What Is a Tenement?

A tenement can refer to any sort of multi-occupancy residential rental building. However, in the U.S. it is typically associated with low-income communities and crowded, run-down, or low-quality living conditions. Tenement buildings date back to the growth of the industrial revolution and the sudden influx of people moving to cities, but today may be associated with slums, inner-city housing, or low-income housing projects.

Key Takeaways

  • A tenement typically refers to low-income housing units that are characterized by high-occupancy and below-average conditions.
  • Tenements first arose during the industrial revolution in the U.S. and Europe as poorer people from the country flowed into cities in search of factory work and needed some place to live.
  • Tenements have been characterized as having many people living under the same roof in squalid conditions.

Understanding Tenements

The word "tenement" historically meant any type of permanent residential property used for rental purposes. It could refer to houses, land and other buildings, as well as the rights attached to this property. In Scotland, the word is still used mainly in this way, especially when referring to a multi-occupancy building. The word is also used in this way for some legal purposes. For example, a "dominant tenement" is an estate with the benefit of an easement, while a "servient tenement" is an estate that is subject to the burden of an easement.

In the U.S., however, the word has come to predominantly mean a crowded, dilapidated apartment building for low-income tenants. This type of building typically has many units under one roof, divided by walls to give each family privacy. The rental agreement usually involves a contract that specifies the period the apartment will be leased out to the tenant and the cost of renting the property.

The Evolution of Tenements

During the Industrial Revolution, many tenements were built to house working-class families, many of whom were moving to cities to work manufacturing jobs. Other buildings, such as middle-class houses or warehouses, were repurposed as tenements. These repurposed buildings were known as "rookeries," after the term for a collection of nests. In 1867 the New York State Legislature passed the Tenement House Act, which defined a tenement as any building rented out to at least three families, each of which lives independently but shares halls, stairways and yards. In the late-nineteenth century, tenements came to be contrasted with middle-class apartment buildings.

Some of the most well-known tenements existed on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the nineteenth century. Many of these were three- and four-story buildings converted into so-called "railroad flats," many of whose rooms lacked windows. These buildings were poorly regulated and were under constant threat of collapse or fire. Communal water taps and water closets could often be found in the narrow spaces between tenements. An 1865 report asserted that 500,000 people lived in tenements. Many of these residents were immigrant families.

The Tenement Act of 1901 improved tenement conditions dramatically, mandating better lighting and fireproofing, as well as requiring privies to be replaced with indoor toilet facilities connected to the city sewers. At this time the Lower East Side was one of the most densely populated places on earth.

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  1. Encyclopedia. "Tenements." Accessed Jan. 19, 2021.

  2. John F. Bauman, Roger Biles, and Kristin M. Szylvian. "From Tenements to the Taylor Homes," Page 6. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010.

  3. Smithsonian American Art Museum. "Tenement House Act of 1901." Accessed Jan. 19, 2021.