The Tenement Question: Houses for People of Narrow Means 1885

The rapid growth of the great cities of America during the past forty or fifty years has brought this country face to face with many problems which never entered into the calculations of the founders of the Republic. Some old world evils which it was once thought the free institutions of this country would forever prevent from troubling us here, have found their way across the Atlantic in a form sufficiently acute to excite alarm. Who would have believed forty years ago that the time would come when some portions of the City of New York would be more overcrowded with human beings than any part of London? Yet so it is, and the mitigation of this great evil is certain to call for a heroic remedy in the near future. How the workers of the great cities of America are to be houses is a question which is engaging the attention of all who have the welfare of the people at heart, and which is as urgent in New York as it is in London. In the former city we see the tenement house system at its worst, and the prospect of any great improvement in it for some time to come is certainly not promising. In Brooklyn we have a fairer field for improvement, and there is reason to hope that here we shall eventually be able to show an example to all other cities in respect to residences for our workers. At present, however, it must be admitted that the need for improvement is very great.

There is hardly anything that the self respecting working man feels more acutely than the disadvantage of having to live in a crowded tenement house. A Brooklyn mechanic who originally came from a small Connecticut town, remarked rather sadly tot he writer the other day: "Where I came from there was no such thing as a tenement house. Each working man lived with his family in his own little cottage or if the house was large, two families would live in it, me upstairs and the other down stairs. Depend upon it, the tenement house system is demoralizing our people. it is throwing our families in contact with persons whom they would o otherwise never see or associate with. It is very bad in every way, but more especially for young girls, and indeed for the young of both sexes. These great tenement houses are morally and physically unwholesome.

Here was an intelligent working man, who saw the evils of the tenement house system very clearly, and who possibly exaggerated some of them, yet he had no remedy to offer and no plan to propose by which large tenement houses can be done away with. The truth is that tenement houses cannot be dispensed with; they are a necessary evil, and where land is scarce and dear there is no other way of housing the people but in tenement houses. The aim of the philanthropist must be not to abolish tenement houses but to improve them; and they can be so improved as to be as healthy as any other class of residences and as free from moral taint as any other places can be where large numbers of people are brought together.

The tenement houses of Brooklyn may be roughly divided into three classes: First-Houses that are now used as tenements which were not originally intended for that purpose. Second__Houses built for tenements, but without due regard to sanitary requirements. Third__Tenement houses in which the sanitary feature has received due consideration. Tenements of the first class here indicated are very numerous in Brooklyn, especially along the East River front. Thousands of houses that were once occupied by single families have been turned into tenements and now have a family on each floor. The great majority of them are without any proper sanitary arrangements and from that point of view, they are very objectionable. Being generally built of wood, many of them have become very dilapidated in condition and year by year are sinking lower and lower as regards the class of tenants who occupy them. In some quarters of the city most of these houses have fallen into the hands of Italians, who fairly swarm in them, so numerous are the tenants, and many of whom are excessively dirty in their habits. yet their inhabitants seem to enjoy an average degree of health, in spite of the filth by which they are surrounded. This is due to a fact which is the great secret of the maintenance of health in large cities. These houses, although bad in almost every way and very objectionable from most points of view, have usually abundance of two of the great requisites to health light and air. The old fashioned house was seldom more than thirty-six feet in depth and usually only two stories in height, never exceeding three. Being only two rooms in depth, every apartment had a direct light and a free circulation of air either from the street or from the yard, which usually extended to a depth of sixty feet behind the house. The possession of these two requisites, light and air, in abundance are sufficient now to make amends for many other disadvantages to which these houses are subject, and to make them more healthy than many far more pretentious buildings. The public spirited citizen of Brooklyn who laments the existence of so many houses of this class should not regard them as a wholly unmixed evil. Most of them are near the end of their career and may be replaced by good tenement houses, in which men and women can live with comfort, built in accordance with sanitary requirements,. But when a citizen sees a big pretentious looking tenement house which has cost a large amount of money, but built with such evil ingenuity that humanity wastes and dies in it, then he may feel sad, for he knows that this costly fabric will stand for many years, that it is incapable of improvement and that its malign atmosphere will send scores, perhaps hundreds, to an untimely grave.

