Not Your Father’s Renter Thanksgiving

I’m a second-generation American. My parents both came here from immigrant families that probably would have been denied entry if not for the fact that they arrived here around 1908. I come from a long line of renters (and a couple of very colorful characters who resided for a time at Sing-Sing and some other places for trying to make a living in some non-traditional ways). Renting was, in most respects, the norm in those days, and the vast majority of immigrant families either lived with relatives that had previously entered the country and found housing, or rented tenement flats or small, what were called front rooms.

Over the years I heard a lot of stories about where my relatives lived and even visited some locales, although most of the buildings are long gone, now occupied by much higher density uses like office and apartment buildings, and in one instance a giant hospital complex. Like most in my generation, as baby boomers we are really the first to live in conventional single-family, owner-occupied homes on a mass scale. Part of what makes this interesting to me as a demographer is the fact that the immigrant creed was to try to find success in some way, and get “out.” To say that someone got out and succeeded was actually a commentary on the idea of leaving the sometimes crowded and squalid living conditions in tenements and very dense apartment houses and move to what was considered a higher quality of life area. Oddly enough, it didn’t come to mean buying a home of your own until much later, perhaps in the 1940s and 1950s, the advent of the often called “new American family.”

Fast forward to 2009, about 100 years past when my intrepid family first discovered the hot dogs and corned beef in the delis of the lower east side of Manhattan, along with the character of their neighborhood shtetl. (Shtetl is a Yiddish word that doesn’t really translate directly in English, but it means a sense of being a part of a Jewish town or village, formerly found in Eastern Europe, which is where my family originated). I had occasion to spend what turned out to be my last Thanksgiving in a retirement center with my mom and about 300 mostly elderly senior citizen warriors. You might find that term funny, but if you could have seen how these people dispensed with their canes and walkers and voraciously threw themselves into the holiday meal, you’d know the term was a fit. And after a couple of turns through the line and the pies were all gone, the stories would start and I then learned from some of the residents that in their earlier years they had been immigrants, some had bought land and built what are now some landmark properties, and with little fanfare they recounted what had been the culture of renting, of families staying together in a building for over 25 years in some instances, when rents were both a matter of pride and a badge of honor. Rent increases, while not unheard of, were vastly slower in those days, born out of the necessity of the re-industrialization of this country and the fantastic increase in productivity that generally kept prices stable. Salary increases, when a family was making $25 a week were just enough to put food on the table and keep the landlord happy.

Now, as I look to this year’s Thanksgiving gathering of about 25 people in the same room in a house in the suburbs, I find myself thinking about my ancestors and relatives who celebrated holidays the same way, in their rented flat, with most of them still actually living in the three-room apartment. It gives pause in thinking about the dynamics of our industry, to push rents and build new buildings and try to deliver lifestyle along with shtetl, in places that are becoming the new urban enclaves. In some ways, I think my great grandfather, who I was named for, would have been amused by all of it. He never had much use for owning a house, “Something to break, something to fix, and who wants to buy a used house?” he would always say. As a house painter, he saw the world through a rainbow of colors he applied to other people’s homes. For him, an apartment was a home.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family, and may you honor the memory of our renter nation past by thinking about them, even for a few minutes. I think they would have liked that.

Jack Kern is our Accidental Economist and the research editor of Commercial Property Executive and Multi-Housing News. Usually he writes pretty informative and funny stuff. We’re going to have a talk with him about this one. In the meantime, please feel free to read this column to your family and friends. We think renters are pretty special too!