Thursday, May 27, 2010

Tenants' Rights, circa 1906

Back in March, The Village Voice published its list of New York City's ten worst landlords. These landlords threaten and harass tenants and often simply ignore their tenants’ requests for maintenance, pest control, and repairs -- in other words, they fail to comply with basic legal requirements to provide a safe, healthy living environment.

At the Tenement Museum, we encourage our visitors to debate the rights and responsibilities of tenants and landlords on our Getting By tour every day. We discuss the Tenement House Act of 1901, which mandated and created a body of Tenement House Inspectors to enforce a set of laws designed to define base minimum requirements for decent living conditions.

For school groups, we get even deeper into the debates surrounding the Tenement House Act. On our Tenement Inspectors program, which we offer to school groups in 4th-7th grades, we have the kids reenact the debates between landlords and tenants that followed the introduction of this law. We train children to play the role of Tenement House Inspectors who have come to inspect 97 Orchard Street in the year 1906. During their inspection, they meet costumed interpreters portraying the landlady, Dora Goldfein, and the tenant, Wolf Goldstein.

Kids imagine what it would have been like living in a place with an insufficient water supply, no light in the hallways, and insects crawling between layers of old wallpaper. They also hear how difficult it was to be a landlord: when a new law came in, he or she suddenly needed to come up with the money to make thousands of dollars worth of repairs. Landlords had to balance their own financial needs with their responsibility to care for individual tenants.

Once the kids finish debating what should be done to bring 97 Orchard Street up to compliance (by 1906 standards), we then teach them about contemporary housing laws and sometimes talk about their own experiences, especially if they are New York City school kids. Check out the list that the Department of Housing helped us develop. Does your own apartment or house stand up to 2010 code?


The owner must install window guards in apartments where there are children ten years of age or younger.

No “illegal” window gates, requiring a key to open from the inside, may be
installed on windows leading to a fire escape.

The owner of a dwelling shall post and maintain street numbers on the dwelling, which are plainly visible from the sidewalk in front of the dwelling.

The owner of a multiple dwelling shall install and maintain one or more lights at or near the outside of the front entrance way of the building.

In every multiple dwelling or tenant-occupied two family dwelling, the
owner shall provide electric lighting fixtures for every public hall, stair, fire stair and fire tower on every floor.

The owner of a multiple dwelling or his or her managing agent in control
shall post and maintain in such multiple dwelling a legible sign, conspicuously displayed, containing the janitor's name, address (including apartment number) and telephone number.

The person who performs janitorial services for a multiple dwelling of nine or more units shall reside in or within a distance of one block or 200 feet from the dwelling, whichever is greater.

The owner of a multiple dwelling more than two stories in height shall post and maintain a sign, of sufficient size to be readily seen, which states the number of the floor, near the stairs and elevator.

PLEASE NOTE! This list was developed by the Museum based on certain aspects of the current housing code with the help of NYC’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development. It should in no way be considered an official document or interpreted to reflect the full scope of housing code enforcement today. If you have a question about code enforcement or have a problem in your building, please the City’s Citizen Service Center at: 311 or (212) NEW-YORK. For TTY, call (212) 504-4115.

- Posted by Sarah Litvin

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