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For the concept in property or mining law see Tenement (law). For the museum in Glasgow see Tenement House (Glasgow)

A tenement is, in most English-speaking areas, a substandard multi-family dwelling in the urban core, usually old and occupied by the poor. In Scotland it still has its original meaning of a multi-occupancy building of any sort, and in parts of England, especially Devon and Cornwall, it refers to an outshot, or additional projecting part at the back of a terraced house, normally with its own roof. [1]


The term "tenement" originally referred to tenancy and therefore to any rented accommodation. The New York State legislature defined it in the Tenement House Act of 1867 in terms of rental occupancy by multiple households, as

Any house, building, or portion thereof, which is rented, leased, let, or hired out to be occupied or is occupied, as the home or residence of more than three families living independently of one another and doing their own cooking upon the premises, or by more than two families upon a floor, so living and cooking and having a common right in the halls, stairways, yards, water-closets, or privies, or some of them.[2]

In Scotland, it continues to be the most common word for a multiple-occupancy building, but elsewhere it is used as a pejorative in contrast to apartment building or block of flats.[3] Tenement houses were either adapted or built for the working class as cities industrialized,[4] and came to be contrasted with middle-class apartment houses, which started to become fashionable later in the 19th century. Late 19th-century social reformers in the U.S. were hostile to both tenements (for fostering disease, and immorality in the young) and apartment houses (for fostering "sexual immorality, sloth, and divorce.").[5]

Specific cities

New York

As the United States industrialized during the 19th century, immigrants and workers from the countryside were housed in former middle-class houses and other buildings, such as warehouses, which were bought up and divided into small dwellings,[6][7] and also, beginning as early as the 1830s on the Lower East Side[4] or possibly the 1820s on Mott Street,[8] in jerry-built 3- and 4-floor "railroad flats" (so called because the rooms are linked together like a train)[9] with windowless internal rooms. The adapted buildings were also known as "rookeries," and were a particular concern as they were prone to collapse and fire. Mulberry Bend and Five Points were the sites of notorious rookeries that the city worked for decades to clear.[8] In both rookeries and purpose-built tenements, communal water taps and water closets (either privies or "school sinks," which opened into a vault that often became clogged) were squeezed into what open space there was between buildings.[9] In parts of the Lower East Side, buildings were older and had courtyards, generally occupied by machine shops, stables, and other businesses.[10]

Such tenements were particularly prevalent in New York, where in 1865 a report stated that 500,000 people lived in unhealthy tenements, whereas in Boston in 1845 less than a quarter of workers were housed in tenements.[4] One reason New York had so many tenements was the large numbers of immigrants; another was that the grid pattern on which streets were laid out and the economic practice of building on individual 25- by 100-foot lots combined to produce extremely high land coverage, including back building.[11] Prior to the 1867 law, tenements often covered more than 90 percent of the lot, were five or six stories high, and had 18 rooms per floor of which only two received direct sunlight. Yards were a few feet wide and filled with privies where they had not been entirely eliminated. Interior rooms were unventilated.[9]

Early in the 19th century, many of the poor were housed in cellars, which became even less sanitary after the Croton Aqueduct brought running water to wealthier New Yorkers: the reduction in well use caused the water table to rise, and the cellar dwellings flooded. Early housing reformers urged the construction of tenements to replace cellars, and beginning in 1859 the number of people living in cellars began to decline.[12]

The Tenement House Act of 1867, the state legislature's first comprehensive legislation on housing conditions, prohibited cellar apartments unless the ceiling was 1 foot above street level; required one water closet per 20 residents and the provision of fire escapes; and paid some attention to space between buildings.[13] This was amended by the Tenement House Act of 1879, known as the Old Law, which required lot coverage of no more than 65 percent. The New York City Board of Health, empowered to enforce the regulations, declined to do so. As a compromise, the Old Law tenement became the standard: this had a "dumbbell" shape, with air and light shafts on either side in the center (usually fitted to the shafts in the adjacent buildings), and typically covered 80 percent of the lot.[14] James Ware is credited with the design;[15] he had won a contest the previous year held by Plumber and Sanitary Engineer magazine to find the most practical improved tenement design, in which profitability was the most important factor to the jury.[16]

Public concern about New York tenements was stirred by the publication in 1890 of Jacob Riis' How the Other Half Lives.[17] The New York State Assembly Tenement House Committee report of 1894 surveyed 8,000 buildings with approximately 255,000 residents and found New York to be the most densely populated city in the world, at an average of 143 people per acre, with part of the Lower East Side having 800 residents per acre, denser than Bombay. It used both charts and photographs, the first such official use of photographs.[18] Together with the publication in 1895 by the U.S. Department of Labor of a special report on housing conditions and solutions elsewhere in the world, The Housing of Working People, it ultimately led to the passage of the Tenement House Act of 1901, known as the New Law, which implemented the Tenement House Committee's recommendation of a maximum of 70 percent lot coverage and mandated strict enforcement, specified a minimum of 12 feet for a rear yard and 6 feet for an air and light shaft at the lot line or 12 feet in the middle of the building (all of these being increased for taller buildings), and required running water and water closets in every apartment and a window in every room. There were also fire-safety requirements. These rules are still the basis of New York City law on low-rise buildings, and made single-lot development uneconomical.[19]

Most of the purpose-built tenements in New York were not slums, although they were not pleasant to be inside, especially in hot weather, so people congregated outside, made heavy use of the fire escapes, and slept in summer on fire escapes, roofs, and sidewalks.[20]

Edinburgh and Glasgow

Tenements make up a large percentage of the housing stock of Edinburgh and Glasgow, Scotland. Glasgow tenements were built to provide high-density housing for the large number of people immigrating to the city in the 19th and early 20th century as a result of the Industrial Revolution, when the city's population boomed to more than 1 million people. Edinburgh's tenements are much older, dating from the 17th century onwards, and some were up to 16 stories high when first built, which made them the tallest houses in the world at that time. Glasgow tenements were generally built no taller than the width of the street on which they were located; therefore, most are about 3–5 stories high. Virtually all Glasgow tenements were constructed using red or blonde sandstone, which has become distinctive.

