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2. New York City Tenant Organizations and
the Post-World War Housing Crisis

Joseph A. Spencer

Part 4

For obvious reasons, it is difficult to make accurate estimates of tenant organization strength during the 1920s. In 1923 the Bronx groups claimed a membership of 25,000 to 30,000, with all members of dues-paying families included. Two years later the Bronx Council alone listed a constituency of over 11,000 families paying dues of one dollar per year. Adding an equal number for the Manhattan membership gives a broad estimate of over 20,000 member families throughout the city, representing perhaps 80,000 to 100,000 persons. Such figures are plausible when one considers the number of rent cases in the courts and the fact that the tenant organizations provided the cheapest and most accessible legal assistance available to poor tenants. [113]

Although each individual organization active during the 1920s had unique qualities, they all focused their efforts on providing basic tenant services, especially legal assistance. As noted earlier, the September statutes were extremely complicated from the outset, and were further amended almost every year from 1921 to 1929. Without proper legal advice, a tenant could easily forfeit valuable rights. [114] Soon after passage of the September 1920 laws, the major tenant associations moved to provide attorneys who might advise tenants and, for a modest fee, represent them in court. At well-attended weekly meetings, members and non-members alike asked an endless assortment of questions -- How can I get repairs and not pay an increase? What is this paper and what does it mean? As late as 1925 tenant leaders spoke of meetings with three hundred to four hundred attendees and an ever-increasing level of complaints. The leaders, usually reelected year after year, became experts in landlord-tenant law and served as assistants to association attorneys.[115]

As the crowded dockets of the municipal courts indicated, large numbers of landlord-tenant disputes found their way into the courts. Tenant lawyers often succeeded in having cases dismissed due to technicalities such as the landlord's failure to give written notice of an increase. When such procedural defenses failed, tenants usually requested jury trials; this delayed their cases considerably and ultimately increased the chances of victory. With time, tenant lawyers gained proficiency in criticizing landlords' bills of particulars and convincing judges and juries that rent increases were unwarranted. Veteran attorneys handled tremendous numbers of cases. As early as October 1923 Agnes Craig claimed to have represented eight thousand tenants, with another three thousand cases pending. Charles Marks, an attorney for the Manhattan organizations, handled so many cases that he was accused by landlords of reaping a fortune from the housing crisis.[116]

Most tenant organizations, especially those in the Bronx, also provided some assistance to needy families. Each group followed a different procedure: some dispensed aid on an ad hoc confidential basis; others reviewed requests for aid at membership meetings. The South Bronx Tenant and Civic League, which had a separate Social Service Committee, serves as a good example. Originally it granted funds with little supervision, but eventually all allocations had to be reviewed by membership. Occasionally money was donated to churches, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, or other groups, but the vast majority of funds went to families who needed rent money to avoid eviction. The league paid $401 in rents for poor families in 1924, approximately 12 percent of its expenditures that year. By 1926, however, most of the Bronx tenant groups were experiencing a decline in income and began to shift more of the burden to charitable and philanthropic agencies; more and more cases were referred to the Salvation Army, Jewish Charities, and Catholic Charities.[117]

Another activity closely associated with social work was tenant education. Some tenant leaders accepted, in part at least, landlord assertions that tenants themselves were primarily responsible for unsanitary housing conditions. Tenant associations frequently featured guest speakers from the Health, Street Cleaning, and Tenement departments who urged tenants to keep dumbwaiters, air shafts, hallways, and fire escapes clean and clear.[118]

The movement's major goal, however, was continuation of the Emergency Rent Laws. Thus lobbying was the key focus of the groups during the 1920s. The laws were renewed in 1922 with little opposition since it was clear to everyone that an emergency still existed. In 1923 the protection afforded by the statutes was extended to cover tenancies entered into after 1920.[119]

The first apparent struggle over renewal of the laws occurred in late 1923, with tenant organizations playing a major role. Actually, the outcome was never in doubt, but to understand the situation one must look at developments from 1920 to 1923. The Emergency Rent Laws had been passed originally under the state's implied police power. That is, the legislature argued that the acute postwar housing shortage created a grave situation that justified limitations on the traditional rights of property holders. In 1923 the courts remained clogged, the vacancy rate remained below 1 percent, and rents for new tenancies continued to rise. For both political and practical reasons, Governor Smith and the legislature were determined to extend the laws beyond their February 1924 termination date. Furthermore, leading realtors accepted the situation and made no serious attempts to prevent extension.[120]

