Meet Luke Kelly-Clyne, 12, a member of the new generation of housing inspectors. With a bright yellow “Tenement House Department” badge hanging from his neck, Luke holds a clipboard as he tours a five-story building whose dim corridors, ill-kept hallway toilets and pervasive scent of coal would repel anyone. He steps into a bright apartment where bialys, bagels, eggs and fruit await those mourning a resident who died of tuberculosis. Peering around the room, Luke finds no obvious problems. “There’s no fecal matter, or I hope there isn’t, he says, scanning the list of possible violations on his clipboard. And I don’t see any goats here.”
After two years of research and planning, the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development has teamed up with the Lower East Side Tenement Museum to give New Yorkers the know-how to tackle household problems like rats and radiators gone ice cold in the dead of winter. In a series of tours called “Inspect This! A Century of Tenants Rights’ and Tenement Buildings,” museum educators and HPD staff walk visitors through the living conditions of 19th and early 20th century residents of 90 Orchard Street, an old tenement building restored by the museum. Armed with official housing inspector checklists dating from the 1860s to today, the guests search out code violations and learn how to deal with lead paint or heat and hot water.
Launched on April 12, the 100th anniversary of the Tenement House Act, this exhibit was made in the spirit of the reformers of the early 20th century who trudged from tenement to tenement to check for housing code violations. “Helping kids understand how to be safe at home, how to identify housing maintenance code violations or deal with problems like rodents, lead paint or lack of heat and hot water is an important way of helping families be involved in maintaining and protecting the housing stock and improving their own living conditions,” says HPD spokeswoman Carol Abrams.
While no one will dispute that housing conditions have improved dramatically since the Tenement House Act mandated better lighting, ventilation and indoor toilets in the city’s older apartment buildings, the city could certainly use the help from the junior inspectors the museum hopes to crank out. HPD currently staffs 300 inspectors, down from 800 in the 1970s, to respond to some 400,000 complaints a year.
But residents of the city’s old ill-tended tenements might want to continue pushing for more funding for trained inspectors, rather than rely on Luke. As the bright seventh-grader visiting the city from Fairfield, Connecticut, said of tenements like that on Orchard Street, “There’s probably a lot in places like Harlem, but I really haven’t been to any of them.”