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Apartment Buildings

A red brick apartment block in Limehouse, East London, England, on the north bank of the Thames.

An apartment building, block of flats or tenement is a multi-unit dwelling made up of several (generally four or more) apartments (US) or flats (UK). Where the building is a high-rise construction, it is termed a tower block in the UK and elsewhere. The term apartment building is used regardless of height in the US.

A two-unit dwelling is known as a duplex (US) or maisonette (UK); a three-unit dwelling is known as a triplex or in Boston as a three-decker or a triple-decker.

Tenement law refers to the feudal basis of permanent property such as land or rents. May be found combined as in "Messuage or Tenement" to encompass all the land, buildings and other assets of a property.

United States and Canada

Tenement building in Manhattan's Lower East Side

Apartment buildings are multi-story buildings where three or more residences are contained within one structure. In more urban areas, apartments close to the downtown area have the benefits of proximity to jobs and/or public transportation. However, prices per square foot are often much higher than in suburban areas.

The distinction between rental apartments and condominiums is that while rental buildings are owned by a single entity and rented out to many, condominiums are owned individually, while their owners still pay a monthly or yearly fee for building upkeep. Condominiums are often leased by their owner as rental apartments. A third alternative, the cooperative apartment building (or "co-op"), acts as a corporation with all of the tenants as shareholders of the building. Tenants in cooperative buildings do not own their apartment, but instead own a proportional number of shares of the entire cooperative. As in condominiums, cooperators pay a monthly fee for building upkeep. Co-ops are common in cities such as New York, and have gained some popularity in other larger urban areas in the U.S.

In the United States, tenement is a label usually applied to the less expensive, more basic rental apartment buildings in older sections of large cities. Many of these apartment buildings are "walk-ups" without an elevator, and some have shared bathing facilities, though this is becoming less common.

Apartments were popular in Canada, particularly in urban centres like Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal in the 1950s to 1970s. By the 1980s, many multi-unit buildings were being constructed as condominiums instead of apartments, and both are now very common. Specifically in Toronto, high-rise apartments and condominiums have been spread around the city, giving almost every major suburb a skyline.

History of US tenements

An apartment complex under development in Corvallis, Oregon (clad with vinyl siding, typical of such buildings in the US).

Apartment building in Gurgaon, India.

In the 1840s when heavy flows of immigrants arrived into the country, mostly German and Irish immigrants, the city of New York devised strategies on how to house the heavy flow of immigrants arriving nearly 2,100 a day.[citation needed] In 1839, the first tenement was built housing thousands of poor immigrants. More tenements followed suit after this. Near the 1860s, tenement squares were popping up quite frequently.

Most of the immigrants despised their squalid rooms. One Irish immigrant[citation needed] remembers his experience living in a tenement in the early 1840s:

Nights and Days, we'd sit there sweating through our clothes and listening to the sounds of feet in the hallways, babies crying frantically and the roar of machinery in the area. In the winter times we froze to death. Five of us huddled in a bed to keep warm. We had no water. We constantly had to draw dirty water from the sewer and clean ourselves with it. We had no other alternative.

The tenements were breeding grounds for outlaws, juvenile delinquents, and organized crime. Muckraker journalist Jacob Riis writes in How the Other Half Lives:

The New York tough may be ready to kill where his London brother would do little more than scowl; yet, as a general thing he is less repulsively brutal in looks. Here again the reason may be the same: the breed is not so old. A few generations more in the slums, and all that will be changed.

Tenements were also known for their price gouging rent. How the Other Half Lives notes one tenement district:

Blind Man's Alley bears its name for a reason. Until little more than a year ago its dark burrows harbored a colony of blind beggars, tenants of a blind landlord, old Daniel Murphy, whom every child in the ward knows, if he never heard of the President of the United States. "Old Dan" made a big fortune--he told me once four hundred thousand dollars-- out of his alley and the surrounding tenements, only to grow blind himself in extreme old age, sharing in the end the chief hardship of the wretched beings whose lot he had stubbornly refused to better that he might increase his wealth. Even when the Board of Health at last compelled him to repair and clean up the worst of the old buildings, under threat of driving out the tenants and locking the doors behind them, the work was accomplished against the old man's angry protests. He appeared in person before the Board to argue his case, and his argument was characteristic. "I have made my will," he said. "My monument stands waiting for me in Calvary. I stand on the very brink of the grave, blind and helpless, and now (here the pathos of the appeal was swept under in a burst of angry indignation) do you want me to build and get skinned, skinned? These people are not fit to live in a nice house. Let them go where they can, and let my house stand." In spite of the genuine anguish of the appeal, it was downright amusing to find that his anger was provoked less by the anticipated waste of luxury on his tenants than by distrust of his own kind, the builder. He knew intuitively what to expect. The result showed that Mr. Murphy had gauged his tenants correctly.

Many reformers, such as Upton Sinclair and Jacob Riis, pushed for reforms in tenement dwellings. As a result in 1901, New York state passed a law called the New York State Tenement House Act to improve the conditions in tenements.

More improvements followed. In 1949, President Harry S. Truman signed the Housing Act of 1949 to clean slums and reconstruct housing units for the poor.


Tenement in Edinburgh, Scotland, built in 1882

During the 19th century tenements became the predominant type of new housing in Scotland's industrial cities, although they were very common in the Old Town in Edinburgh from the 15th century where they reached ten or eleven storeys high and in one case fourteen storeys . Built of sandstone or granite, Scottish tenements are usually three to five storeys in height, with two to four flats on each floor. (In contrast, industrial cities in England tended to favour "back-to-back" terraces of brick.) Scottish tenements are constructed in terraces of tenements, and each entrance within a block is referred to as a close or stair — both referring to the shared passageway to the individual flats. Flights of stairs and landings are generally designated common areas, and residents traditionally took turns to sweep clean the floors, and in Aberdeen in particular, took turns to make use of shared laundry facilities in the "back green" (garden or yard). It is now more common for cleaning of the common ways to be contracted out through a managing agent or "factor"..

Some tenements in Glasgow were originally built with public houses on the ground floor; there would be one for every 200 people. Many of these pubs have since been converted into housing.

Many multi-storey tower blocks were built in the UK after the Second World War. These are gradually being demolished and replaced with low-rise buildings or housing estates known in Scotland as housing schemes, often modern interpretations of the tenement. In Scotland those that remain are generally now known as 'flats' rather than tenements, except by the older generations.

In Glasgow, where Scotland's highest concentration of tenement dwellings can be found, the urban renewal projects of the 1950s, 60s and 70s brought an end to the city's slums, which had primarily consisted of older tenements built in the early 19th century in which large extended families would live together in relatively cramped conditions. They were replaced by high-rise blocks that, within a couple of decades, were notorious for crime and poverty; they were too extensive to enjoy the community feel of the tenements. Tenements today are commonly bought by a wide range of social types, including young professionals, older retiring people, and by absentee landlords, often for rental to students after they leave halls of residence managed by their institution. The Hyndland area of Glasgow is the only tenement conservation area in the UK, and includes some tenement houses with as many as six bedrooms, and are often valued at over £500,000.

The National Trust for Scotland Tenement House museum in Glasgow offers an excellent insight into the lifestyle of tenement dwellers.

Other countries

A middle class residential apartment complex in Mumbai, India

A microraion of typical Soviet apartment buildings

A 48-story block of the Scarlet Sails apartment complex in Moscow.

High-quality apartment complex in Western Hanoi, Vietnam.