I moved to the Lower East Side in the Spring of 1961 and was immediately struck by the housing conditions. Most of the blocks are covered by narrow five-story tenements, each housing from ten to twenty families. The buildings are smack up against one another and flush to the sidewalk. They are called "old-law tenements" because they were built during the last century before a new housing law laid down specifications regarding air space, ventilation, and plumbing. They are called "walk-ups" because they have no elevators. They were built for inexpensive, crowded living and have served as the starting point for just about very wave of immigrants that hit our Eastern shore. That is the reason the Lower East Side is so cosmopolitan. These immigrant groups huddled in ghettos and went through all the familiar pains of being the outcasts of the land before they made their way successfully into the mainstream of American life. But they always left their traces behind, and the Lower East Side retains a sprinkling of various ethnic groups—Italians, Irish, Jews, Poles, Ukrainians, Germans, Chinese, Negroes, and the most recent arrivals, Puerto Ricans, our largest single group, who constitute more than one third of the population of Precinct Nine, where I live. This precinct is smaller than one square mile but claims more than a hundred thousand residents.
The streets are busy streets, alive with people when the weather is warm. The streets are also dirty. They always bear the traces of garbage that never quite made it from the battered cans to the sanitation trucks. Sometimes it seems that both the people and the debris on the streets have oozed out of the tenements, and in a sense that is so.
Most of the tenements have not been maintained properly, though their internal condition varies considerably. Two buildings side by side may look almost identical from the street. Inside, one is relatively well kept, while the one next to it attacks you with the smell of urine and other odors. The plaster may be cracked, the stairs unsteady, and obscene words scratched and scrawled on the walls. The apartments, too, can be attractive and livable or depressing depending on the intention of the landlord and the resources of the tenants.
Low-income public-housing projects accommodate about 15,000 people on the eastern side of the precinct along the East River. North of the precinct is a giant middle-income housing development owned and operated by Metropolitan Life Insurance Company but it is separated from the precinct both by its affluence and by Fourteenth Street, a wide and heavily traveled boulevard.
Most of the buildings in the tenement area are structurally solid, but violations of the building code are common—defective plumbing, no heat, rats, and the like. These violations go unchecked because slum real estate has become a profitable business. For a variety of reasons the way to make money on these buildings is to have many apartments, invest as little cash in them as possible for maintenance, and let the rents go as high as New York's rent control will allow. Since landlords are permitted an automatic 15 percent increase every time there is a change of tenants in an apartment, it can be lucrative to encourage a rapid turnover of tenants, and unscrupulous landlords have ways of arranging that, sometimes by direct harassment.
Of course there are laws that require landlords to meet minimum standards in maintaining a building, but these laws are seldom enforced. First of all, a tenant must file an official complaint with the city, and many do not know how to file or are afraid of reprisal from the landlord. Second, if a complaint is filed, let us say with the Department of Buildings, it may be one or two years before an inspector comes out to check the alleged violation, since the staff is always inadequate and there is always a tremendous backlog of complaints.
If a landlord is charged by the city with a violation, he must be found before a summons can be issued. Most of the landlords are absentee landlords and some of them are experts at evading the court. One newspaper item, dated August, 1962, tells of a landlord from Long Beach, Long Island, who was chased by the city for three years. He was finally handed a summons in the lavatory of his office building by process servers who hid there and waited sixty hours for him.
Even if the landlord is summoned to court, there is usually not much to worry about because the penalty is mild—something like a license to violate the law. A landlord who is fined $85 for a building with 100 violations may justifiably consider himself rewarded by such an arrangement. And if he is compelled to spend money clearing up violations, he usually has dozens or hundreds of other buildings to make up for such losses many times over.
It would be a mistake, however, to single out the landlord and lay all the blame on his doorstep while ignoring the banks who support him, the political establishment, which is much more responsible to his real estate interests than to human suffering, and our own apathy, which permits all this to happen. A reporter once told me: "Landlords ought to be given medals. They are the heroes in this housing mess. They are the heroes because they offer themselves as society's scapegoat. We blame them for everything and get rid of our own guilt in allowing this kind of situation to exist."