The tenement house of this class, which belongs to the second order designated above, is as yet not very numerous in Brooklyn, yet there are far more of them here than there ought to be and their number is increasing. While many of the new tenement houses now being erected are fairly suited to give health and comfort to their occupants others are almost as bad as they can be, and show no improvement whatever in the class of tenement houses erected fifteen or twenty years ago. Such a house will have a frontage of 25 feet, a depth of 60 and a height of four stories. It is fitted up to accommodate eight families. A narrow, bare, cheerless looking hall runs through the center and on either side of it are the tenements, consisting of four or five rooms, all the middle ones being without direct light or any direct means of ventilations. Sometimes such a house has a square jog in the side walls, a foot or so in depth, which gives a pretense of light and air to the inner rooms, but for any practical purpose this device serves the rooms might as well be left wholly dark. There is no current of air and, consequently, no ventilation. The other arrangements of the house are all in keeping, the plumbing is bad and the rooms soon become noxious with smells. How can human beings be expected to live and thrive in the sweltering heat of summers in such apartments." As a matter of fact they do not, and the terrible infant mortality of New York in Summer is a proof that the conditions of tenement house life there are wholly opposed to health. If Brooklyn is to escape similar evils prompt remedies must be applied to prevent the erection of houses which are built in disregard of sanitary laws. In London, where this matter has recently been taken hold of by the government and where large acres have been selected for the erection of model tenement houses, the problem is more difficult, because the population is larger and poorer, while land is dearer. The average London working man is not able to pay so high a rent as the average Brooklyn workingman. Many of the latter can and do pay from $12 to $15 a month for such accommodations as have been indicated and are quite willing to pay where the accommodations bear some fair comparison to their cost. It is notorious that there is no species of property that pays so well as tenement houses, the return from it being frequently as high as fifteen per cent. clear. This is more than almost any other sort of business will yield and almost four times as much as a capitalist would be willing to lend money for on unimpeachable security. Yet what security can be better than brick and mortar where the property is constantly in demand at a high rental? It is clear that the builders of tenement houses have no excuse for building them badly and that their profits would still be very large even if they built them after the most approved plans, with every sanitary requirement.

But when the workingman who is able to pay $12 to $15 a month as rent is so badly served, what is to become of the laborer whose means do not admit of his paying more than $6 to $8 a month. The kind of accommodation he has to put up with is, as all know, incredibly bad and his necessities not only serve to drag him down, but also to impair the comfort of his better off neighbors, the mechanics. A man is usually very much what his surroundings make him, and if the laborer is not always all that could be desired, the manner of his life, which he cannot escape under present conditions must be taken into account. If he had a clean and comfortable home, as he ought to have, he surely would be a very different man. That he can only obtain by the general introduction of model tenement houses, built with due regard to his requirements and his ability to pay.

The best model tenement house in America, and perhaps in the world, is in Brooklyn. It has been some eight years in existence and that it has not been duplicated over and over again certainly shows great slackness on the part of capitalists, for it is an investment that pays. It returns a clear dividend of six per cent. on the capital every year, beside yielding a large sum that is laid by every year as a reserve fund. This is over and above all expenditures for maintenance and repair, for the buildings are kept in such thorough order that they are, if possible, in better condition today than the day they were completed. Moreover, these buildings afford comfortable homes for two hundred and seventy families, numbering eleven hundred souls, who live under conditions as favorable to life and health as the residents of the most pretentious houses in the city. These tenements have become so popular that there is never a vacancy; any apartments that are vacated by tenants are snapped up at once. Many of the tenants have lived in the same apartments for years, and such a thing as a tenant being behind with his rent is hardly known, so excellent a lot of tenants have been collected. Yet these buildings accommodate tenants of all grades of ability to pay from the mechanic who can afford to pay $15 a month to the poor laborer who can pay no more than $1.50 a week. Instead of being dirty and reeking with smells, as is the case with too many tenements, these buildings are kept perfectly clean and wholesome, as clean, in fact, as any ordinary house. There is no dirt and no disorder, but a community of respectable, well behaved persons who take pride in keeping their apartments neat and tidy. It is needless to say that drunken, disorderly people and brawlers who destroy the comfort and character of so many tenement houses are not tolerated in these model dwellings.

