This winter day was “Rent Day” in old New York

If you were a typical New Yorker in the 19th century who didn’t own your own home (as most residents didn’t, same as it is now), February was the month you might be forced to start the torturous hunt for a new place to live.

Why’s that? Because February 1 was unofficially known as “Rent Day.”

That’s when New York landlords were required to tell their tenants how much their rent would increase starting on May 1, which marked the beginning of the new lease year in the city real estate market.

With no rent control laws or any legal limit on what a landlord could charge, many New Yorkers found themselves priced out of their current digs (or shop or office).

That meant spending the next three months searching, bargaining, signing a lease, and then actually moving (at left, in the 1930s)…only to possibly start the same process all over again next February.

“The first of February is notice-day between landlord and tenant…the house, or shop, or office not secured at this time, passes into new hands at the close of the quarter,” wrote the New York Times on February 13, 1854.

“When rents are going up, the poor tenant shakes in his shoes—or boots, if rent-day has left him the luxury—at the prospect. When they are going down, the gouty landlord shakes in his purse. The good day has not come for the former, this year,” continued the Times.  (Below, an East Side eviction, 1913)

In February 1869, the Times noted Rent Day again. “From now until the first of May those who contemplate a change will be anxiously on the lookout for new places of abode. With these, as with those who propose to remain where they are, the first inquiry of importance is as to the probability of a further rise in rents.”

So how did February 1 become rent day—thus making May 1 the city’s hectic, overwhelming Moving Day? (At left in the 1850s; above right in 1935)

The origins are unclear. It’s been attributed to an old Dutch tradition from the 17th century; The Encyclopedia of New York City (via Wikipedia) ties it to a May Day-related custom in England.

Rent Day became less of an event as the 19th century wound down. A rash of new housing—primarily tenements—gave renters more options, and railroads made it easier for people to live outside of the city in cheaper locales and commute every day.

“The inducements to live in the towns and villages in the vicinity of this City grow year by year greater,” the 1869 Times article stated wistfully.

[Top image: Moving Day in Little Old New York, 1827; second image: moving in the 1936 illustration by Don Freeman via MCNY 2013.13.12; third image: an eviction in 1935 via MCNY; fourth image: Bain Collection/LOC 1913; fifth image: Wikipedia; sixth image: Digital Culture of Metropolitan New York, 1915]

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10 Responses to “This winter day was “Rent Day” in old New York”

  1. Penelope Bianchi Says:

    How sad is this? Man’s inhumanity to man. Continues to this day.

  2. MizScarlettNY Says:

    May 1st is called “Moving Day” in 19th century NYC Directories.

  3. This winter day was “Rent Day” in old New York | Real Estate Marketplace Says:

    […] Source: FS – NYC Real Estate This winter day was “Rent Day” in old New York […]

  4. Ann Haddad Says:

    Didn’t know this! Thanks, Esther!

  5. Spence Says:

    Thank-you. The first I am hearing about this! Years ago, some elderly neighbors told me that filling new buildings (in the 1920s or 30s, I believe) on the UWS was a struggle and landlords would often offer a free month’s rent, or more, for new tenants. So, they would simply move across the street when they were due for an increase.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I love that, and I think the same thing happened at various points over the years when developers built speculative buildings and then a recession would hit. I’ve also come across many stories of tenement dwellers who couldn’t pay the rent moving out in the middle of the night to escape detection…just as people still do in NYC today.

  6. Ty Says:

    For what it’s worth I just got notice for my Washington Heights apartment. Filled with alternate facts hoping you don’t understand the rent laws.

  7. ezrabeymanrealestate Says:

    I was unaware of this little nugget of New York City real estate history. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Ty Says:

    My grandparents kept this practice in the Bronx until the 1930s. They moved every couple of years always May 1. I think it was to take advantage of the free month rent incentives because it was overbuilt for a time.

    They moved up there when the Jerome Avenue elevated was opened. My father said that Grandma bragged to her friends back downtown that she lived “in the country” and could see farms from her window.

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