The "lodger evil" and the transformation of progressive housing reform, 1890-1930.

Author:Beito, David T.

Few crusades more completely stirred the passions of progressives than tenement reform. The movement achieved its first great success in New York City after the publication of Jacob Riis's book How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York in 1890. By the first decade of the twentieth century, it had taken root in Chicago, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and other large cities in the Northeast and Midwest. Tenement reformers launched an all-out attack on an array of real and perceived housing ills. They called for cities and states to enact tougher building codes and establish new parks and recreation facilities in poor neighborhoods (Lubove 1962, 62-76, 107-81; Andracheck 1979, 139; Fairbanks 2000, 26-31). But tenement reform also had unintended consequences. Although the restrictions it imposed may have increased the quality of housing, the side effects were to reduce affordability and availability. The story of the progressive campaign to stamp out the "lodger evil" provides a clear illustration of these unintended consequences. (1)

The term lodger evil referred to the practice of many urban families, especially in the Northeast and Midwest, to double up through subletting. Their chief motivations were to save on rent and earn extra income. Most lodgers were unmarried males and came from the same ethnic group as the subletters. Many were relatives who planned only temporary sojourns in the United States, whereas others represented the advance guard of later immigrant families (Veiller 1911, 6-9; Abbott 1936, 341-48). To some extent, the spread of lodging in private homes and apartments replaced the more formalized reliance on boardinghouses during the nineteenth century (Peel 1986, 814-15; Gamer 2007, 169-70).

Viewed from the immigrant's perspective, this reliance on lodgers was not so much an "evil" as a strategy for coping with the challenges of American life and a means of upward mobility. Few arrangements better revealed the advantages of a relatively open and unregulated housing market for poor urban dwellers. Because building codes and other restrictions were often minimal or poorly enforced, people of modest means had considerably greater opportunities than those of later generations to improve their lot. The lodger evil was very much the trial-and-error creation of ordinary people and clashed head-on with the top-down approach of Progressive Era political elites.

Reliance on lodgers was not a new phenomenon at the time, of course. Long before the turn of the twentieth century, urban dwellers had leaned on this source for extra income (Peel 1986, 815-18). In 1850, according to census rolls, a lodger or roomer or boarder was present in 35 percent of the households in the central cities of metropolitan areas with fifty thousand or more people (see figure 1). This percentage fell consistently after that. By 1900, it was down to 21 percent, ebbing slightly to 20.6 percent ten years later (Ruggles et al. 2010). Despite this decrease and the historical existence oflodgers, in the first two decades of the twentieth century major commentary on this trend began to appear. The most obvious dividing point came in 1903, when the term lodger evil first began to gain wide currency among reformers. (2)

Much of this enhanced anxiety was a response to the "new immigration." More than 18 million immigrants entered U.S. ports between 1880 and 1920. Most were from eastern and southern Europe and were Catholic, Jewish, or Eastern Orthodox. They differed greatly from their predecessors, the mostly Protestant "old immigrants" from western and northern Europe. Never before had the United States experienced such a rapid infusion of ethnic and cultural diversity. By 1900, more than three out of ten people in New York City, Chicago, Cleveland, and Boston were foreign born (Gibson 2010).

Immigration and Urban Crowding

The surging immigrant population led to an intensity of crowding that was unprecedented in U.S. history. Urban dwellers faced population densities that had not characterized the typical immigrant experience of earlier generations. No place had more crowding than New York City. In 1894, parts of Manhattan recorded the highest population density in the world. The most congested wards in the Lower East Side had between 366 and 701 people per acre (Lubove 1962, 94). Although these highly cramped conditions were not the norm in the United States, other cities also experienced the same trend (Simon 1996, 32-36). Portions of Chicago's Back of the Yards district had densities of three hundred or more people per acre. The Polish quarter in that city had more people per acre than the most congested areas of Tokyo or Calcutta (Hunter 1901, 52-55). All of this crowding took place before the advent of the skyscraper.

