The new housing legislation known as New York's Multiple Dwelling Law, which was enacted by the 1929 session of the New York state legislature and which replaced the Tenement House Law of 1901, has received so much comment that a brief summary of this law by Lawson Purdy, a member of the commission which drafted it, is included in this chapter.

The New York Multiple Dwelling Law

During the last twenty-seven years the tenement-house law has been amended about one hundred and fifty times. Many of the amendments were inserted to meet special cases and to make compliance with the law somewhat easier or less expensive. The old definition of a tenement house which has endured for sixty years and over, that of a building in which three families or more live independently and do their own cooking, served well until cooking by gas and later cooking by electricity had been invented and servants' wages had been multiplied by four and rents had been multiplied by three. People who formally demanded and used apartments of eight rooms or more and kept one or more servants now occupy apartments of four rooms or less and keep no servant.

1 Adapted from "The New York Multiple Dwelling Law," National Municipal Review, May, 1929.

The erection of new buildings almost stopped from 1914 to 1921. There was a severe housing shortage. Old single-family houses could be altered under the building code, not the tenement house law, for non-housekeeping use. Old single-family houses could be adapted without structural alteration for occupancy by people who were not supposed to cook but who did cook on the premises. Hotels were erected, called apartment hotels, which could exceed in height and in lot coverage a tenement house, could have windowless bathrooms and windowless stairs, and therefore be erected to house more people for less money than a tenement house. When plans for such hotels were filed, the architect or builder was required to make an affidavit that no housekeeping was to be done on the premises. Leases were made commonly by which the tenant was required not to cook.

This statement applies to the hotels, to the altered single-family houses, and often to the old houses not structurally changed. Prospective tenants were invited to examine the apartment, observe the sink and refrigerator and gas or electric outlet, and then invited to sign a lease by which they obligated themselves not to cook.

By 1927 so many thousand people were living in houses of various kinds in which cooking was being carried on contrary to law that the enforcement of law seemed almost impossible. An autocrat who did not live in the city might have enforced it perhaps. It is questionable whether such a person could who traveled about the town without police protection.

For a number of years the Tenement House Committee of the Charity Organization Society, the Housing Committee of the Brooklyn Bureau of Charities, and the few others interested in maintaining the integrity of the tenement house law had a very hard struggle to prevent objectionable amendments and to encourage any kind of enforcement. The tenement house department had been hampered by inadequate appropriations and an insufficient staff. On the other hand, the real estate boards were besieged by members who urged amendments to the tenement house law of various kinds which, if enacted, would have weakened the law seriously. At this juncture the real estate boards recommended the appointment of the commission. The commission had before it the task of preserving the standards of the present law and meeting the demands of those who wished to cheapen construction.

The task of the commission was set for it by the demands of those not satisfied with the present tenement house law. There were those who wished to erect high and bulky buildings as apartment hotels with fewer stairways, without windows to the outer air, with windowless halls and windowless bathrooms. The contention was and is that with mechanical ventilation bathrooms can be better ventilated than by windows, and that electric lights are more efficient than daylight. Owners of houses which had been altered under the building code wanted them legalized for housekeeping. Owners of old single-family houses wished an inexpensive method of alteration for tenement-house use. The demand for cooking anywhere or everywhere was universal.

On the other hand, those who had a primary interest in the welfare of the poorer people of the community contended that windowless bathrooms for them meant dirt and disease; that unlighted stairs and halls were a social menace and that the altered old houses constituted a serious fire hazard. Moreover, for all buildings they contended that more light and air made houses better investments, better for both owners and tenants. They regarded the limit of height of one and one-half times the width of the street for fireproof buildings as being too high rather than too low. At all costs they wished to preserve the general structure of the tenement house law and its administration by a separate department.

One of the first conclusions of the commission was that the old definition of a tenement house which depended upon cooking had to go. Unlawful cooking was too easy. For that reason the title of the act was changed to Multiple Dwelling Law. Under this law cooking will be permissible in any multiple-family dwelling which conforms to the law in all other respects. The rules for construction, for height, for bulk were made the same for the tenement house and the apartment hotel. A distinction was made in favor of transient hotels, but the effort was made to lay down rules for construction of the transient hotel and the other multiple dwellings as nearly as possible alike and to make the differences such that a builder would not be tempted to call his building a hotel when, in fact, it was to be used as a tenement house.

One of the most difficult problems was to meet the demand of those who wished to build the apartment hotel, which can now be built to a greater height than a tenement house and covering more ground than a tenement house and, at the same time, secure adequate light and air. The plan of the multiple dwelling law is to increase the area of the yard and courts and to allow a slightly greater height. The increase in the yard and court dimensions for a six-story building is about 25 per cent over the dimensions of the present law. The new yard is 15 feet as compared with 12 feet. The outer court is 7 1/2 feet instead of 6 feet. An outer court between wings of the building is 15 feet instead of 12 feet. On a 60-foot street the present tenement house may be 90 feet high, the yard at least 15 feet in depth throughout the entire height of the building, and the courts based on the yard width.

The multiple dwelling law requires the yard to be 20 feet deep at the 90-foot level; above that level the depth of the yard must increase in the ratio of three inches for each foot. Above the 90-foot cornice line on the street front, the building must set back from the street in the ratio of three to one. The maximum height is three feet plus one and three-quarters times the width of the street and never over 175 feet exclusive of a pent house set back on all sides. On a 60-foot street, therefore, the maximum height is 108 feet. In effect, we have allowed two additional stories and required those stories to set back in return for an increase of 33 1/3 per cent in the dimension of the yard. A careful study shows that rooms on the lowest stories will get about the same light on the street front as under the present law, and considerably more light in rooms opening on the yard and courts.

