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First Tenement House Act

Tenement House Competition

Jacob Riis publishes "How the Other Half Lives"

: Tenement House Act

When immigration began to accelerate rapidly after the 1820s and 1830s, the need for additional housing to accommodate the new arrivals also grew. Tenement houses proved to be a quick and affordable solution to the ever-growing housing problem. As tenement houses were quickly constructed, as many people as possible were tightly packed into the smallest space possible in the hopes of maximizing the landlord's profits.

In addition to the lack of housing, neither City officials nor the public could ignore the rising death rate. The association between living conditions and disease was made early in the nineteenth century when physicians and reformers believed tenement houses bred not only filth, but also disease. They began to view these "offspring of municipal neglect" as a serious threat to the public's health.

In 1857, the first official investigation into housing conditions rendered shocking results. While sewers were laid in some city streets as early as 1844, most of the tenements constructed during this time did not benefit from even the most rudimentary of sewerage systems, such as proper drainage or running water. Reports on the city's sanitation between the 1840s and the 1860s are full of descriptive anecdotes of "undrained, uneven, and filthy streets," In the first Annual Report of 1866, a health official wrote that:

"The streets were uncleaned; manure heaps, containing thousands of tons, occupied piers and vacant lots; sewers were obstructed; houses were crowded, and badly ventilated, and lighted; privies were unconnected with the sewers, and overflowing; stables and yards were filled with stagnant water, and many dark and damp cellars were inhabited. The streets were obstructed, and the wharves and piers were filthy and dangerous from dilapidation; cattle were driven through the streets at all hours of the day in large numbers, and endangered the lives of the people."

In one incident, the Health Commission found fifteen people living in one room in a rear building at 39 Baxter Street, paying a rent of $6 per month. In order to reach this rear house it was "necessary to pass through an alley the widest portion of which was two feet, the narrowest nineteen inches. In case of fire, escape to the street would be a miracle."

Following a report by the Council of Hygiene of the Citizen's Association in 1867, the first tenement house law was passed. The law required a "window or ventilator" in each sleeping room, a fire escape, and "good and sufficient water-closets or privies" for every tenement house. The law forbade cesspools, making their use a misdemeanor. Instead, all new tenement houses "should be graded and drained, and connected with the sewer."

Although the First Tenement House Act did little to alleviate the suffering of the tenement population, it was instrumental in paving the way for more rigorous and positive legislation to come.