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reformer Lawrence Veiller and the Charity Organization Society of the City of New York, whose lobbying eventually led to the passage of the Tenement House Act of 1901. This law, which created the “New Law Tenement,” was extremely influential on the design of housing, both in Manhattan and the outer boroughs and served as an early and long-lasting type of zoning law. It mandated less than 70% lot coverage, a minimum size for air shafts or courtyards, a building height based on the width of the street it faced, and required one interior toilet for every two families. However, one of the most important aspects of the “new law” was the creation of the Tenement House Department to inspect the buildings and enforce regulations, tasks that had previously fallen to the Board of Health and the Department of Survey and Inspection of Buildings. The law also mandated that similar changes be made to existing buildings to improve light and ventilation, and toilet facilities. While the law had an immediate impact by improving the conditions in new construction, it had a slower effect on the reform of existing buildings. 23

Another approach for working-class housing during this period, however, was to move it to the suburbs in an effort to disperse workers from the dirty, overcrowded city. The Homewood development (1898) in Brooklyn by City and Suburban Homes24 consisted of a series of small workers cottages. An attempt at Forest Hills Gardens in Queens, by the philanthropic Russell Sage Foundation (1908-10) was also originally intended to provide such low-cost housing. It quickly became too costly for the working class, but developed as one of New York’s choicest residential enclaves, and “illustrated the virtues of large-scale comprehensive planning.”25

The efforts of these reformers and philanthropies did not however, have much effect on the private market and did not significantly increase the supply of decent, affordable living quarters. This housing shortage continued into the twentieth century and by the end of World War I had reached crisis stage. One reason was a tremendous increase in population, especially in New York City. Between 1900 and 1920, the city’s population increased from 3.4 million to 5.6 million, largely because of huge waves of immigration, especially between 1905 and 1914.

Middle-Class Housing in New York26

While the working poor were being crowded into tenement buildings, the rapidly increasing population was also displacing the middle class, who were priced out of the New York City housing market by the second half of the 19th century. By 1866, those who could not afford their own houses included “professional men, clergymen, shopkeepers, artists, college professors,

23 One property owner attempted to fight the Constitutionality of the requirements for upgrading an existing building. The case vs. the City of New York made its way through several New York State Courts and finally the Supreme Court, all of which upheld the tenement law.

24 The City and Suburban Homes Company was founded in 1896 and grew out of the Improved Housing Council organized by the Association for Improving the Conditions of the Poor. Felix Adler was a member of this group. City and Suburban Homes became the largest such semi-philanthropic corporation in the country. Gwendolyn Wright, Building the Dream, A Social History of Housing In America (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981), 123-7; Richard Plunz, A History of Housing in New York City (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 100-01, as cited in Sunnyside Gardens Historic District Designation Report.

25 Roy Lubove, “Housing Reform and City Planning in Progressive America,” reprinted from The Progressives and the Slums: Tenement House Reform in New York City (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1962), 350, as cited in Sunnyside Gardens Historic District Designation Report.

26 This section is adapted from: Landmarks Preservation Commission, The Windermere Designation Report (LP-2171), report prepared by Michael D. Caratzas (New York: City of New York, 2005); and Landmarks Preservation Commission, Crown Heights North Historic District Designation Report (LP- 2204), report prepared by Michael D. Caratzas and Cynthia Danza (New York: City of New York, 2007).


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