During the 19th century, people crowded into America’s cities, including immigrants seeking a better life. In New York City, the more affluent residents of the Lower East Side neighborhood moved our. The low-rise row houses left behind were divided into multiple living spaces to accommodate the growing population. Known as tenements, these narrow, low apartment buildings were cramped and lacked indoor plumbing. By 1900, 2.3 million people (two-thirds of New York City’s population) lived in tenement housing.

A typical tenement building was five to seven stories high. The building filled its entire lot, with less than a foot of space between buildings. Interior rooms had no ventilation and were poorly lit. Later, speculators began building new tenements. They often used cheap materials and construction shortcuts. The new tenements were often unsafe for residents.

New York was not the only city in America where tenements housed a growing population. In Chicago, for example, the Great Fire of 1871 led to restrictions on building wood-frame structures in the center of the city. The construction of lower-income dwellings was to be on the city’s outskirts. The Chicago housing was clustered around centers of employment, such as stockyards and slaughterhouses.

In New York, 5,000 poor people, many of them living in overcrowded housing, died during a cholera epidemic . During the infamous “draft riots” in New York in 1863, rioters protested the new military conscription policy and the intolerable conditions in which they lived. The Tenement House Act of 1867 legally defined a tenement for the first time and set construction regulations, including the requirement of one toilet per 20 people.

Tenement legislation was not necessarily enforced, and conditions had barely improved by 1889. Author and photographer Jacob Riis was researching a series of newspaper articles published as his book How the Other Half Lives. According to Riis’ book, 12 adults slept in a room about 13 feet across, and the infant death rate in the tenements was as high as 1 in 10. Many Americans called for reform. City officials passed the Tenement House Law, which effectively outlawed the construction of new tenements on 25-foot lots and mandated improved sanitary conditions, fire escapes, and access to light.

By the late 1920s, many tenements in Chicago had been demolished and replaced with large, privately subsidized apartment projects. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal would later transform low-income housing in many American cities through programs including slum clearing and the building of public housing.

Source: Tenements
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