Academic journal article Independent Review

The "Lodger Evil" and the Transformation of Progressive Housing Reform, 1890-1930

Academic journal article Independent Review

The "Lodger Evil" and the Transformation of Progressive Housing Reform, 1890-1930

Article excerpt

Few crusades more completely stirred the passions of progressives than tenement reform. The movement achieved its first great success in New York City after the publication of Jacob Riis's book How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York in 1890. By the first decade of the twentieth century, it had taken root in Chicago, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and other large cities in the Northeast and Midwest. Tenement reformers launched an all-out attack on an array of real and perceived housing ills. They called for cities and states to enact tougher building codes and establish new parks and recreation facilities in poor neighborhoods (Lubove 1962, 62-76, 107-81; Andracheck 1979, 139; Fairbanks 2000, 26-31). But tenement reform also had unintended consequences. Although the restrictions it imposed may have increased the quality of housing, the side effects were to reduce affordability and availability. The story of the progressive campaign to stamp out the "lodger evil" provides a clear illustration of these unintended consequences. (1)

The term lodger evil referred to the practice of many urban families, especially in the Northeast and Midwest, to double up through subletting. Their chief motivations were to save on rent and earn extra income. Most lodgers were unmarried males and came from the same ethnic group as the subletters. Many were relatives who planned only temporary sojourns in the United States, whereas others represented the advance guard of later immigrant families (Veiller 1911, 6-9; Abbott 1936, 341-48). To some extent, the spread of lodging in private homes and apartments replaced the more formalized reliance on boardinghouses during the nineteenth century (Peel 1986, 814-15; Gamer 2007, 169-70).

Viewed from the immigrant's perspective, this reliance on lodgers was not so much an "evil" as a strategy for coping with the challenges of American life and a means of upward mobility. Few arrangements better revealed the advantages of a relatively open and unregulated housing market for poor urban dwellers. Because building codes and other restrictions were often minimal or poorly enforced, people of modest means had considerably greater opportunities than those of later generations to improve their lot. The lodger evil was very much the trial-and-error creation of ordinary people and clashed head-on with the top-down approach of Progressive Era political elites.

Reliance on lodgers was not a new phenomenon at the time, of course. Long before the turn of the twentieth century, urban dwellers had leaned on this source for extra income (Peel 1986, 815-18). In 1850, according to census rolls, a lodger or roomer or boarder was present in 35 percent of the households in the central cities of metropolitan areas with fifty thousand or more people (see figure 1). This percentage fell consistently after that. By 1900, it was down to 21 percent, ebbing slightly to 20.6 percent ten years later (Ruggles et al. 2010). Despite this decrease and the historical existence oflodgers, in the first two decades of the twentieth century major commentary on this trend began to appear. The most obvious dividing point came in 1903, when the term lodger evil first began to gain wide currency among reformers. (2)

Much of this enhanced anxiety was a response to the "new immigration." More than 18 million immigrants entered U.S. ports between 1880 and 1920. Most were from eastern and southern Europe and were Catholic, Jewish, or Eastern Orthodox. They differed greatly from their predecessors, the mostly Protestant "old immigrants" from western and northern Europe. Never before had the United States experienced such a rapid infusion of ethnic and cultural diversity. By 1900, more than three out of ten people in New York City, Chicago, Cleveland, and Boston were foreign born (Gibson 2010).

Immigration and Urban Crowding

The surging immigrant population led to an intensity of crowding that was unprecedented in U. …

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