Strong Pleas to Amend The Tenement House Law 1902

Bad Effects of Law Depicted

Albany, February 21__The people who came here from Brooklyn yesterday to support the Audett-Ash bill, which amends the tenement house act, believe they succeeded in making a favorable impression on the Assembly Cities Committee, presided over by Assemblyman Otto Kelsey. The showing they made was an impressive one as to numbers and arguments.

Before leaving for home this morning ex-Assemblyman Edward H. M. Roehr succeeded in securing for next Thursday a joint hearing before the Senate and Assembly Cities Committees on the bill proposed by Tenement House Commissioner de Forest, which, in some respects, is opposed in its features to the Ash bill.

Mr. Roehr is the author of the latter measure and marshaled the forces which are clamoring for amendments. They brought powerful arguments to support their demands. About a dozen men spoke, each representing some important body.

Assistant Corporation Counsel Whitman spoke first and briefly. He said he was not directly authorized to represent either Mayor Low or his chief, Corporation Counsel Rives, but he understood that they favored the position of Commissioner de Forest, who was present. Mr. Kelsey assured Mr. Whitman that the views of the city administration were embodied in a bill which he had in his possession.

Mr. de Forest was then requested to state his attitude to the Ash bill. He said that the second Ash bill, which he had only seen a few hours, was quite different from the original measure and that he approved some features and opposed others. Mr. De Forest continued:

Mr. de Forest's Arguments

"With regard to Bill No. 1015, it contains much that seems to me appropriate subjects of amendment, but it contains some features which are extremely objectionable. Section 2, with reference to corner lots, I approve, and my bill goes even farther. With reference to fire escapes, I will say that the proposal is to relieve low buildings of such structures, both front and rear. I sympathize with gentlemen who feel that their houses should not be disfigured by fire escapes when not necessary.

"With reference to when there are stores on the first floor, allowing stores to run through, it seems to me an appropriate amendment.

"There is another amendment with relation to three story tenement houses which I think are admissible. I understand that the increased cost of fireproofing is from $1,500 to $1,700, but the advantage of having three stories outweighs the objection to non-fireproof buildings.

"Personally, I think three story tenements should be increased in numbers. This bill goes a great deal farther. it not only takes out three story buildings, but takes out other provisions of the act which have been enforced for a great many years. It takes away all those sanitary protections which have been thrown around tenements for years."

Mr. de Forest was about to introduce his deputy, Mr. Vellier, when Senator Wagner asked if the Tenement House Commission had visited Brooklyn in its investigations.

"They did," was the reply.

"What was the object of the act to decrease the population of Brooklyn?" he asked.

"No, to give Brooklyn the same advantages as the other boroughs. You must remember that there were two distinguished Brooklynites on the commission."

Senator Wagner said he had been a builder in Brooklyn for thirty-four years and he was glad to hear such liberal sentiments as expressed by the Commissioner in some of his statements.

Commissioner de Forest told Senator Wagner that he must remember that many of the provisions of the act belonged to the old Brooklyn law. Mr. de Forest then introduced Mr. Vellier.

Deputy Vellier's Views.

Mr. Vellier said that the old law had provided for a bulkhead on the roof. The new provision was for a fireproof stairway leading to it. Another provision was for an entrance to the cellar from the ground. A third was for glass panels in hall doorways.

The proposed bill recommended by the department, he said, also allowed three story tenements built of wood.;

Senator Wagner asked why the Tenement House Commission had applied the act to Brooklyn. Mr. Vellier said the commission's investigations showed conditions so bad in Brooklyn that the commission refrained from publishing them in its report. The information had been obtained from agents of the commission and officials of the Health Department.'

Leo Says Enforcement of law Would Mean Bloodshed.

