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3. From Eviction Resistance to Rent Control
Tenant Activism in the Great Depression

Mark Naison


The period between 1929 and 1943 was a time of extraordinary ferment among tenants and of innovation and experimentation within the sphere of housing policy. The era began with organized tenant activism at a low ebb; with the exception of a small Harlem-centered movement, there was little protest against the expiration of the last of the Emergency Rent Laws passed after World War I. But the coming of the Great Depression created crises in the housing market, which stimulated mass tenant protest and a powerful liberal-philanthropic coalition for housing reform. First came an anti-eviction movement, led by Communists, that sought to reduce the impact of mass unemployment on beleaguered tenants; then came a campaign for tenement house upgrading led by social work and philanthropic organizations; then came a campaign for public housing supported by liberals and tenant activists; and then a campaign for wartime rent control led by a broad spectrum of the city's Left. The political forces unleashed here were extremely diverse, but they were united by one significant trend: the failure of a depression-weakened housing market and private construction industry to provide safe, affordable housing to the third of the city's population who were unemployed or underemployed.

Under the press of depression conditions, the terms of debate in housing policy shifted dramatically. For the first time in American history, a broad-based housing coalition developed that emphasized aggressive government intervention in the private housing market. "Private capital," WPA head Harry Hopkins told a crowd at the opening of First Houses, New York's first public housing project, "has never spent a dime to build a house for the poor person." Settlement houses joined with Left-led tenant organizations to lobby for code enforcement, rent control, and the construction of public housing, while liberal public officials endorsed tenant protests as needed catalysts for reform. "You will never get anything unless you demand it," Tenement House Commissioner Langdon Post told a group from the City-Wide Tenants Council in 1937. "Nothing was ever gotten in this country except when the people forced it." Important differences existed within this coalition as to the role of public subsidies and market incentives in slum clearance and the construction of public housing; but the fact remains that two major, lasting innovations in the city's housing market came out of the reform effort -- a program of low-income public housing and the imposition of a centrally administered system of rent control.[1]

Tenants organizations also displayed some new aspects that were to become permanent features of the city's political landscape. First, black tenant organizations became influential actors in the city's tenant movement and housing reform coalition. From the 1929 Harlem Tenants League which protested expiration of the Emergency Rent Laws, to the mid-depression Consolidated Tenants League which pioneered new forms of legal defense for tenants, to the Harlem-wide coalition fighting for wartime rent controls, black tenant leaders played a leading role in developing tactics to improve conditions for individual tenants and in shaping the agenda of housing reformers. Alongside the Jewish community, blacks emerged as a solid ethnic base for tenant activism.

Second, the radicalization of depression-era professionals inspired a new form of citywide tenant federation that employed a uniquely effective "mix" of tactics: expert legal representation of individual buildings and tenants, reinforced by rent withholding and picketing; careful research on housing issues, which led to legislation projecting a "tenant perspective"; and aggressive lobbying for tenant interests in cooperation with liberal and left wing organizations. Forming coalitions with grass roots tenant organizations in the city's ethnic neighborhoods, middle-class tenant advocates -- lawyers, public relations experts, architects, and the like -- created a set of strategies and a style of organizing that has survived, with some modification, to the present day. The City-Wide Tenants Council, founded in 1936, displayed professionalism and expertise comparable to philanthropic housing organizations, yet projected a commitment to mass mobilization and an identification with the downtrodden characteristic of the Left. Although City-Wide declined in the mid-1940s, its methods of organizing were adopted by tenant groups associated with trade unions, consumer groups, and left wing political clubs.

However, these innovations in organization came only after years of mass tenant protest that were far more violent and less precise in their targets. During 1932 and 1933, a Communist-led rent strike movement erupted in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and the Lower East Side, which almost reached the proportions of the post-World War I tenant revolt, but which produced no major innovations in legal strategy, no legislative accomplishments, and no permanent forms of tenant organization on a local or citywide level. Concentrated in Jewish neighborhoods, these rent strikes evoked violent opposition from landlords and police and a concerted effort by judges and city officials to neutralize the movement's effects. Failures in the sphere of housing policy, they helped create a climate in the city conducive to liberalized relief policies and the creation of a "safety net" of income maintenance programs that helped keep the poor in their homes.

There are structural explanations for this discontinuity between the two major waves of tenant activism. In the early 1930s, a massive loss of income by all city residents threw housing markets into disarray; tenants could not pay their rents, landlords could not meet their mortgages, and courts received a flood of eviction and foreclosure cases they lacked the capacity to process or enforce. The atmosphere of desperation on both sides created a climate conducive to violence, especially in neighborhoods where there was a tradition of collective action in response to economic setbacks. By the mid-1930s, however, the development of a broad-based home relief system, along with the establishment of federal work relief programs, had removed the atmosphere of mass desperation -- most knew they could at least get funds for food and some kind of shelter. Serious issues still remained for tenants -- building safety, affordable rents, protection from arbitrary evictions, racial discrimination -- but these were issues that could be dealt with more calmly because of a greater sense of security regarding the basic necessities of life (as well as a subjective sense of government responsiveness to the needs of low-income people).

But economic determinism alone cannot explain the pattern of tenant activism of the period; one must also look at the history of the organized Left, particularly the Communist party, to understand why tenant protest shifted from mass communal uprisings to the actions of professional advocacy organizations. Communists did not "control" the City-Wide Tenants Council or its affiliates the way they did the Unemployed Councils of the early 1930s, but they were a definite presence in its ranks, influencing its policies and its network of alliances. The politics of anti-fascism dictated this more subtle approach: not only did the Party shift its emphasis from revolution to reform, but it actively courted middle-class professionals and enrolled a sizable group in its ranks. The City-Wide Tenants Council embodied the ethos of the Popular Front Left: simultaneously seeking respectability and projecting identification with the downtrodden; mingling mass protest techniques with sophisticated political bargaining; incorporating struggles against racial discrimination into movements for social reform. This style of organizing lasted well beyond the depression. Tenant organizations resembling City-Wide thrived during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, long after the Communist party ceased to be the dominant force on the American Left.[2]

The Great Depression, therefore, represented a watershed in the history of tenant activism. Tenant organizations were inactive when the decade began, but by World War II they had become a powerful force in the political life of the city and state. Seeking government action to control rents, they fought for the constructions of public housing, worked to improve conditions in slum tenements, and strove to limit the disruptive impact of urban renewal. More than any other time, the 1930s was the period when the tenant movement "came of age."

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