"New York's New Building Code"

Lawrence Veiller Charities Review 9 (1899-1900), 388-391.
Reference was made in the August issue of the REVIEW to the recommendations of the tenement-house committee of the New York charity organization society for new tenement-house ordinances. The proposed ordinances required in all new tenement-houses air shafts not less than six feet in width and not less than 150 square feet in superficial area, so as to provide proper light and air. Other recommendations required bathing facilities in all new tenement-houses; limited the height of new tenements to six stories; provided that 600 cubic feet of air space should be the minimum in living rooms; provided that the first floor of all new tenement-house four stories or more in height should be fireproof; that the walls of new tenement-houses should be carried up three feet, six inches above the roof, so as to make safe roof-playgrounds; prohibited the erection of wooden buildings on the same lot with a tenement-house; forbade the location of the cellar stairs directly underneath the stairs leading to the upper floors; required that in the dark halls of existing tenements the wooden panels of doors should be taken out and replaced with ground glass panels.

These recommendations were adopted by the committee after careful study of the defects of the present law, and after conference and full discussion with settlement workers and other persons who from long experience were in a position to appreciate the evils of our present tenement-house system. They were then submitted to the municipal building code commission in a small pamphlet of some eighteen pages, settings forth the reasons for the adoption of such ordinances. They were also submitted to and endorsed by the New York chapter of the American institute of architects and the architectural league.

On September 6 the building code commission submitted to the municipal assembly the new building code. In the accompanying report the commission made the following statement:

A committee representing the tenement-house committee of the charity organization society, including Mr. Lawrence Veiller, secretary, and Dr. E.R.L. Gould, Mr. I.N. Phelps Stokes, and Mr. Edward T. Devine, appeared before the commission on June 29 last, requesting that certain changes be incorporated in the new building code concerning tenement-house construction. The commission carefully considered suggestions which had been printed by the tenement-house committee, and were gratified to find that most of the suggested amendments were already embodied in the tentative code-in fact, that in some instances the commission had gone even further than the committee in their desire to improve tenement-houses and render them safe and sanitary.

In view of this official statement it was rather a surprise to find upon examination of the new code that not one of the recommendations of the tenement-house committee had been incorporated, but that, on the contrary, some wise provisions of the old law had been set aside by new provisions that were unwarranted, and a distinct step backward. Among these latter are those permitting tenement-houses to be erected to a height of eighty-five feet (or eight stories), provided the first two floors of such buildings are constructed fireproof. The old law had limited this height to six stories, and it was felt by tenement-house reformers that even it was too great a height for such buildings, and that they should properly be limited to five stories in height. The reasons for this were not only the greater danger in case of fire, but also that the increasingly tall buildings in tenement neighborhoods shut out the light and air to so great an extent that there is almost none available for the occupants. Again, aside from the question of compelling women and little children to climb eight flights of stairs to reach their rooms, it was felt that the best way of remedying the over-crowding which exists in New York is, in the first place, to limit the height of such buildings, and, at the same time, to limit the number of families that can be accommodated on one floor.

The most serious defect of the new code in its bearing on tenement-houses is to be found in an entirely new section, in which an "apartment-house" is defined as follows:

An apartment-house shall be taken to mean and include every building which shall be intended or designed for, or used as the home or residence of, three or more families, or house- holds, living independently of each other, and in which every such family or household shall have provided for it a kitchen, set bath-tub, and water-closet, separate and apart from any other. Any such building hereafter erected shall not cover any greater percentage of a lot than is lawful to be covered by a tenement-house, and the requirements for light and ventilation for a tenement- house shall also apply to an apartment-house.

At first sight this definition seems harmless and to be of little effect, but careful examination of it will disclose quite the contrary. To appreciate this it is necessary to bear in mind that an apartment-house has been defined by the different statutes of the state, passed at various times since 1867, as-- any house or building or portion thereof which is rented, leased, let, or hired out to be occupied, or is occupied, as the home or residence of three families or more, living independently of each other, and doing their own cooking on 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-closet, or any of them.

This is also the definition of a tenement-house as given in the Greater New York charter. It is perfectly apparent that no matter how "apartment-houses" may be defined in the code, every apartment-house will in the eyes of the law still be a tenement-house and must comply therefore with all the requirements relating to tenement-houses. What possible object therefore is there in having this definition in the new code, unless it is to secure different treatment for apartment- houses from that secured for tenement-houses? The definition is not merely in the code for purpose of definition, but to secure some definite results. It is to be remembered that the code is supposed to relate to all matters concerning the construction, alteration, or removal of buildings, and the great mass of the general public, especially builders, will feel that what is printed in the code is final, and naturally will not turn to the charter or to any other statute to find other authority for their actions, so that they will feel that there is a difference between a tenement-house and an apartment-house, especially if there is to be any advantage to be gained by calling a building an "apartment-house." The result of this will be that the tenement-house and the apartment-house will be considered on a different basis in the department of buildings. The most serious part of this whole provision is to be found in the phrase which states that "any apartment-house hereafter erected shall not cover any greater percentage of a lot than is lawful to be covered by a tenement-house, and the requirements for light and ventilation shall also apply to an apartment-house." No mention is made whatsoever of a building that may hereafter be altered to be used an apartment-house, or converted to the use of an apartment-house, having to comply with the tenement house laws. Therefore under this code the owner of any existing tenement-house in this city could by providing a set bath-tub and a set water-closet for each suite of rooms change his tenement-house into an apartment-house; then he could proceed to alter the building which is now an apartment-house by adding an extension so that the building would cover the entire lot, he could provide any number of dark rooms that he wished to, and could in fact evade all the provisions of the tenement-house law. It is safe to predict that if this section of the code is adopted, the 40,000 tenement-houses in this city will in a short time be changed into apartment-houses in this manner. This attempt to distinguish between an apartment-house and a tenement-house simply offers a means of evading the tenement-house law by providing a system of classification, in the building department by which all buildings may be classed there as apartment-houses instead of tenement-houses. As a matter of fact there is no reason whatsoever why there should be any distinction between an apartment-house and a tenement- house. There is no provision of the existing tenement-house laws that apartment-houses should not comply with.

In addition to these serious defects there are others relating to all kinds of buildings, and many relating specifically to tenement-houses. Among them is one permitting the construction of a three-story wooden dumb-waiter shaft in a tenement-house. Such a shaft is simply an inflammable flue and should of course not be permitted in buildings of this kind. Another provision permits in the outlying parts of the city the erection of wooden tenement-houses to be occupied by six families. The old law forbade the occupancy of such buildings by more than three families, as the risk to life from fire in buildings of this class is extreme.

Notwithstanding strong opposition on the part of persons and societies interested in better tenement conditions and the almost unanimous criticism of the entire local press, the code has been adopted, and goes into effect December 22.

The agitation of the committee of the charity organization society for better tenement- house laws, although thus without definite results in actual enactment, has been of great educational value, having aroused the interest of the community in the subject. There is a much better understanding at present of the defects and evils of New York's tenement-house system than heretofore. It is to be hoped that in the near future a new tenement-house law will be enacted, adequately meeting the evils which the new code promises merely to aggravate.

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