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Columbia University Digital Knowledge Ventures The Architecture and Development of New York City with Andrew S. Dolkart
image Living Together Tenements
The Business of Tenements
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The Business of Tenements
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So although this [dumbbell tenement] was meant to be reform, it really was a failure. But it was the law from 1879 until 1901, when what was called the new law was passed, and basically the new law outlawed the construction of tenements on 25-foot-wide lots. There was a realization that in order to create apartment buildings for working people that were livable, they had to be larger, and there had to be larger light courts. And so the big change comes in 1901 where there's a minimum room size, every room had to have a window, the windows had to open up on light courts that maybe weren't huge, but at least they added a little bit of light and air into each building. However, there are still many, many pre-law tenements and old-law tenements that are still lived in because many of them were never torn down.

Because it was very difficult to get the government to act to improve housing conditions, there was a huge argument that housing was not an issue for the public realm, that housing reform should be done by private individuals. And that if somehow you could show private developers that there was a way to build a tenement and make a profit, that provided decent housing, then the developers would do that.

Now this was somewhat naïve, but there were efforts to come up with model tenements. And the earliest reform efforts go back to the 1870s. The idea of the so-called model tenement was a European idea. Model tenements were not planned to be perfect housing. They were often experimental housing, and they were planned to give working-class people decent apartments with light and air and running water, and they would also be profit making.

But the difference between a typical speculative tenement and a model tenement was in model tenements the owners agreed to limit their return, usually to about 7 percent on their investment, whereas in a speculative tenement they were very, very lucrative. You might make 15 or 20 percent profit on your investment each year.


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