Many immigrants moved into cities in the 19th century. The population in New York City doubled every ten years between 1800-1880. In the early 20th century, more than 2 million people were crammed into these dangerous buildings in New York City.

The Rise of Tenement Housing

Many tenement buildings started as homes owned by wealthy families. When the families moved out of New York, the buildings were divided into small apartments. Other tenement buildings were built just for that purpose. Most tenements were five to seven stories tall, and more apartments were added by adding stories or expanding into rear-yard areas. These buildings were very close together, with little light and space in between. Tenement buildings were built with cheap materials and were very unsafe.

Calls for Reform

Tenement buildings were found in many cities in the 1900s. The Great Fire of 1871 in Chicago caused changes in how tenements were built and prevented wood-frame buildings in the middle of the city. In New York, a cholera epidemic killed thousands of poor people in over-crowded tenements. The Tenement House Act of 1867 made a legal definition of a tenement and created rules for how they were built, including requiring a toilet for each 20 people.

“How the Other Half Lives”

Even though laws existed, no one enforced the laws. In 1889, a Danish photographer named Jacob Riis researched living conditions in tenements and took photographs for The Evening Sun. These photographs showed life in the tenements. He used the photos in his 1890 book “How the Other Half Lives.” Riis’ book was full of facts, including that 12 adults slept in a small room, and many infants died in the tenements. This book influenced passage of more laws, including the Tenement House Law, which led to improved conditions, such as fire escapes and more light. Old buildings were updated and many safer apartments were built.

Life After the Tenements

In the 1930s Roosevelt’s New Deal changed housing for low-income people by building new housing and tearing down old tenements. The first public housing project was built in New York in 1936.

Source: Tenements
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