The buildings referred to are situated on Hicks Baltic and Warren streets and were erected for Mr. A.T. White. They are the property of the Improved Dwelling Company, of which Mr. W.W. Tayleure is the courteous and efficient agent. Most people are familiar with their appearance, so that it is not necessary to describe them further than to say that they are of brick, six stories in height, the lower story of the building facing Hicks street being occupied by shops. The great feature of these buildings is that they contain no dark rooms. Every room of the 625 in the building has its own direct supply of light and air. The buildings are only thirty-eight feet four inches in depth and while the front rooms receive their light, and air from the street the rear rooms look out upon a well kept yard more than 100 feet in depth. The apartments are in suits of two, three and four rooms, each suit having a scullery and water closet of its own. The three roomed apartments are the most numerous. There are about fort-six two roomed suits and a smaller number of four roomed ones. The most expensive suits are some on the ground floor on Baltic street, with private entrance, consisting of four rooms, scullery and bath, for $15 a month. The great majority of the rooms, are, however, paid for weekly. A corner suit of three rooms on Hicks street, first floor above the stores, with scullery and water closet, costs $2.80 a week. These rooms are 18x8, 15x8 and 12x12 respectively, and this may be taken to fairly represent the average sizes of the rooms throughout. The same suit on the story above would cost $2.70, and so on with a reduction of ten cents a week for each additional story in height. The woman of the house, therefore, has the consolation of knowing that she is saving $5.20 a year for every stair she has to climb to get to her rooms. Three similar rooms to these above described in any other part of the block but the corner would cost $2.40 a week, with a similar reduction of ten cents a week for each story. Two rooms with scullery and water closet cost $2 for the first story, and ten cents less for every story higher up, the bottom figure being $1.50. These rents are payable weekly in advance, but if a tenant pays four weeks' rent in advance he is entitled to a reduction of forty cents, and if he remains in the same apartments for one year, p paying his rent regularly, he receives a rebate of $10. In this way the company last year paid back to his tenants the respectable sum of $1,300. By this arrangement a laborer with two rooms nominally costing him $1.50 a week, or $78 a year, would actually be only paying $62.80 for his healthy and comfortable apartments. His rent would be in fact less than $1.21 a week.

Every tenant in these buildings has his own locked compartment for coal in the cellar. Half the tenants dry their clothes in the yard and the other half on the roof. At every stair landing there is an iron gallery which serves two suits of rooms, leading to their front doors. The stairs are of slate and iron and are fireproof. The company lights them and keeps them clean as well as the yard and walks and the sidewalk in front. It also provides a free reading room, supplied with books and all the daily papers as well as magazines, for tenants, and also gives them access to bathrooms, where they can have cold baths without charge. For warm baths a nominal charge of five cents is exacted.

It is remarkable, in view of the great success of the Hicks street experiment, that the example has not been followed. There is no doubt that Brooklyn could easily fill twenty such model tenement blocks and it is almost impossible to exaggerate the benefit which their construction would be to the city. It is, of course, quite true that many builders of tenement houses, especially within the past year or two, have endeavored to overcome the difficulties which attend their construction and combine a reasonable degree of economy in money and land with good sanitary arrangements. A good example of a tenement house of this class was during the present Summer erected by Mr. Robert Dixon, the architect. It is located on Wyckoff street, near Nevins, and is of brick, four stories high, with a front age of 26 feet and a depth of 55. The lower story is occupied by two shops, each with two rooms attached to them behind. Upstairs there is a central hall and the tenements of four rooms each are on either side of it. There is a front room 17x12, a back room 15x12, and two rooms between each 10x9. To give light and air to these central rooms there is a V in the side wall some four feet in depth extending from the bottom to the top of the building, through which a current of air flows. Every door has a head light over it, giving a free circulation of air when the windows are opened. There is a water closet on each floor and an air shaft extending from the cellar to the roof. The halls are swept and kept clean by one of the tenants, who receives a rebate of his rent in consideration of this work and the landlord reserves the right to inspect the rooms once a month. This b building cost $8,000, and the owner is receiving $16 a month for each of the two shops, and for the tenements, $15, $14 and $13 respectively. The rent each month, therefore, reaches $116, or $1,392 for a year, which is about 17 1/2 per cent on the outlay, which, after deducting insurance, taxes and repairs, will leave a very ample margin for profit. It will thus be seen that a tenement house may be constructed with a due regard to the health of its occupants and yet be a most profitable investment.


Website: The History
Article Name: The Tenement Question: Houses for People of Narrow Means 1885
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


The Brooklyn Daily Eagle October 25, 1885
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