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Tenement Housing

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Tenement Housing

Oftentimes, workers in factories could not even afford to buy the finished goods they produced. So, when it came to housing, tenements in the slums were the only option. To put things in perspective, by 1900, approximately two-thirds of the New York City population lived in slums. And while New York City was infamous for its slums, slums existed in every major city hit by industrialization.

Tenement Housing Definition

Tenement housing refers to a type of low-income housing that proliferated in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Tenement housing began with single-family residences divided into multiple apartments, but soon these residences ran out. To keep up with the demand for housing, contractors began building tenement-specific buildings as well as making additions to existing residences. The goal of tenement buildings was to fit as many families in as possible while spending as little money as possible. As a result, the conditions in tenement buildings were often horrific and unlivable.

Tenement Housing in The Gilded Age

The Gilded Age was a time period in American history spanning from the end of the Civil War to the turn of the century. It was a time of great economic growth, but also of corruption and gross inequality. An increase in heavy industry allowed the robber barons to accumulate extreme wealth but this did not trickle down to the workers. This was extremely detrimental as workers’ wages remained the same as the cost of living rose around them.

The American City

During the Gilded Age, American cities underwent a major change in composition and conditions. Previously, cities had been relatively small, and people could walk to their place of work. While there were pockets of poverty, these areas were small. With the Gilded Age, these pockets of poverty exploded in size and became extremely overcrowded slums. In these impoverished areas, there were high rates of disease and crime.

At the same time workers were struggling to make ends meet, a new middle class was emerging with disposable income. With their newfound wealth, middle-class families left the over-populated, and often filthy, city centers for suburbia. Landlords quickly bought up these abandoned residences and converted them into multiple apartments for the lowest cost possible, often leading to unsafe living conditions.

The Growth of Tenement Housing and Slums

Tenement Housing Depiction of Slum StudySmarterDepiction of a New York City slum published in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper in 1872, Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Because of the opportunities created by industrialization, many citizens from rural areas migrated to city centers for work. At the same time, immigrants from Europe were flooding into urban centers hoping for a better life. As a result, cities across the country boomed in population. Oftentimes, working-class and immigrant families found themselves living in overcrowded slums and tenement buildings.

Tenement Housing in Chicago

The organization of tenement housing in Chicago was different than it was in New York City. In Chicago, tenement housing tended to surround centers of employment like slaughterhouses and stockyards. It was rare for tenements to be within the city center because of a ban on wooden structures after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

Tenement Housing Conditions

As we know, workers were desperate and did not have an option when it came to tenement housing. Landlords were well aware of this and took advantage of the working poor.

Tenement Housing Conditions Photograph StudySmarterConditions inside a tenement house apartment, Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Tenement buildings were overcrowded, unsafe, and unsanitary. Typically, the apartment units were around 300 square feet and housed large families that could reach the teens in numbers. There was poor ventilation and lighting and no consideration for actual living conditions. Most apartment units did not even have a window or access to a fire escape. Running water was not yet widespread, so often residents would use outdoor bathrooms or throw their waste into the streets. And as we noted earlier, disease and crime were large problems.

A cholera epidemic that ravaged New York City in 1849 left approximately 5,000 dead. Residents of tenement housing made up the majority of deaths.

Tenement housing had existed since the early 19th century but proliferated during the Gilded Age. Conditions were notoriously bad in New York City where there were well over 50,000 tenement houses by 1900. In 1890, Jacob Riis, a muckraker, published How the Other Half Lives, which used photographs to expose conditions in New York City slums.


investigative journalists that worked to expose corruption and scandal during the Progressive Era

Regulation of Tenement Housing in New York City

The work of muckrakers like Jacob Riis led to calls for the regulation of tenement buildings as well as the improvement of conditions in existing slums. New York City passed a series of Tenement House Acts throughout the late-19th and early-20th centuries that attempted to regulate and better tenement housing (e.g., mandating fire escapes and indoor lighting).

By the turn of the century, conditions began to slowly improve but that is not to say these buildings were livable. A report from the Tenement House Department in 1903 stated:

often at night, when the small rooms opening upon the air shaft are so close and ill-ventilated that sleep is impossible, mattresses are dragged upon the floor of the parlor and there the family sleeps altogether in one room. In summer the small bedrooms are so hot and stifling that a large part of the tenement house population sleep on the roofs, sidewalk and fire escapes.”

Government regulation also led to a new, unforeseen problem. Landlords were unwilling to bear the cost of meeting the most basic building codes, so they raised the rent and transferred the added costs to the tenants, many of whom were already struggling to make rent.

Tenement Housing Significance

Tenement housing is significant because, until the New Deal in the 1930s, tenement housing was the housing available to the working class. After the New Deal, public housing entered the equation and essentially ended the tenement era. However, the New Deal did not magically solve the problem of housing the urban poor. Going to any American city today, there will be pockets of poverty within the wealth of the city.

The New Deal

a set of policies, programs, and projects enacted under President Franklin D. Roosevelt that aimed to counteract the effects of the Great Depression

New Deal era poster promoting public housingNew Deal era poster promoting public housing, Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Tenement Housing/Working class Slums - Key takeaways

  • Tenement housing refers to a type of housing in which multiple apartment units are present in the same building. Tenement buildings first popped up in the early 18th century with the division of single-family residences.
  • Tenement housing proliferated during the Gilded Age as urban populations grew. Landlords moved on from single-family residences to the construction of cheap tenement buildings in centers of poverty, called slums.
  • The working class did not have an option when it came to tenement housing and landlords took advantage of this. Conditions in tenement buildings were overcrowded, unsafe, unsanitary, and generally unlivable. Disease and crime ran rampant.
  • The work of muckrakers like Jacob Riis led to increased regulation of tenement buildings. Unfortunately, this did not lead to vast improvements, and often, landlords raised the rent to cover the costs of meeting regulations.
  • Tenement housing was really the only housing available to the working class until the introduction of public housing under the New Deal.

Frequently Asked Questions about Tenement Housing

A tenement house is a building divided into multiple apartment units. 

Tenement housing was bad because there was no regulation and landlords only cared about fitting as many people as possible for as little money as possible. 

Tenements in the Gilded Age were unsafe, unsanitary, and overcrowded. Disease and crime ran rampant.

Life was difficult and unsafe in tenement housing. Landlords cut corners in construction to the detriment of tenants. There was often no access to light, whether through windows or indoor lighting, and the crowded and unsanitary conditions led to disease.

Tenement housing was significant because it was the only option for the working class until the New Deal and the introduction of public housing in the 1930s.

Final Tenement Housing Quiz


During what age in American history did tenement housing proliferate?

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The Gilded Age

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What city was notorious for its tenement housing and slums?

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New York City

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How were the first tenement buildings created?

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dividing single-family residences

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What led to urban population growth during the Gilded Age?

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immigration from Europe

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Which was not true of the typical tenement apartment?

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no access to light

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What muckraker exposed New York City slums?

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Jacob Riis

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Where were tenement houses typically located?

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the city centers

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What was the negative impact of government regulation?

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rent increases

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When did the era of tenement housing end?

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What replaced tenement housing?

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public housing

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