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4. Tenant Power in the Liberal City 1943-1971

Joel Schwartz


At the height of World War II, tenant organizations confronted the L. greatest challenge to their hard-won influence in New York City. In 1943 liberal government intervened on the housing front with federal rent controls and a state urban redevelopment law. Tenant leaders, of course, had long hoped to bring public policy to their side of the housing struggle. But few could have anticipated that wartime expedients would become abiding measures with the most profound impact on the city's housing environment and the role of tenant power within it. From modest beginnings, government would soon arrogate vast authority to reshape the housing landscape and become the great rent arbiter, giant landlord, and mass evictor. How influential would the tenant movement remain among the new housing programs that it had campaigned so hard to bring about? Could it continue to shape the legal process of rent bargaining that had been the central function of local councils? Could it continue to bring tenant views to bear on the development of public housing and city planning? For that matter, could the movement survive at all, as New York moved into an era of liberal housing policies? First mobilized amid the anger of the Great Depression against landlord police, landlord judges, and landlord politicians, could tenant consciousness exist in a city whose political leaders vowed to move heaven and earth to solve the housing crisis?

The following essay will explore the salient issues presented by the tenant movement's confrontation with the liberal city. Foremost is the tenant version of the dilemma that faced all radicals in post-New Deal America. Could tenant unions maintain effective rent bargaining, their economic bread and butter, during the expansion of government rent regulation? Would tenants continue to rely on the collective strength of local councils after rent protection became a public benefit? These were vital considerations for the American Labor party clubs, which provided the cadre of tenant action in the 1940s and aspired to translate rent protests into comprehensive radical attacks on Truman liberalism. To the consternation of ALP organizers, their neighborhood followers appeared less driven by a collective sense of proletarian dispossession than by a determination to hold on to their virtual proprietary rights as "statutory tenants" under the rent laws. As the rent strikes by blacks and Hispanics in the early 1960s bear out, this radical dilemma lost none of its poignancy. Leaders like Jesse Gray stirred a potent collective fury, only to have it dissipated by the anxiety of tenants to get on the waiting list for an apartment in the New York City Housing Authority.

A related question remains as overshadowing as the Housing Authority itself. To what extent was radical action undermined by the smooth efficiency of such large-scale organizations? The susceptibility of tenants may not have been much different from that of other rank-and-file movements that have been absorbed by giant, welfare-capitalist organizations. But to point an accusing finger at the Housing Authority is to overlook the acquiescence, if not the complicity, of tenants themselves, and to forget that in the 1930S, an important component of the tenant movement sprung up in i the quasi-public, "limited-dividend" projects (which the state subverted in exchange for a limit on the interest earned by mortgage investors), where leaders sought collective bargaining with their institutional landlords. This approach partly stemmed from the City-Wide Tenants Council's attempts to forge a united front with liberal Democrats and partly from the understandable inclination of tenant organizers to avoid the drudge work in scattered, dingy walk-ups. More than its partisans cared to admit, the movement often fed off these corporate housing promotions, whether Stuyvesant Town and other urban redevelopment projects in the 1940s or Model Cities projects in the 1960s. Tenant radicals inspired much of the War on Poverty's Community Action Program, but tenant organizations rarely avoided becoming a recruiting arm of the Housing Authority.

Another question concerns the ability of tenants to move beyond their status as passive consumers of shelter to that of active developers, an idea that was perfectly absurd to commercial realtors and no less presumptuous to the liberal reformers who regarded themselves as patrons of public housing. Nevertheless, in the 1930s, local tenant unions and the City-Wide Tenants Council had intruded into this sacrosanct area, first demanding collective bargaining on management issues in the limited dividends, then taking advantage of government requirements that citizen advisory bodies accompany the development of city planning and public housing. Later in the decade, the City-Wide, claiming to speak for responsible rank-and-file interests, had participated in that advisory mechanism, wrung tacit recognition from the Housing Authority, and conferred with the housing liberals over blueprints that shaped the city's postwar future. Could the tenants maintain this presence? Perhaps in the long run that was precluded by urban "modernization," the trend in metropolitan development that would lodge decision making in the hands of centralized, professional staffs, as much the case in the pre-1945 Housing Authority as in the more elusive Slum Clearance Committee under Robert Moses. But as the evidence suggests, it was one thing for downtown corporate elites to try to centralize housing decisions and quite another for tenant leaders to relinquish their involvement. As we will see, organized tenants in the pursuit of strategic, united-front goals may have withdrawn from a critical review of urban redevelopment during World War II. Afterward, cold war suspicions wrecked the credibility of tenant opposition to Title I redevelopment, when that program was in its most vulnerable stage. Tenant involvement was throttled less by evolutionary forces than by circumstances, by calculated decisions, and by politics. These might-have-beens in city planning may not sit well with readers convinced that Moses alone was responsible for Title I and its relocation havoc.

The sense of lost opportunities becomes sharper in the alternative-planning phase of the Metropolitan Council on Housing and the War on Poverty's stimulus of advocacy planning in the early 1960s. For a brief moment, Met Council, an unlikely coalition of Old Left stalwarts and Christian seekers, of community workers and gadfly architects, set an ambitious agenda for neighborhood planning. Determined to make the city listen to community aspirations, Met Council would leave an indelible, New Left sensibility on how the city should plan for people. But whether Met Council's advocacy planners were faithful instruments of community intent or initiators and doers in their own right remained questionable. Much the same ambiguity tainted the citizen planning machinery of Model Cities in the late 1960s. Tenant participation in housing development remained a chimerical goal, whose realization usually taught sorry lessons about an urban reform tradition convinced that housing was a complex, technical subject and that housing projects must be made to pay their own way. On those rare occasions when tenants became managers, they found themselves behaving like landlords who had bills to meet, rents to collect, and occupants to evict.

The ability of the tenant movement to deliver on its promises, of course, was closely related to its ability to recruit followers and to incite a mass involvement, or at least to convey to landlords and city officials the impression of the same. Distinguishing between matter-of-fact assessments and adversarial boasts remains a continuing headache. We will encounter numerous details of street-level mobilization, of the number of tenements organized, of rent strikers, of court cases, of union members, of crowds in meeting halls, of leaflets passed out. We will have to sort through the romantic, self-serving claims, some of them grown to movement myths, from the hard facts. Many remain too elusive to pin down. Some come from first-person reminiscences, a fascinating oral history. But the accounts are often thirty, even forty years old; some inevitably blend hazy recollections of 1937 with those of 1947. They demand corroboration with the written record. Admittedly, this reliance on literary evidence means reliance on those middle-class liberals who left a solid accounting and who usually staffed the government and reform agencies that tenants often confronted. There seems to be no way around this obstacle except to reckon with its biases and make the best of its legacy, to balance written reports with movement claims to recruitment and influence. We will be on safe ground if we judge the tenant movement by the same hard standards that its leaders would have applied to its operations -- whom did it influence, what policies did it bring about, what results did it accomplish? We could dwell on the interesting questions of mobilization strategies and tactical repertories, but we cannot afford to abstract these apart from the landscape of the city. And it is this larger perspective that requires an answer to these more important questions. Did tenant organizations make a difference in the city's housing environment? Had organized tenants not existed, would the city's housing policies and accomplishments have been any different?

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