John P. Leo, president of the Builders' League, opposed the bill because he said he favored six family tenements as against those of twelve or fourteen families, with better protection. He said, he was surprised to hear the Tenement House Commissioner acknowledge that there was anything at fault with the law as it was. it had been made to appear, he said, that the labor organizations were clamoring for it, but he said they were deceived. Mr. Leo asked that the Legislature appoint a commissioner to sit during the recess to go into the whole matter more fully. Mr. Leo said that no attempt would be made to enforce the law because it would mean, bloodshed. He believed the whole measure was unconstitutional because there was no right of search without warrant, such as it gave.

"You were putting it a little strong, were you not, in saying that there would be bloodshed? You prefer to take such matters to the courts, don't you?" asked Mr. Kelsey.

Mr. Leo said he meant what he said and that he has instructed his tenants to resist invasion from agents of the Tenement House Commission at unreasonable times.

Wagner Tells How Building Industry Suffered.

Senator Wagner was then heard for the bill. He told how the building industry had suffered form the tenement house act of last year, and he thought Manhattan must have been jealous of Brooklyn. He denied that the health of tenement house dwellers in Brooklyn had suffered from old conditions, as was claimed. He said the death rate was low, as the figures showed. He knew that 30,000 mechanics had been idle since the bill was passed and that the whole building industry was paralyzed.

Ex-Assemblyman Edward H.M. Roehr was next heard. He told of the number of organizations from Brooklyn which supported the Ash bill and had representatives present and proceeded to introduce them.

Assemblyman Weekes asked if the bill applied only to Brooklyn or to all the boroughs.

Mr. Roehr said it applied to all boroughs, but that land in Manhattan was too valuable for use in building three story tenements. it would apply to the Bronx.

Mr. Roehr then went on to say that while bulkheads were formerly required, the law did not require them to be fireproof. he also said that the bill conceded thirty-six feet of area for air shafts or courts instead of about twelve feet.

In reply to a question as to the size of lots on which such buildings were constructed Mr. Roehr said that the lots average 25x100 feet, but that houses average 25x65.

"Think of it taking out 10 1/2 x 21 feet of space from that area," said Mr. Roehr. He read figures compiled by Building Commissioner Calder showing how building had fallen off in Brooklyn.

Another thing Mr. Roehr spoke of was the feature that required all basements to be eight feet high. Most basements were seven and one-half feet and to convert such houses into tenements would require the raising of such floors.

Guilfoyle Tells of Falling Off in Permits

John Guilfoyle, former building commissioner in Brooklyn, ws then introduced by Mr. Roehr. He said his remarks would be merely introductory to those to follow him. Mr. Guilfoyle showed that only forty flat houses or tenements were to be built after January 1, when the old permits expired. He showed that the number of permits granted in 1898 was 662; in 1899, 1057; in 1900, 603, from January 1 to April 10, 1901, 624. From the operation of the tenement house act, April 1, 1901, to December 1, 1901, only 40 permits were issued.

In January, 1901, 78 permits were granted: in January, 1902, three. Mr. Guilfoyle said that all old permits would expire on July 1, 1902, and that after that there would be but 40 houses for Brooklyn mechanics to work on. Of these there were only 17 under way. There are 29,546 tenement houses in Brooklyn, he said, of which 11,962 are three story houses, and 6,284 four story, leaving the commission to look after 11,300, even if the law were amended along the lines of the Ash bill, all of which are above four stories in height. There are 2,858 vacant blocks in Brooklyn, making 96,000 lots still vacant and unoccupied.

Former Controller George W. Palmer made a strong plea for the exemptions. He said the great trouble was with interior courts. Mr. Palmer said that the increase in assessments in Brooklyn averaged $20,000,000 when he was in office. He would be surprised if the increase next year would be $5,000,000.

Mr. Kelsey asked if the tenement house law was the only reason for the decline, and Mr. Palmer said, emphatically, that it was.

Walter C. Burton of the South Brooklyn Board of Trade said that the building of flat houses in South Brooklyn was practically impossible under the law. The tenement house law, he declared, was a measure to keep people from getting better homes, or ought to be so designated.

