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April 18, 1921



White, McKenna, Holmes, Day, Van Devanter, Pitney, McReynolds, Brandeis, Clarke

Author: Holmes

[ 256 U.S. Page 196]

 MR. JUSTICE HOLMES delivered the opinion of the court.

This is a bill in equity brought by the Marcus Brown Holding Company, the appellant, owner of a large apartment house in the City of New York, against the tenants of an apartment in the house and the District Attorney of the County of New York. The tenants are holding over after their lease has expired, which it did on September 30, 1920, claiming the right to do so under cc. 942 and 947 of the laws of New York of 1920. The object of the bill is to have these and other connected laws declared unconstitutional. The District Attorney is joined in order to prevent his enforcing by criminal proceedings cc. 131 and 951 of the acts of the same year, which make it a misdemeanor for the lessor or any agent

[ 256 U.S. Page 197]

     or janitor intentionally to fail to furnish such water, heat, light, elevator, telephone, or other service as may be required by the terms of the lease and necessary to the proper or customary use of the building. The case was heard in the District Court by three judges upon the bill, answer, affidavits and some public documents, all of which may be summed up in a few words. The bill alleges at length the rights given to a lessor by the common law and statutes of New York before the enactment of the statutes relied upon by the tenants, a covenant by the latter to surrender possession at the termination of their lease, and due demand, and claims protection under Article I, ยง 10 and the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. An affidavit alleges that before the passage of the new statutes another lease of the premises had been made, to go into effect on October 1, 1920. The answer of the tenants relies upon the new statutes and alleges a willingness to pay a reasonable rent and any reasonable increase as the same may be determined by a court of competent jurisdiction. It also alleges that they made efforts to obtain another suitable apartment but failed. The District Attorney moved to dismiss the bill. The judges considered the case upon the merits, upheld the laws and ordered the bill to be dismissed.

By the above mentioned cc. 942 and 947, a public emergency is declared to exist and it is provided by c. 947 that no action "shall be maintainable to recover possession of real property in a city of a population of one million or more or in a city in a county adjoining such city, occupied for dwelling purposes, except an action to recover such possession upon the ground that the person is holding over and is objectionable, . . . or an action where the owner of record of the building being a natural person, seeks in good faith to recover possession of the same or a room or rooms therein for the immediate

[ 256 U.S. Page 198]

     and personal occupancy by himself and his family as a dwelling; or an action to recover premises for the purpose of demolishing the same with the intention of constructing a new building. . . ." The earlier c. 942 is similar with some further details. Both acts are to be in effect only until November 1, 1922. It is unnecessary to state the provisions of c. 944 for disputes as to what is a reasonable rent. They are dealt with in the decisions of the Court of Appeals cited below and in Edgar A. Levy Leasing Co., Inc. v. Siegel, 230, N.Y. 634, by the same Court. In this as in the previous case of Block v. Hirsh, ante, 135, we shall assume in accordance with the statutes, the finding of the Court below and of the Court of Appeals of the State, in People ex rel. Durham Realty Corporation v. La Fetra, 230 N.Y. 429, and Guttag v. Shatzkin, 230 N.Y. 647, that the emergency declared exists. Hebe Co. v. Shaw, 248 U.S. 297, 303. Hairston v. Danville & Western Ry. Co., 208 U.S. 598, 607.

The chief objections to these acts have been dealt with in Block v. Hirsh. In the present case more emphasis is laid upon the impairment of the obligation of the contract of the lessees to surrender possession and of the new lease which was to have gone into effect upon October 1, last year. But contracts are made subject to this exercise of the power of the State when otherwise justified, as we have held this to be. Manigault v. Springs, 199 U.S. 473, 480. Louisville & Nashville R.R. Co. v. Mottley, 219 U.S. 467, 482. Chicago & Alton R.R. Co. v. Tranbarger, 238 U.S. 67, 76, 77. Union Dry Goods Co. v. Georgia Public Service Corporation, 248 U.S. 372, 375. Producers Transportation Co. v. Railroad Commission of California, 251 U.S. 228, 232. It is said too that the laws are discriminating, in respect of the cities affected and the character of the buildings, the laws not extending to buildings occupied for business purposes, hotel property or buildings now in course of erection, &c.

[ 256 U.S. Page 199]

     But as the evil to be met was a very pressing want of shelter in certain crowded centers the classification was too obviously justified to need explanation, beyond repeating what was said below as to new buildings, that the unknown cost of completing them and the need to encourage such structures sufficiently explain the last item on the excepted list.

It is objected finally that c. 951, above stated, in so far as it required active services to be rendered to the tenants, is void on the rather singular ground that it infringes the Thirteenth Amendment. It is true that the traditions of our law are opposed to compelling a man to perform strictly personal services against his will even when he has contracted to render them. But the services in question although involving some activities are so far from personal that they constitute the universal and necessary incidents of modern apartment houses. They are analogous to the services that in the old law might issue out of or be attached to land. We perceive ...

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