The typical Lower East Side tenement of the 1930s was a firetrap, with broken fire escapes, cockroach and vermin infestation, overcrowded apartments and trash-strewn hallways. The city’s Tenement House Department had only 224 inspectors to deal with 105,000 tenement buildings, inspection requests were backed up for three years, and the courts often let landlords off the hook.
Many things have changed in 70 years. For one thing, the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development has increased the number of inspectors from a record low of 200 in 1995 to 300 today. But as budgets tighten, housing organizers at the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD) are finding inspiration in the 1939 classic film One Third of a Nation.
The film tells the story of Mary Rogers, whose Lower East Side apartment building catches fire after a neighbor flicks his cigarette into a pile of garbage under the front stoop. With a dilapidated fire escape as the only way out, some parents resort to throwing their young children out of apartment windows to their deaths, while other residents–including Mary’s brother–suffer serious injury from climbing down the shoddy escape.
Because there are no violations on record for the building, the city clears the landlord of any responsibility for the fire or for the tenants’ injuries. In a tirade worthy of an Oscar, Mary insists that any landlord should be “locked up for life” for letting people live in such a slum.
The film has real appeal for modern day housing advocates, says Adrian Di Lollo of ANHD, because it depicts a “disconnect between tenants and housing authorities.” To deal with today’s disconnects, his group is promoting a series of bills meant to improve building code enforcement. The first would require inspectors from HPD to report all hazardous building conditions to the appropriate agency, whether or not they fall under HPD’s jurisdiction, a policy HPD says it already follows.
The second would force the city to comply with any tenant association’s request for a “roof-to-cellar” inspection, rather than continue to inspect buildings piecemeal as individual complaints are made. HPD says it does on occasion use these tenant petitions, to strengthen its case against properties in litigation.
These proposals, says Di Lollo, would “not only lead to a more effective use of scarce resources, but would carve out an important role for tenants and tenant associations.”
Whether ANHD’s campaign will have a Hollywood ending remains to be seen. During Mary Roger’s fight for urban renewal, she discovers her landlord to be kind-hearted. He cuts a deal with the city and razes Mary’s block to build New York’s first public housing development, complete with parks, trees and playgrounds. And he falls in love with Mary.
All that is not enough to win her heart, though: In the end, she runs off with her Communist boyfriend.