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5. Tenant Responses to the Urban Housing Crisis, 1970-1984

Ronald Lawson with the assistance of Reuben B. Johnson III

An Emerging National Focus and Structure

Tenant organizations have typically been formed reactively with particular problems in mind. Thus, building organizations have focused on landlords, neighborhood organizations on agencies, banks, or clusters of landlords that have been blamed for local problems, and federations on the local or state governments responsible for establishing the legal framework of the tenant-landlord relationship.

Until recently, there was little interest in forming a national federation focusing on the federal government because Washington, D.C., was not seen as the immediate site of the tenant battle. The major exception was the public housing sector, which was closely dependent on HUD for both funding and other policy decisions. Consequently, the National Tenant Organization was formed in 1969, and funded for three years by the American Friends Service Committee, to organize the public housing constituency. However, it devoted itself to posturing and personal aggrandizement and proved incapable of maintaining a national presence once the funding of its headquarters expired. The tenant federations within New York State such as NYSTNC knew the enormous effort needed to maintain a presence, during the legislative session, in Albany, which is only three hours by car from New York City. They realized that national distances and the scale of organization needed to maintain and make decisions within a super federation made it extremely difficult for a largely voluntary, local crisis-oriented movement to maintain a presence in Washington.

Nevertheless, by the mid-1970s common issues were emerging in several different states. Awareness of this caused the tenant movement in New York, and its three major federations in particular, to pay greater attention to the national sphere. One of these issues was redlining, which drew ANHD and NYSTNC to become involved with National People's Action, whose constituency was predominantly homeowners.

A second issue, rent regulations, applied peculiarly to tenants. New York had been the only state to retain World War II rent controls into the 1960s. However, the inflation that accompanied the Vietnam War led to demands in several states for protection from rent increases and the implementation of "second generation" regulations. Thus, the New Jersey Tenant Organization (NJTO), formed in 1969, spearheaded a campaign that won controls in more than one hundred cities. Similar local initiatives spread across the nation during the 1970s. They ran into especially strong opposition from landlords of properties with FHA-insured mortgages (which were often large developments), who fought them politically, in court, and finally complained to HUD that its mortgages were threatened by the rent laws. In February 1975 HUD responded with a regulation providing that properties with federally insured mortgages could bypass local rent regulations if they were in danger of defaulting.[108]

Tenant activists saw this regulation as a considerable threat. A Met Council delegation protested to the HUD regional director, and then followed up with a memorandum, copies of which were sent to all members of the New York congressional delegation. Aware that these actions were insufficient for a national issue, Met Council told its members that it hoped to contact NJTO and tenant groups in Boston (which it did not yet know by name) with the hope of coordinating protests. Knowledge of tenant organizations in other states, and links to them, were still limited.

Meanwhile, in April 1975 the first issue of Shelterforce, a national tenant quarterly newspaper, was published in New Jersey by the National Lawyers Guild and a group of tenant organizers and community workers from in and around the city of Newark. The headline of its first issue was dramatically relevant to its purpose: "HUD KO's Local Rent Laws."[109] By reporting the spread of tenant organizing and rent control initiatives across the country during the next several years, Shelterforce helped strengthen a sense of identity among tenants and, in turn, inspired further activism.[110]

The first multistate endeavors developed slowly. Finally, in 1976 NJTO took the initiative in calling together tenant organizations from New York (Met Council and NYSTNC), Massachusetts and the District of Columbia to form an ad hoc Coalition against Federal Preemption of Local Rent Control. In July they met with HUD officials in Washington and then followed up by pushing their congressional delegations to intervene. The following year the New York and New Jersey federations formed the National Committee for Rent Control and spent an exploratory day lobbying on Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, Met Council had begun to publish extensive reports of the burgeoning tenant activity in other states. Excitement rose with the upsurge in organizing and demands for rent regulations that followed the failure of California landlords to fulfill their promises to share the tax savings resulting from Proposition 13 with tenants in the form of rent reductions. In 1979 New York tenants celebrated by having actress Jane Fonda, an activist from Santa Monica, California, where tenant muscle was being flexed, as keynote speaker at a large outdoor rally marking Tenant Unity Day.[111]

By the spring of 1979 many "informed sources" were suggesting that the Carter administration would respond to the galloping rate of inflation by imposing wage and price controls. Shelterforce and the other members of the National Committee for Rent Control saw this as an opportunity to push their cause -- they must be ready to demand strong national rent and eviction control as part of the federal package. A meeting of the committee decided to call a "national tenant movement conference on rent control" in the fall. The resulting meeting drew more than one hundred tenant organizers and activists from fifty cities and seventeen states to Newark. It greatly extended networks among tenant activists, elicited commitments to continue working together, and laid plans for a full National Tenant Organizing Conference in Cleveland the next summer.[112]

The Cleveland conference brought together two hundred representatives from one hundred tenant organizations in fifty cities and twenty-five states. The major result was the formation of the National Tenants Union (NTU). The top structural level of the tenant movement, a super federation, was thus put in place.

Once again networks were extended and strategies shared and their effectiveness discussed. Ambitious plans were laid concerning a clearinghouse for information, the development of model programs, and the creation of a presence on Capitol Hill. However, problems arose concerning how these would be carried out -- the organizational members were not willing to set membership dues at more than a token level.[113] This meant there could be no national office in the immediate future, and certainly no lobbyist regularly at Congress. It was suggested that the shortfall in funds could be made up by pursuing individual memberships -- but issues before Congress are too far away to attract the attention of the average tenant concerned about services at home. Consequently, shortage of money has been a continuing problem for the NTU. On the other hand, the national reporting of Shelterforce acts as a clearinghouse, while annual national conferences continue to strengthen ties among activists.

The first political test for NTU was an unexpected amendment introduced in the House of Representatives in the fall of 1980 by Representative Chalmers Wylie (Republican, Ohio). This amendment, which would have prohibited the use of certain federal funds in cities with rent control laws, was brought at the instigation of the National Multi-Housing Council, a real estate lobby, as a means of knocking the steam out of the tenant movement after a striking 2 to 1 defeat of an anti-rent-control initiative in California in June 1980. NTU responded to the amendment by encouraging local tenant and community groups to contact the members of their congressional delegations to urge them to oppose the measure. Their efforts met with little apparent success, for the amendment passed the House with a comfortable majority, and much of the opposition to it that was expressed in debate came from conservatives opposed to federal interference in local matters rather than from supporters of rent regulations. Tenants were saved when the amendment died with the bill it was attached to. Following the election of Ronald Reagan, his transition team recommended the adoption of a similar measure to encourage local governments to abandon rent regulations. Such a bill was introduced in both 1981 and 1982 by New York senator Alphonse D'Amato. Tenant lobbying in 1981, in particular, was credited with playing an important part in its defeat. These were tense times for the fledgling National Tenants Union, when a real estate backlash encouraged by a conservative administration threatened the progress that had been made in the late 1970s.[114] Meanwhile, the Reagan administration proceeded with its plans to dismantle many of HUD's programs and to slash its budget.

The new networks that began to link tenant activists across the nation after 1975 gave tenants the ability to respond politically at the national level. Although their limited resources hampered lobbying efforts in Washington, they were in a position to coordinate local political efforts against national targets. The 1984 annual conference of NTU, held in Detroit grimly debated what delegates regarded as the attacks of the Reagan administration on housing and eventually adopted a resolution, proposed by Met Council, that NTU should sponsor an "evict Reagan" campaign during the fall campaign period. As a result, NTU prepared a brochure for its members' use during the election season that urged tenants to register to vote and then to use their votes to "evict Reagan."[115]

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