Tenement houses first sprung up around the early 1800s in answer to New York's housing shortage. They were cheap to build, and landlords often maximized profits by packing as many people they can into one. Living conditions, however, was extremely poor. Charitable organizations, and the press cited the rampant overcrowding, poor sanitation, and the lack of fresh air, sunlight, and heat circulating through buildings. Fire safety was also a huge concern.
Even though a uniform building code was first adopted in 1867, which required a window in every sleeping room, as well as privies in every tenement, the laws were not fully enforced until 1901 when a new building code (the "Tenement House Act"), along with an enforcement agency behind it, went into effect. The new law virtually outlawed the construction of tenements by requiring all buildings -- both new and old -- to have interior flush toilets, a fire escape, and ventilation shafts for both air, and light. Forced to abide by the new laws, many landlords began adopting the "dumbbell" design type of tenement where there is a small narrow airshaft in the back of the building providing the legal window, air, and sunlight to all its residents.
In 1935, passage of the "Multiple dwelling act" not only improved fire safety, and ventilation in the building, but also required flush toilets in every apartment, not just a toilet per floor which was the case in many buildings. Buildings today are still classified according to whether or not it is an old law tenement (built before 1901), or new law (built after 1901), but regardless, they all must meet today's building codes.
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