) emigrated from Denmark to America in 1870, at the age of twenty-one. He became a reporter for the New York Evening Sun and quickly became known as a pioneer of photojournalism. Riis took his own photographs to accompany the stories he wrote about situations he saw in the new country he immediately came to love.

Riis began photographing and documenting conditions in New York City's slums. He collected his work in a groundbreaking book titled How the Other Half Lives. Published in 1890, it brought Riis to the attention of an influential man who would one day be the twenty-sixth president of the United States. New York Police Board of Commissioners president Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919; served 1901–09) and Riis became fast friends, and together they spearheaded the housing reform movement in the city. Riis is credited with publicizing the plight of America's urban poor. His two other photojournalism books are Children of the Poor (1892) and Children of the Tenements (1903).

Riis's photojournalism efforts were part of a new type of journalism called muckraking. Muckrakers exposed scandalous and unethical practices among established institutions in America. Some of the more famous muckrakers were Ida Tarbell (1857–1954), for her series on the Standard Oil Company; Upton Sinclair (1878–1968), for exposing the dangers and poor work conditions of the meatpacking industry in Chicago; and Lincoln Steffens (1866–1936), for his investigation of the scandals among city and state politicians. Muckrakers worked side by side with reformers during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era .

Despite the housing laws, tenement life remained dangerous and miserable. The most far-reaching bill was passed in 1901. The Tenement House Act not only required improvements on ventilation, toilets, and Page 1533  |  Top of Articlelight but set standards that all but banned the construction of buildings on 25-foot-wide lots. Newly built tenements would have to be wider, with more space. The highly effective 1901 law required existing tenement buildings to upgrade to meet the new, stricter standards. With the passage of the law came the formation of the Tenement House Commission, a committee that inspected housing and ensured the laws were being followed.

Landlords object

Tenement landlords were furious over the passage of the 1901 act. They believed there was no justification for its passage, and that its new standards were too harsh. Their tenants, after all, were mostly poor Irish immigrants who were used to crowded living conditions. Landlords insisted their tenants did not mind living in poor conditions; to be forced to make improvements would cut down on the amount of profit made from each building. By 1902, as improvements were being made, landlords realized the imposed changes were not as drastic as they had feared.

To meet the new requirements, landlords had to update old buildings with skylights in the hallways, to provide natural light for as long as it was available over the course of the day. To assist residents once nighttime set in, landlords were required to make sure that a lamp burned from sunset to sunrise along first- and second-floor stairways. Inside the apartments, landlords had to cut out part of the wall that kept the inner rooms darkened twenty-four hours a day to allow for light from an outer room to enter.

The most controversial aspect of the 1901 act, because of its expense, was the requirement that all common toilets be removed. Every building now had to have one water closet for every two families. These closets had to be constructed inside the buildings whenever possible, whether in newly built tenements or those already in existence. Without exception, all toilets had to be connected to sewer lines, even if those lines had to be built. Most landlords ignored the law until they absolutely had to comply. There were reports as late as 1918 of tenements with outdoor toilets still in use.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition) 
Benson, Sonia, et al. "Tenement Housing." UXL Encyclopedia of U.S. History, vol. 8, UXL, 2009, pp. 1530-1533. Gale Virtual Reference Library, http%3A%2F%2Flink.galegroup.com%2Fapps%2Fdoc%2FCX3048900601%2FGVRL%3Fu%3Dcher99092%26sid%3DGVRL%26xid%3Dc301426f. Accessed 17 Feb. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3048900601

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