Arthur Dinsmore of the Building Trades Union, representing twenty-two organizations, altogether about 40,000 men, spoke next. The tenement house law has never been asked for, he said, by workingmen. Most of the men he represented lived in tenement houses. Mr. Dinsmore said nothing had ever been heard of the law until after it had been passed.

Mr. de Forest interrupted to say that the commission had held hearings in Brooklyn and that two eminent Brooklyn men had been members of it.

Mr. Dinsmore repeated that it had never been supposed that the act would apply to Brooklyn, and that it had been supposed it was for Manhattan.

The people who lived in tenements in Brooklyn had left Manhattan to escape the conditions existing there. The people in Brooklyn much preferred fewer to live in a building where the air circulated through from front to rear, rather than to live in rear tenement houses.

Charles Byrne, secretary of the same association, who followed Mr. Dinsmore, spoke along the same lines, showing how the stopping of building operations had affected mechanics. Mr. Byrne said he lived in a house with six rooms and eleven windows, all opening to the open air. it had an air shaft of twenty-five feet area, which, he said, was sufficient.

Gallagher Tells What Brooklyn Wants

Bernard Gallagher of the Builders' Exchange said he had lived fifty-seven years in Brooklyn and had been forty-one years a master builder. He had visited over half the cities in the world having 300,000 population or more and he asserted that in not one of them did the mass of the population live as well. "There is no red light district and never will be." he said. "If I do not mistake the temper of Brooklyn."
Mr. Gallagher said what Brooklyn wanted was a right to build houses in its own way.

Bank Loans Have Fallen Off, Says Mr. Lamb

William lamb of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank said that he had remembered his mother saying that no house was big enough for more than two families. The tenement house commissioner proposed to make fifteen to twenty families live on a floor. Mr. Lamb recited how tenements were built. They cost about $8,500 and the savings banks lent $5,000 usually on each. The rest was made up by the savings of the owner, whose wife was the janitor. He also stated that his bank's loans had fallen off from $130,000 to $25,000 or $30,000 a month. His bank has 90,000 depositors, with loans of $40,000,000 a year, of which $14,000,000 is on bond and mortgage. it is the fifth largest savings bank in the country.

Mr. Lamb said Brooklyn flat houses were clean and comfortable and investment in them by people of small means paid well. He believed great hardship was being worked by the present law.

Alexander G. Calder said that it cost 20 per cent. more to build the houses under the law and the rents were 15 per cent. less because of the lessened space. He had recently bought lots for $1,800 apiece. Last year he had paid $3,300 for similar lots. Mr. Calder said that he employed many men and that he had frequent delegations coming to him asking him to use his influence to secure relief and a change in the law.

James Sherlock Davis, representing the lumber trade, said the law was proving detrimental to that business. He had been in business, in Brooklyn for twenty years and knew Brooklyn thoroughly and had driven over the borough from four to ten hours daily and any man who would say that conditions were such as described by Mr. Velliers should be questioned either as to his integrity or his intelligence.

Jared J. Chambers spoke from the point of view of the building and loan associations and made a plea for letting up on the present restrictions. Mr. Chambers drew graphic pictures of the conditions existing just now.

Julius Straus, a builder, spoke as follows of the harmful effects produced by the law on the laboring classes, saying in part:

"I have it on the very best authority that the brick yards in Haverstraw are curtailing their production for the coming season. They are contemplating starting up their works in June instead of may, as is customary. So with the lumber dealers. One firm alone has reduced their purchases 25 per cent. The evils this law wishes to remedy do not exist in Brooklyn. We have no congested districts in Brooklyn such as are in Manhattan. In all of our thousands upon thousands of tenement houses in Brooklyn I will say without fear of contradiction that there does not exist one hundred houses in which there live your families on a floor. Our houses are built with but two families on a floor, with the apartment running from street to yard, with a court to ventilate one or two interior rooms.