The governor and tenant advocates feared, however, that the courts might deny the constitutionality of extension by claiming that the level of crisis existing in 1920 was no longer apparent. On the advice of public interest lawyer Samuel Untermyer, Smith ordered the state's Commission on Housing and Regional Planning, chaired by architect Clarence Stein, to hold hearings that would document the continued presence of a serious housing shortage.[121]

Stein set the hearings for October 1923 and asked tenant leaders to collect relevant data. Each organization, conducting a survey of its neighborhood or territory, compiled detailed information on vacancies, rents, conditions, and special landlord-tenant problems. At several hearings held at city hall, Agnes Craig, Harry Allen Ely, and other tenant representatives documented the case for extension. Each witness told a similar tale. no vacancies in low- or moderate-rent apartments, with many families harassed and forced out by landlords because the laws did not cover new tenants. Many speakers noted a tremendous increase in "doubling up," that is, two families living in one apartment. Asked what would happen if the Emergency Rent Laws were not extended, Martin McCarthy of the Melrose League responded, "I tell you, I think there would be an uprising, because if you come to those meetings, you would see the feelings of these women when they come in." [122]

The testimony of tenant leaders provided the Stein commission with the evidence required; its report to the legislature, based largely on a tenant organization survey covering eighty-five hundred families, cited a 14 percent increase in rents since 1921, over eighty-five thousand eviction cases pending in the municipal courts, and few vacancies in moderate-rent apartments.[123] With such justification, the legislature extended the Emergency Rent Laws through February 15, 1926.

By late 1925, however, the need for renewal was not as generally accepted. Landlords argued that the crisis was over; a survey of five thousand landlords, property owners, and managers conducted by a leading trade periodical found that 86 percent were opposed to extension although 32 percent admitted that poorer tenants still required some protection. The Real Estate Board of New York was only willing to accept a brief extension while the housing crisis was studied by a new legislative committee.[124]

Tenant leaders were unwilling to compromise, however. In a repeat of their 1923 efforts, they cooperated with the Stein commission in compiling data on rents and housing conditions. Replies from several thousand tenants demonstrated the continued shortage of affordable apartments, even more "doubling up," and a large number of new rent cases in the courts. In some regards, the situation was growing worse. Landlords were seeking increases of 80 to 100 percent, and those who were thwarted by the courts were decreasing maintenance expenditures to compensate. Lastly, tenant representatives charged that some owners were switching their tactics in court; experiencing little success in obtaining rent increases, they were now seeking to evict tenants on false pretenses. Furthermore, judges and district attorneys were doing little to stop such obvious attempts at evasion of the law.[125]

Once again, the threat of social upheaval was used to underscore tenant demands. Agnes Craig warned that failure to extend the Emergency Rent Laws would produce "wholesale evictions right straight through the Bronx. I think we will go back to the same conditions as existed in 1920." Stanley Cromwell of the Tremont League was more vivid in predicting that "Riots and bloodsheds [sic] will prevail if they are prematurely dropped."[126]

In addition, tenant leaders sought to mobilize political pressure against the legislature. Prior to 1925, tenant organizations had been almost deferential in tone; now they were more demanding. From October 1925 to February 1926, various tenant associations and community councils held at least a dozen mass rallies to demand satisfaction from elected officials. The Home News described a meeting of the Hamilton Community Council as "one of the best attended tenant's meetings ever held in upper Manhattan" and reported that the aisles were full and many persons were turned away.[127]

Such demonstrations of tenant organization strength, timed in part to coincide with the November elections, had a marked effect. Politicians of both major parties competed with one another in expressing support of tenants; this was especially true of legislators in districts with strong tenant organizations. A prime example was Assemblyman Abe Grenthal, a Republican from central Harlem's Nineteenth District, who announced on September 25, 1925, that he was basing his reelection campaign on the rent issue. Three weeks later he promised if reelected to introduce legislation extending the Emergency Rent Laws.[128]