A large number of the tenements in Edinburgh and Glasgow were demolished in the 1960s and 1970s because of slum conditions, overcrowding and poor maintenance of the buildings. Perhaps the most striking case of this is seen in the Gorbals district of Glasgow, where virtually all the tenements were demolished to make way for tower blocks, which in turn have been demolished to be replaced with modern tenements (in the Scottish meaning of the word). The Gorbals is a relatively small area and at one time had an estimated 90,000 people living in its tenements, leading to very poor living conditions; now the population is roughly 10,000.

However, the many remaining tenements in various areas of both cities have experienced a resurgence in popularity due to their large rooms.


In German, the term corresponding to tenement is Mietskaserne, "rental barracks", and the city especially known for them is Berlin. In 1930, Werner Hegemann's polemic Das steinerne Berlin (Stony Berlin) referred to the city in its subtitle as "the largest tenement city in the world."[21] They were built during a period of great increases in population between 1860 and 1914, particularly after German unification in 1871, in a broad ring enclosing the old city center, sometimes called the Wilhelmian Ring. The buildings are almost always 5 stories high because of the mandated maximum height.[22] The blocks are large because the streets were required to be able to handle heavy traffic, and the lots are therefore also large: required to have courtyards large enough for a fire truck to turn around, the buildings have front, rear, and cross buildings enclosing several courtyards.[23][24] Buildings within the courtyards were the location of much of Berlin's industry until the 1920s, and noise and other nuisances affected the apartments, only the best of which had windows facing the street.[25]

One notorious Berlin Mietskaserne was Meyers Hof in Gesundbrunnen,[26] which at times housed 2,000 people and required its own police officer to keep order.[27]

Between 1901 and 1920, a Berlin clinic investigated and documented in photographs the living conditions of its patients, revealing that many lived in damp basements and garrets, spaces under stairs, and apartments where the windows were blocked by courtyard businesses.[28]

Many apartments in the Wilhelmian Ring were very small, only one room and a kitchen.[29] Also, apartments were laid out with their rooms reached via a common internal corridor, which even the Berlin Architects' Association recognized was unhealthy and detrimental to family life.[30] Sanitation was inadequate: in a survey of one area in 1962, only 15 percent of apartments had both a toilet and a bath or shower; 19 percent had only a toilet, and 66 percent shared staircase toilets.[29] Heating was provided by stoves burning charcoal briquettes.[31]

Buenos Aires

In Buenos Aires the tenements, called conventillos, developed out of the subdivision of one- or two-story houses built around courtyards for well-off families. These were long and narrow, three to six times as long as they were wide, and the size of the patios was reduced until as many as 350 people could be living on a lot that had originally housed 25. Purpose-built tenements copied their form. By 1907 there were some 2,500 conventillos, with 150,000 occupants.[32] El conventillo de la Paloma was particularly famous and is the title of a play by Alberto Vaccarezza.


Main article: Chawl

A "chawl" is a name for a type of building found in India. They are often 4 to 5 stories with about 10 to 20 tenements, referred to as kholis, which literally means 'rooms', on each floor. Many chawls can be found in Mumbai, where they were constructed in abundance to house the people migrating to the city because of its booming cotton mills and overall strong economy.

A usual tenement in a chawl consists of one all-purpose room which functions both as a living and sleeping space, and a kitchen which also serves as a dining room. A frequent practice is for the kitchen also to serve as a bedroom for a newly married couple, to give them some degree of privacy.

People living in a chawl have little privacy. Due to the close nature of the quarters, gossip travels quickly. On the other hand, this intimate living situation can also lead to a friendly atmosphere, with support networks akin to familial relationships.

See also




  • Bauman, John F. "Introduction: The Eternal War on the Slums," From Tenements to the Taylor Homes: In Search of an Urban Housing Policy in Twentieth-Century America, ed. John F. Bauman, Roger Biles, and Kristin M. Szylvian, University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 2000, ISBN 0-271-02012-1, pp. 1–17
  • Elkins, T. H. with Hofmeister, B. Berlin: The Spatial Structure of a Divided City, London/New York: Methuen, 1988, ISBN 0-416-92220-1
  • Girouard, Mark. Cities and People: A Social and Architectural History, New Haven, Connecticut/London: Yale University, 1985, ISBN 978-0-300-03502-5
  • Plunz, Richard A. "On the Uses and Abuses of Air: Perfecting the New York Tenement, 1850–1901," Berlin/New York: Like and Unlike: Essays on Architecture and Art from 1870 to the Present, ed. Josef Paul Kleihues and Christina Rathgeber, New York: Rizzoli, 1993, ISBN 0-8478-1657-5, pp. 159–79.
  • Worbs, Dietrich. "The Berlin Mietskaserne and Its Reforms," Berlin/New York, pp. 144–57.

External links

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