Learning the reasons why households move is one of the holy grails of housing research. Along with how many housing units get built every year and how many New Yorkers live in informal apartments, this is one question without a satisfactory answer. In 1940, CHPC—or the Citizens’ Housing Council, as it was then known—tried to figure it out.

Much ado gets made these days about the displacement of tenants as rents rise in our neighborhoods. Unfortunately, a scarcity of data leads to unproductive conversations in which people speak either past each other or in circles.

But way back in 1940, CHC’s “Subcommittee on Tenant-Landlord Relations” undertook a study of Manhattan and Brooklyn neighborhoods to answer the question, “Why do tenants move?” The study surveyed 1,219 households. Professors from Barnard College, City College, Hunter College, and New York University sent volunteers to carry out the extensive field work that was necessary.

Extensive is an understatement. The “Why Do Tenants Move?” study surveyed residents about their length of occupancy; rent; perceptions of fairness of leases; landlord-tenant relations; building services; repairs; redecoration; and of course, reasons for moving. CHC released a 23-page report with its findings.

“Like a surgical operation, moving is a drain on family resources no matter how happy the outcome,” the report opens. “To the real estate man, watching one family pile its goods into an apartment after another family has just left, the shift has acute significance: his profits decline with high turnover. The community at large has a high stake in these changes of residence. Moving alters the character of neighborhoods, affects real estate values, and thus the taxes on which our city so largely depend.”

“If the costs to everyone are so high, what impels families to move?”

The fact is that there is no way to know for sure why tenants move. Data is scarce. The closest we come in New York City is the Housing and Vacancy Survey (HVS), which the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development releases every three years in conjunction with the U.S. Census Bureau. The HVS, a random survey of New Yorkers, asks those who moved to name their reason for moving. Of those who moved within the city since 2010, “housing” was the largest factor according to the report for the 2014 survey, the most recent.

Housing            38.97% Family               30.65% Job                   11.69% Neighborhood  13.49% Other               5.22% source: NYC HVS, 2014

This analysis, though, suffers from too many validity concerns to merit much weight on its own. Similarly, the 1940 report acknowledges why getting to a real answer to its question was so difficult then, with much the same truth applicable now: “Anyone seeking to find in this report a simple formula for the solution of the problem of population shifts is bound to be disappointed…Little light is shed in this study on the more obvious factors responsible for decentralization, such as high taxes, transportation difficulties, high land costs, extension of low-fare rapid transit and other community facilities to outlying areas, and promotion of home ownership.”

Interestingly, “apparent dissatisfaction with redecoration, rents, repairs, etc., did not carry over on a personal basis to the landlord. This means that the soundness of management policies is not to be judged by a friendly disposition on the part of the tenant.”

Another interesting but predictable note is that answers varied between groups at different rent levels. The researchers categorized respondents into five brackets of rent level: under $20, between $20 and $30, between $30 and $50, between $50 and $75, and $75 and up. For example, the following table demonstrates difference between these rent groups.

Percentage of tenants who believe community recreation facilities should be supplied by landlords
Rent Group Manhattan % Brooklyn %
Total (all rent groups) 55.2 61.2
Under $20 58.1 68.1
$20 – 29.99 65.6 59.9
$30 – 49.99 50.8 62.8
$50 – 74.99 56.4 56.8
$75 and over 38.0 47.8
Source: Citizens’ Housing Council 1940 study, “Why Do Tenants Move?”

The responses to the study’s title question yield answers that don’t seem that foreign to today’s results. Difference appear between respondents in Manhattan versus their Brooklyn neighbors on topics like “near work,” “neighborhood,” and “near transportation,” and “near friends” among others.

Reasons for moving to present apartment by percentage of tenants mentioning them
Manhattan % Brooklyn %
Lower Rent 31.8 24.5
Apartment Layout 20.2 25.6
Better Value 20.1 17.4
Change in Size of Family 15.2 19.0
Near Work 14.1 9.6
Improved Living Standard 12.7 8.1
Neighborhood 12.3 19.5
More Light and Air 12.1 6.9
Near Friends 6.5 10.2
Near School 6.1 7.6
Near Transportation 5.2 10.5
Source: Citizens’ Housing Council 1940 study, “Why Do Tenants Move?”

To view the entire study, click here.