130 Years of Reforming Essential Worker Housing




130 Years of Reforming Essential Worker Housing

Jacob Riis
Social Documentary Photographer

Published in 1890, Jacob Riis’s book, “How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York”, shocked the conscience of his readers with factual descriptions of slum conditions in New York City. Riis describes the system of tenement housing that had failed, as he claims, because of greed and neglect from wealthier people. He claims a correlation between the high crime rate, drunkenness, and reckless behavior of the poor to their lack of a proper home. Chapter by chapter, he uses his words and photographs to expose the conditions inhabited by the poor in a manner that “spoke directly to people’s hearts”. The book created a bond between Riis and Theodore Roosevelt, working together to abolish police lodging houses, as well as the reenactment of the Civil Service Law, the Tenement House Commission, among other laws that increased the amount of factory inspectors, making the eight-hour and prevailing rate of wages law effective, regulation of the working hours of women and children, as well as multiple other labor reforms. In addition, two major studies of tenements were completed in the 1890s, and in 1901 city officials passed the Tenement House Law, which effectively outlawed the construction of new tenements on 25-foot lots and mandated improved sanitary conditions, fire escapes and access to light. Under the new law–which in contrast to past legislation would actually be enforced–pre-existing tenement structures were updated, and more than 200,000 new apartments were built over the next 15 years, supervised by city authorities. Cities have worked to improve the housing conditions of their essential workers ever since.

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