The writings of housing reformers featured sharply drawn personalized stories emphasizing sardinelike conditions. Embellished and often heart-wrenching depictions filled the pages of Riis's book How the Other Half Lives, which became the bible of early housing reform. In one of many such vignettes, Riis described a tenement crammed with a family of nine: "husband, wife, an aged grandmother, and six children; honest, hard-working Germans, scrupulously neat, but poor. All nine lived in two rooms, one about ten feet square that served as parlor, bedroom, and eating-room, the other a small hall-room made into a kitchen" ([1890] 1996, 90-91). A study by Emily W. Dinwiddie for the Octavia Hill Association in Philadelphia similarly underscored the perils of overcrowding in that city. For the Italians, she stated, "more than one family in every four, almost one in three, had but one room for kitchen, dining-room and bedroom" (1904, 19). Not surprisingly, housing reformers highlighted the worst cases for maximum shock value. (3)

In the semiautobiographical work The One Woman: The Story of Modern Utopia, the ninth best-selling novel of 1903 (Best-Selling Books 1904, 151), Thomas Dixon Jr. highlighted the menace of crowding. Today better known for his novel The Clansman, a glorification of the Ku Klux Klan that inspired the D. W. Griffith film Birth of a Nation (1915), Dixon had pastored a New York church in the 1890s (Slide 2004, 123). In The One Woman, his hero, also a minister, informs parishioners that "[wi]thin a stone's throw of this church are districts in which ten men and women sleep in one room twelve foot square.... In two houses were found the other day one hundred and thirty-six children" (1903, 118). In reality, crammed conditions of this type were unusual even in the poorest of neighborhoods, but individualized stories that Riis, Dixon, and others related were not pure fantasy. Many people in poor neighborhoods did indeed experience intense crowding.

Although reformers before the turn of the twentieth century had condemned heavy urban congestion, they did not usually single out the lodger as such. Instead, the usual approach was to depict crowding as a generic problem of which the lodger was only a part. The all-purpose reform solution was to enact antilot crowding laws, so-called because they tried to maximize open spaces by requiring builders to leave a certain amount of open yard space as well as to limit building heights. Almost all of these measures applied only to new dwellings. An underlying strategy was to reduce population density by changing building design (Reynolds 1893, 48-61; Hunter 1901, 164-66; Abbott 1936, 59-61). One of Riis's priorities in How the Other Half Lives, for example, was to do away with the highly congested dumb-bell tenement, which often left little room on each lot for yard space or light ([1890] 1996, 236-45).

The enactment of the landmark New York State Tenement Act of 1901 represented the first major victory of the antilot crowding campaign. Writing in 1936 from the perspective of a recent wave of New Deal legislation, James Ford, a widely acknowledged authority on urban planning, dubbed it "the most significant regulatory act in America's history of housing" (1936, 205). The act's main framer and its most tireless advocate was Lawrence Veiller. From 1901 on, Veiller's reputation was secure as the leading housing reformer in the United States (Lubove 1961, 671-74). A deeply felt animus toward urban "congestion" drove him forward throughout his career. The consequences of such crowding, he warned, were especially serious because those at the center of it were "alien to our life in every way," including American cultural and political institutions (Veiller 1905, 50).

Veiller's New York law required a fixed square footage of open area on each new tenement lot and put a cap on building heights. Other provisions, although not aimed at limited density per se, such as mandated water closets on each floor, had that limitation as a side effect (Lubove 1962, 134-36). Using this law as a model, other cities such as Chicago, Louisville, Cincinnati, Boston, and Philadelphia soon established similar legislation (Fairbanks 2000, 30-31). The end result was a wave of urban laws restricting density by such methods as limiting construction of row houses, lodging houses, and triple deckers (Louisville 1909, 3; Andrachek 1979, 140-49, 165-71; Husock 1990, 53-56).

By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, fighting congestion became a priority of reformers and urban planners both in New York and in the nation as a whole. A defining moment came in 1907 when a group that included settlement house leaders Lillian D. Wald and Mary K. Simkovitch as well as Florence Kelley, the secretary of the National Consumers League, organized the Committee on Congestion in New York City. The secretary was experienced social worker Benjamin C. Marsh (Marsh 1953, 18-20). The committee gained immediate publicity by staging a photographic exhibit at the American Museum ol Natural History on urban crowding, a condition described by the New York Times as "New York's greatest...

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