"I claim that even with the small court with which they are ventilated they are better than the large court prescribed by the present law. The courts prescribed in the present law will not permit the building of a house except upon a lot which is at least forty feet wide. Such a house cannot be built except in extraordinarily fine neighborhoods, where unusually large rents can be obtained. Our people will not live in a rear apartment. It seems to me that the Tenement House Commission who advocated this present law completely lost sight of the conditions existing in our borough. it really seems as if the commission were not aware of some very patent facts in the local situation. For instance, let us take up section 97 of Chapter IV, reading partly as follows: "And no such room (basement) shall hereafter be occupied unless all the following conditions are complied with. Such rooms shall be at least eight feet high in every part from the floor to the ceiling. In our borough there exist hundreds of three story and basement high stoop old-fashioned dwellings, now occupied by three families, where-in the basements are from 7 feet to 7 feet 9 inches in height from floor to ceiling. The floors of these basements are one to two feet below the curb level; ordinarily the basement and parlor floor are rented together, the rear basement room is used as a kitchen and laundry, the front as dining-room and general sitting-room. Each room has two large windows looking upon yard and street, respectively, not being eight feet in the clear. However, they are, according to section 97, unhealthful and may not be used for living purposes. But if this same house is occupied by but two families the law says it is perfectly healthy and may be occupied. Further argument to show the absurdity of this section in its application to basements of the above described type would be superfluous. Nevertheless, no discretion is vested in anybody to make an exception of them. The law is mandatory, and if enforced these rooms must be vacated and the rental value of such houses very much impaired. The last building code approved by the Mayor, October 24, 1899, put on all restrictions that, in my judgment, were necessary for six family houses, and anything added to increase the cost of production would stop the building of them, because they would not be commercially profitable.

"Under the beneficial influences of previous moderate amendments to the Building Code of 1899 the tenement problem in our borough was being solved naturally. Through competition builders furnished every advantage for health, comfort and safety consistent with a proper understanding of the relation of cost to income. The bulk of our six family houses will sell from $8,000 to $10,000 each including cost of land and are bought mainly by poor and thrifty people who buy them with $500 to $1,500 in cash, the balance represented by easy paying installment mortgages. They live in these houses and act as their own janitors and do their own repairs and in this way it makes this class of a house a safe and profitable investment. Who will say that the morals of our children are not better safeguarded, that there is not less risk from fire and not less chance of contagion in these small six family houses than the large houses which would have to be built under the p resent law, besides taking out of the market all chance of investment by these thrifty people, among the best of our citizens. And how about the existing six family house which must be altered under the provisions of this Tenement House Law? Most of these houses are owned by people with small equities who put all their surplus cash from year to year into these houses in order to reduce their indebtedness. Where are they to get the money to make the numerous alterations which the law demands?

"While this law is on the statute books all interests relating to realty will be unfavorably affected. The burdens and exactions placed by the new law upon owners of tenements will cause all property to be looked upon as troublesome investments. Its stability will be lessened and its market value impaired. Today the commercial value of an empty 25 foot lot is not worth next year's taxes. Do you not think we are paying a large price for an experimental law which is founded on theory and is the result of a hobby? We had built in our borough last year more factories than in the five years together preceding. The cause of this increase is that the manufacturers realize that in our borough their workmen can obtain economical living apartments, healthful and safe, in close proximity to their work. The enforcement of the present law means the driving of the manufacturers to other states. It is folly to say that people must live in the suburbs or enact laws to make people live in a certain way. You can no more make people change their mode of living by the enactment of a law than you can purify their hearts by the same method.

"Our present Building Commissioner is on record as favoring the Ash bill, and in a conversation with him he expressed himself as favoring even more radical amendment of the present law."


Website: The History
Article Name: Borough of Brooklyn: Tenth Assembly District 1901
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


The Brooklyn Daily Eagle February 21, 1902
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