While cloaking themselves in the robes of tenant advocacy, many politicians also found it beneficial to attribute opposing sympathies to their adversaries. Thus Grenthal charged, "the landlords want me beaten, as I have the tenant forces too well organized." Using a similar approach Republican candidate for Manhattan borough president John R. Davies charged in a speech before the Washington Heights Tenants Association that landlords had contributed $30,000 to the campaign of Julius Miller, his Tammany opponent. Miller responded three days later by claiming that he was one of the "fathers" of the Rent Laws and that he too favored extension.[129]

Such statements were indicative of broader political support for tenants. On October 13, 1925, several incumbent Manhattan assemblymen, including the Democratic leader of the assembly, endorsed extension. One week later they were followed by twenty-three Republican candidates from New York County. The next day all eight GOP assembly candidates from the Bronx fell into line. Not to be outdone, on October 21, sixty-two Democratic candidates, representing all five boroughs, gave the Rent Laws their support. By election day each party was demanding extension and claiming credit for passage of the original statutes.[130]

Such promises were honored. In February 1926 the legislature extended the Emergency Rent Laws until June 1, 1927. The victory was not total, however, as all apartments renting at more than twenty dollars per room per month were exempted. Tenant leaders, particularly Ely, arguing that coverage of only certain rent levels marked the law as class legislation and made it more vulnerable to rejection by the courts, vigorously opposed this provision. But legislators and other pro-tenant reformers, such as Lawson Purdy of the Charity Organization Society, insisted that an emergency could be demonstrated only for the less expensive apartments and that the exclusion of costly Hats thereby enhanced the constitutionality of the statute.[131]

The extension of the laws in early 1926 marked a turning point. It was the last time during the 1920s that a strong tenant movement would exercise its power. To understand the reasons for this, one must examine certain developments in the city's housing situation during the decade.

  Table 2.1

  Apartment Construction in New York City, 1917-1930

  Year    No. of New Buildings    Net Gain in Apartments

  1917           760                    14,241
  1918           130                     2,706
  1919            95                     1,624
  1920           237                     4,882
  1921           309                     6,835
  1922         1,173                    25,804
  1923         1,794                    32,000
  1924         3,919                    55,450
  1925         2,857                    42,573
  1926         3,869                    63,186
  1927         4,617                    79,253
  1928         3,538                    72,724
  1929         1,855                    53,812
  1930           739                    24,544


In 1921 the legislature had passed an enabling act for local municipalities wishing to grant property tax exemption on new residential construction. Under New York City's ordinance, all construction started between 1920 and 1926 was exempt from local taxation until 1932; this allowed a builder to recoup up to one-third of construction costs through tax relief.[132] The program sparked a tremendous surge in residential building. As shown in table 2.1,[133] the years 1918 and 1919 represented low points in the war-induced construction decline. By 1922, however, construction had climbed to record levels. During the entire decade, New York experienced a net increase of over one hundred thousand apartment units.

Such a tremendous addition to the city's housing stock had a major impact on apartment availability. As indicated by table 2.2,[134] the city had experienced less than a 1 percent vacancy rate during the early 1920s. But by 1925 the rate began to climb toward its prewar level, and by 1927 it exceeded 5 percent, the rate usually considered necessary for a fluid, healthy rental market.

The real impact of the housing boom was a major topic of debate between realtors and housing reformers. Tenant advocates insisted that little of the new construction benefited lower- and lower-middle-income tenants, since the new apartments were too expensive for such families. Figures support this contention. For example, only 17 percent of the apartments completed in 1924 rented for less than fifteen dollars per room per month. [135]

  Table 2.2

  Rate of Vacancies in Rental Apartment Units,
  New York City, 1919-1928

  Year               Rate (%)

  1919               2.18
  1920               0.36
  1921               0.15
  1922               Not available
  1923               0.37
  1924               0.80
  1925               2.23
  1926               3.46
  1927               6.63
  1928               7.76


Real estate representatives viewed the situation from a "trickle down" perspective. They argued that the movement of more affluent families into new, tax exempt buildings created vacancies for poorer tenants in older, decent buildings. This seems to have been partially true, insofar as vacancies in "old law" tenements -- the city's worst type of housing -- did rise during the period. But it must also be noted that by 1928 there was a balance between vacancies in old and new structures (51,291 in "new law" buildings to 50,867 in "old law" tenements). This indicates that the trickle-down effect was limited: many families were still too poor to move up the housing ladder despite a surplus of newer apartments in the middle and upper segments of the market.[136]