In non-fireproof buildings stairs, halls, and water-closets must be lighted by windows of required size. In all fireproof buildings with passenger elevators water-closets supplementary to those required by law may be mechanically ventilated and in such fireproof multiple dwellings in which every room opens directly upon a public hall, water-closets may be mechanically ventilated. In such buildings stairs and halls may be without windows. The number and width of stairs are determined by the number of rooms on each floor instead of by the number of apartments as at present. The reason for this change is that the size of apartments is, on the average, much less than formerly. Outside fire-escapes are not required for fireproof buildings, but two interior stairs are required except for buildings not exceeding six stories high with not more than twenty rooms on a floor using that stair.

Transient hotels in which there are six or more power passenger elevators, built in a block zoned exclusively for business, may be erected to any height and to any bulk permitted by the local zoning ordinance.

Houses heretofore altered in accordance with the building code are required to do very little to make them more safe. Houses hereafter altered are required to have water-closets with a window or skylight and to be safeguarded adequately against fire. Lodging houses and rooming houses have some requirements in excess of those now contained in the local ordinance.

The tenement houses erected prior to 1901, called old-law tenement houses, are subject to some additional regulations for sanitation and fire protection The provisions for the enforcement of the law are strengthened.

The problems presented to the commission have been solved. The solutions offered will not please everyone. To one who, like myself, believes that no building should exceed the width of the street in height and no windows should have less than a forty-five-degree angle of light, the provisions for light and air seem inadequate and they are far less than should be adopted by any city which can by any diligence do better, but for the city of New York, as it has been allowed to grow, I believe the provisions of the multiple dwelling law represent a solution of pressing problems which must be solved, and do afford more light and air for all houses over four stories high and adequate light and air for houses less than four stories high, and that the bill presents rules for construction that are practical and will be good for both owner and tenant.


No one thing in itself will solve the housing problem but in most cases largest results have come from legislation. The enforcement of the legislation is as essential as the legislation itself.

Only a few states have housing laws. A few others have provisions in state health and fire-prevention acts which have a bearing on housing. In most of the states housing is governed by local ordinance, and enforcement is vested in local building and health departments. A state housing act has many advantages: (1) Provision is made for smaller cities which undoubtedly would have no legislation. (2) A state law is less easily modified than local ordinances. (3) There is no opportunity for unscrupulous builders to influence city councils.

The housing legislation of a city may include sections of the state housing act, supplemented by state fire-prevention and public-safety act and possibly the state building code. In addition to state legislation there may be local building, health, and fire-prevention codes enforced by building, health, fire chief, or department of public safety. Housing-legislation enforcement may be inadequate for the following reasons: (1) inadequate laws; (2) heads of administrative departments poorly qualified; (3) too small appropriation for enforcement; (4) make-up of Board of Appeals; (5) division of responsibility in enforcement; (6) lack of cooperation between city solicitor and courts. Adequate legislation and heavier penalties are necessary for improvement.

There is undoubtedly an inadequate housing-inspection force in nearly all American cities, and inspectors often are poorly qualified. Adequate records are essential, and all records concerning a given building should be recorded in one place. Division of authority between departments of state and city government is a serious difficulty in housing-legislation enforcement.

Housing associations sponsored by groups of citizens have been organized in a few cities. These associations promote legislation and assist in enforcement. Public support for housing officials is essential for more adequate enforcement. The chief laws affecting housing legislation are city planning, zoning regulation, building codes, health codes, housing laws. The chief agencies concerned in the inspection of dwellings are city-planning and zoning commissions, departments of building inspection, public health (state and municipal, private or non-official agencies interested in public health), fire department (municipal), private agencies interested in the prevention and relief of poverty and immigration.

The best building codes cover all factors affecting structural safety, and some in municipalities where there is no housing code include provision for light and ventilation and sanitary accommodations for dwellings. Building codes are now in force in all large cities. Health departments supervise sanitary conditions. Except where there is a separate housing department, enforcement of the housing code is given to the health department.


Ford, George B. Standards for Improved Housing Laws. National Municipal Review, VI (October, 1927), 633-37.

Ford, James. The Enforcement of Housing Legislation. New York: Academy of Political Science, 1927. Pp. 12.

Political Science Quarterly, XLII (December, 1927), 549-60.

International Labour Office. The Housing Situation in the United States. "Studies and Reports," Series G, No. 2. Geneva, 1925. (Washington office: 20 Jackson Place, Washington, D.C.) Pp. 53. Tax-exemption laws and rent-restriction legislation (pp. 39-52).

New York State Board of Housing. Report of the Board to Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt and to the Legislature of the State of New York. Legislative Doc. 84. Albany: J. B. Lyon Co., 1930. Pp. 105.

Pink, Louis H. The New Day in Housing. New York: John Day Co., 1928. The New York Housing Law (pp. 105-14); tax exemption (pp. 127-30).

Purdy, Lawson. "New York's New Housing Law," Housing, XVIII (June, 1929), 88-101.

Veiller, Lawrence. A Model Housing Law. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1920.

Wood, Arthur Evans. Community Problems. New York: Century Co., 1928.

Restrictive legislation (pp. 48-56).

Wood, Edith Elmer. The Housing of the Unskilled Wage Earner. New York: Macmillan Co., 1919. Constructive legislation (pp. 209-56).