Chapter 5.4: Apartment Houses: The Big Change



List of Tables, Maps, Illustrations, and Figures


1. Symbolism, Self and Urban Environment
    Residential Succession: How "Losers" Win
    Negro Pioneers and White Flight
    Relative Selectability among Minority Invaders
    Symbolic History and Self
    Symbolic History: Modern and Ancient Foundations

2. Self Selection and Urban Decay
    The Social Character of the Manor

3. Woodland to City Neighborhood: 300 Years of Change
    Indians, Geology and Transportation
    Protecting the Community: Covenant and Zoning
    Increasing Community Parameters

4. Invasion and Succession

    Irish and Italian Catholics
    Veterans: Undesirable Heroes
    Blacks and the Special Problems of Nonwhite Invaders
    Back to City Brownstones: A Confused Invasion
    The Invasion Mentality

5. Micrological Aspects of Urban Problems
    Involuntary Change: Aging and Death
    Attidues of Heirs
    Apartment Houses: The Big Change
    The Life of a Tenant and a Building
    Understanding Intricate Urban Problems

6. Stigma and Self-Image in the Inner City
    Achievement and Residentia Movement
    The Moral Careers of Inner-City Residents
    The Community Paradigm
    Implications and Applications


The construction of large apartment houses near the Lefferts Manor eliminated the flat, suburban landscape of Flatbush and symbolically polluted the elite residential community. Most of the buildings, erected in the 1920s, were intended to be luxury apartment houses. The objective advantages of the area insured that even high-density residential developments would initially be occupied by high status intruders. Over the next forty years, however, the social status of new and old tenants was to slowly decline.

Two major factors were instrumental in this process of decline. The first was aging. By the time the wealthiest tenants of the luxury apartments were passing away or retiring to their suburban estates, the Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens area was no longer the kind of neighborhood that "modern" rich people thought of as a "proper" setting for themselves. Therefore, they were replaced by more ordinary kinds of individuals and families. Also, as the years passed many of the upper-middle-class and middle-class tenants became part of the growing population of urban aged poor. These people, who once held well-paying and important positions in private and public affairs slipped into semi-poverty upon retirement. They also were more likely than the independently wealthy to be induced to remain in the area as it changed because of the vagaries of New York City rent laws which for a long time froze their rents at pre-1950 rates.

The second factor was the loss of the incentive for landlords to maintain luxury apartment buildings. At the same time the city was losing prospective tenants to the suburbs, wage increase demands of labor, soaring inflation and utility rates, and other more attractive investment opportunities made the old-fashioned landlord an endangered species. Increasingly, apartment houses were acquired by large anonymous rental management corporations. At the same time that costs were rising, government-imposed controls on rents limited the prices landlords could ask for their apartments. The scarcity of apartments after the Second World War, and the high incidence of rent "gouging" at the time led to public pressure for controls. The "emergency" controls were to last as long as the city-wide vacancy rate was low. Rapidly escalating construction costs, increased difficulty in obtaining loans for new construction, and the spiraling rate of apartment house abandonment insured that the vacancy rate would remain too low for the lifting of restrictions. There have been several revisions, and additions, to the original rent laws but none of them have decreased the unprofitability of maintaining older buildings.

In general, the rent laws, economic downturns and the demographic transition within the city have created a situation in which landlords cannot find it profitable to improve, or even maintain, their older properties. They find it advantageous on the other hand to create and maintain high apartment turnover rates because each turnover allows for a legal rent increase. It is obvious that, under these conditions, residential succession in older buildings would result in newcomers being of lower social standing than the older tenants -- Who else would pay more money for fewer services?

Although all the complexities of renting and building apartments in the city are beyond the scope of this volume, one other interesting factor in the social change of Brooklyn apartment houses must be noted.1 During the 1960s, with large numbers of landlords searching for better sources of income for their deteriorating units, the Department of Social Services began having difficulty finding dwelling places for its increasing client population of indigent nonwhite families. Abandonment, arson and demolition of units in low-income neighborhoods led the Department to look more and more into middle-class areas for vacancies. This was also the period of government attention and intervention in the racial segregation patterns in New York City. In order to overcome the reluctance of people to rent to welfare families, the Department offered to pay higher rents to landlords -- in many cases far above rent-controlled ceilings. Another inducement were "finders fees" for providing suitable apartments. Some landlords jumped at these opportunities and "Packed" their buildings with as many welfare families as they could.

The mere presence of a few welfare, usually nonwhite, families in a white, middle-class building was sufficient to raise rents in a round-about way. The invasion of poor residents caused many long-time tenants to move out, thus allowing the landlord to raise the rent for those apartments. In essence the Department of Social Services engaged in well-intentioned "block busting," which has since decreased. The elimination of inducements has to some degree moderated the panic flight of middleclass whites from some Brooklyn, high-density neighborhoods.

The unholy alliance between city departments, civil rights organizations and some landlords had other, less predictable effects on apartment buildings and neighborhoods. Not only did the alliance result in increased profits for landlords, they were also provided with relatively docile tenants who viewed their residences as "temporary" quarters. Welfare families are frequently relocated, and seldom stay in a community long enough to develop a sense of belonging. Also, the reactions of other residents to them further reduces their interest in becoming active members of the community. These problems are in addition to their socioeconomic and cultural disadvantages. Landlords, then, were able to take advantage of these tenants to an even greater degree than they had of older tenants. Poor tenants, unaware of their rights and lacking incentive to fight for them, were treated to increasingly deteriorated facilities and decreasing services.

It was not until the mid-1960s that problems in the financing and operations of multiple dwellings led to the steadily more rapid influx of non-elite, and then poor, tenants into apartments near the Lefferts Manor. It is easy to imagine the hostility, and conflicts that ensued between older and newer tenants, and the growing fears of Manorites, some of whom lived only across the street from declining buildings. Manor residents always had regarded tenants as intruders in the neighborhood, even when the tenants were of relatively high social standing. When the buildings began losing their upper-class residents, the social and psychological distances between Manorites and their unwanted neighbors increased proportional to the newcomers' lower-class status. The conflict and competition between tenants and homeowners is "natural" in that each group sees their interests as being in opposition to the other.

Most Manorites believe that apartment houses and tenants are "problems" per se. Their solution is to get rid of "them." Tenants often complain of the proprietary attitudes of Manor residents toward public streets and sidewalks. Manorites who live across from apartment buildings are even more likely than others not to recognize tenants as legitimate members of their community. Propinquity, in this case, does not lead to the extension of the social boundaries of community, but rather to their contraction. In the urban environment, the physical proximity of people to one another does not insure that they will share other things in common. What is necessary for the growth and maintenance of a neighborhood community is the sharing by people of a more comprehensive set of values and norms -- things that do not ordinarily arise from the mere co-presence of neighbors.

Today, with the racial differences between Manorites and tenants disappearing, homeowners still for the most part refuse to participate with "them" in block association activities and other actions within the wider community. Most Manorites will not contribute their time, money, expertise or influence to help solve the problems of tenants, even though in many cases the solution of these problems would be beneficial to the Lefferts manor. We might say that the attitude of Manorites is "irrational." Regardless of an objective appraisal of the situation, Manor residents feel that they have little in common with renters.

<< To Ch. 5.3 | To Ch. 5.5 >>

Notes to Chapter 5.4

1. For intensive treatments of housing and landlords see: Sternlieb (1966), Back (1962) and Burchell and Sternlieb (1973).

<< To Ch. 5.3 | To Ch. 5.5 >>