These major changes in the housing market had significant effects on both the tenant movement and the Emergency Rent Laws. It is in this context that the battle for extension that took place in late 1925 and early 1926 marked a significant turning point. First, in the face of a rising vacancy rate and continued construction of moderately expensive apartments, tenant leaders chose to base their arguments on the shortage of low-rent apartments alone. This opened the door to gradual erosion of the Rent Laws, which began with the decontrol of apartments renting for more than twenty dollars per room. Second, such erosion served to reduce the appeal of the tenant organizations by reducing the number of families who could use the laws or be called upon to fight for their retention.

In fact, the loosening of the housing market and the limitations on rent law protection seem to have had an immediate impact on the movement. While it is extremely difficult to chronicle the decline of grass roots organizations, scattered evidence indicates that within a year -- by early 1927 -- most tenant associations had lost much of their strength. Several organizations were giving out door prizes to encourage attendance; others held weekly socials to "keep the interests of the members at the proper pitch."[137] When a new series of hearings commenced in early 1927, tenant leaders were pessimistic about the chances of renewing the Rent Laws; certainly their lobbying efforts were less impressive. The Times noted that "the delegations to the hearing were not as large as in former years and were easily seated in the Assembly, where they had once filled the Chamber."[138]

Despite the weakening of the movement, however, politicians still respected the voting power of rent payers and chose compromise. In March 1927 the legislature extended the Emergency Rent Laws to June 1, 1928; but coverage was limited to existing tenancies in apartments renting at less than fifteen dollars per room per month. Once again, the field of beneficiaries, and thus the movement's constituency, had been narrowed.[139]

In the ensuing year, the city's tenant organizations declined even further. By late 1927 the Fair Play Rent Association had ceased to meet regularly. The Tremont League met on alternate Tuesdays rather than weekly. Although the South Bronx and Melrose groups still drew between 150 and 200 people to their meetings, this represented only about one-third of the average attendance during the peak years of activity. More important as an indicator of organizational decay was the trend in memberships: a hard core of old-timers remained, but dues from new members were declining.[140]

This loss of strength was all too evident in March 1928 when the State Board of Housing, which had replaced the Stein commission, considered further extension of rent control. Gone were the days when special hearings, held in New York City, focused a prestigious spotlight on tenant representatives. Rather, small tenant delegations traveled to Albany to testify before legislative committees. Much worse than the loss of prestige, however, was the fact that tenant appeals were ignored. After a series of pro forma hearings, the board recommended that the Emergency Rent Laws be allowed to lapse, noting that while many poor families still faced a housing problem, "the condition which confronts them is not temporary, ... it does not arise out of the economic adjustments following the war, ... [and it] is not an emergency in the meaning of the law."[141]

Once again, however, practical politics intervened at the eleventh hour when the Republican-controlled legislature seized the opportunity to pose as tenant protectors while also embarrassing Governor Smith. It passed a revised rent law that continued controls on apartments renting for fifteen dollars per room until December 1, 1928, and controls on apartments renting at ten dollars or less until June 15, 1929. Governor Smith had two options -- veto the rent bills in a year in which he was running for president or repudiate his own Board of Housing. He chose the latter and the Emergency Rent Laws were extended once more.[142]

One year later the scene shifted to city hall. Since there was no hope that the legislature would again cooperate, tenant leaders looked to the Board of Alderman for protection. Several of the Bronx groups roused themselves and held rallies and demonstrations. In addition, a Negro organization, the Harlem Tenants League, mobilized some support in the black community. Yet most observers acknowledged, even if indirectly, that the postwar crisis was over. Agnes Craig told tenants to fight increases by "calling the landlord's bluff. If your landlord insists on having a huge increase in rent and takes your case to court, move out and get an apartment elsewhere. There are plenty of vacant apartments in the Bronx."[l43] Nevertheless, the Board of Aldermen chose expediency and passed a city rent control ordinance for apartments renting at ten dollars or less per room. This was a political decision with no real impact for, as everyone expected, the new law was immediately declared unconstitutional. By the fall of 1929, for the first time in nearly a decade, New York City tenants were without rent control.[144]

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