Visitors to the Tenement Museum often ask about rent. How much did the Moores pay in 1869? How about the Levines in 1897 or the Baldizzis in 1935? Rent is something many of us can identify with, so knowing a family’s rent can bring their story to life for our visitors.
Alas, it’s far easier to ask than answer this question. As Jared Day notes in Urban Castles (1999), his history of tenement landlords in New York City, written leases did not become standard until the 1920s, so we have few written records for what any tenement residents paid in rent before that decade. What’s more, records from the 1920s are hard to come by, and we don’t have them for the later tenants of 97, such as the Baldizzis.
Although we don’t have leases, we do have Lawrence Veiller, a 19th century housing reformer. For his groundbreaking exhibit about tenement housing, he recorded the rent paid by every family living on the block bounded by Canal, Bayard, Chrystie, and Forsyth Streets in 1900. According to his records, a three-room apartment on the first floor of a tenement rented for $12-$13/month (about $4/room), while the same apartment on the 4th floor rented for $9.50-$10/month (about $3/room). As you can see the closer to street level, the higher the rent tended to be. Because 97 Orchard is so similar to the tenements in Veiller’s study area, we assume that our building’s tenants paid similar rents. If the Rogarshevskys lived in a three-room apartment on the third floor, as resident Josephine Baldizzi later remembered, they likely paid about $11/month when they moved into 97 Orchard in 1901 – though rent likely spiked after the landlords spent $8,000 to comply with the 1901 Tenement House Act. According to a later study, families in pre-Old Law tenements like 97 Orchard were paying $10-$15/month in 1907 – about a dollar more than before the 1901 Tenement House Act.
Can we infer earlier rents from these numbers? Not so easily. The U.S. Government did not adopt the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which economists use to calculate inflation, until 1919 (retroactive to 1913), so we have no easy way to chart inflation and deflation before World War I. However, because of the boom-and-bust economic cycles that defined the U.S. economy before WWI, it makes sense that the Moores and the Gumpertzs also paid roughly $10/month on their apartments in 1870. It’s only been since World War II that repeated inflation with no deflation has led to a decades-long increase in the CPI (including rents).
Do we have any similar data about the Baldizzis’ rent? Indeed we do. According to James Ford’s Slums and Housing (1936), tenement households paid on average about $6.60 per room per month in 1928 and again in 1932, so the Baldizzis might have paid around $20/month on rent during their stay at 97 Orchard. (Note that rent did not drop much during the early years of the Great Depression, even though household income fell considerably. As a result, rent as a proportion of family income actually rose from 20% to 30% between 1928 and 1932.) But it’s more likely that the Baldizzis paid a good deal less than $20/month: By 1935, 97 Orchard represented the cheapest and lowest-quality tenement housing on the market.
In short, we can never know for certain what anybody paid for rent in 97 Orchard, for the following reasons:
- There were no written leases before the 1920s, and few written leases survive from the 1920 and 1930s.
- Rents varied by floor, and we don’t know which apartments most tenants lived in.
- Rents likely fluctuated for all sorts of reasons, including:
- Landlords sometimes cut rents during economic depressions, recognizing that no one could pay their old rents when jobs were scarce;
- Landlords sometimes cut rents for struggling families, either out of sympathy for their travails or under pressure from a local church or synagogue;
- Landlords sometimes increased rent on certain families, for example, adding 50 cents a month to rent for each child born to a tenant family.
That said, there are a few things we do know about immigrant families paying rent on the LES:
- They typically took in boarders and put children to work to cover household expenses, including rent. (According to a 1908 study, 1 in 4 immigrant families had at least one boarder living with them.)
- Many of them became homeless during economic depressions because they could no longer pay rent.
So when a visitor asks me about rent, I say, “Rent was typically a third of the family’s total wages, but the ‘family’ in ‘total family wages’ included children and boarders. With no job security and no written leases, these families often lived in constant fear of homelessness, and they would sacrifice almost anything they had, including their privacy and their children’s education, to pay the rent.” This might not be as simple an answer as “Ten dollars a month,” but it does a better job of bringing these families’ stories to life, which is what our visitors are looking for when they ask about rent.
– Post by Adam Steinberg, Senior Education Associate, at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum
 De Forest, R. & Veiller, L., eds. (1970). The Tenement House Problem, Volumes 1 & 2. (Arno Press: New York).
 Dolkart, A. (2012). Biography of a Tenement House in New York City, 2nd edition (pp. 44-45). (Center for American Places at Columbia College: Chicago).
 Hopkinson, D. (2003). Shutting Out the Sky: Life in the Tenements of New York, 1880-1924 (p. 29). (Orchard Books: New York).
 Naison, M. (1986). “From eviction resistance to rent control” (pp. 94-133). In R. Lawson, ed., The Tenant Movement in New York City, 1904-1984 (Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick, NJ).
 Joselit, J. (1986). “The landlord as czar; Pre-World War I tenant activity” (pp. 39-50). In R. Lawson, ed., The Tenant Movement in New York City, 1904-1984 (Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick, NJ).
 Hopkinson, D. (2003). Shutting Out the Sky: Life in the Tenements of New York, 1880-1924 (p. 38). Orchard Books: New York.