Joseph A. Spencer
The decade following World War I is one of the most significant periods in the history of New York City tenant activity due to the extent that renters organized against landlords as well as the gains achieved through such mobilization.
Lack of construction, increased demand for apartments, and rampant speculation in New York's tenement neighborhoods led to increasing landlord-tenant bitterness during the last years of the war. In the face of repeated rent increases, many families organized to resist. Relying on help from the Socialist party and its allied labor unions, tenants built effective building- and neighborhood-level organizations in several working-class communities of the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan and forced hundreds of landlords to rescind rent increases or improve building conditions. Tenant leaders were much less successful, however, in achieving broader goals such as legislative limits on rent increases and stronger code enforcement provisions. Furthermore, they failed in efforts to build a larger citywide organization and translate renter support into Socialist victories at the polls.
Nevertheless, government officials could not treat the situation lightly. By early 1919, eviction cases clogged the municipal courts, and thousands of families suffered eviction each month. Approximately twenty-five thousand apartment dwellers had affiliated with a tenant league, and the crisis was spreading into more and more of the city's neighborhoods. Many felt that unless something were done, the Socialists would eventually reap major political benefits from their advocacy of the tenants' cause.
In the spring of 1919, elected representatives responded by appointing committees to deal with the housing shortage. The most important was the Mayor's Committee on Rent Profiteering, which competed with the leagues by arbitrating landlord-tenant disputes and providing legal aid to renters through local Democratic clubhouses. Although the committee helped thousands of families, the cycle of rent increases, strikes, and evictions grew worse. By the end of 1919, tenant leagues existed in a dozen neighborhoods, and the Socialists had won several key victories in the November elections.
At this time, however, several factors combined to change significantly the context in which the postwar housing struggle was fought. The first was the rise of the Red Scare -- the wave of rampant anti-radicalism and nativism that swept the country in late 1919 and early 1920. The tenant movement became the target of widespread red-baiting, with league organizers and members harassed in the courts and on the picket line. The five Socialist members of the state assembly were suspended and eventually expelled from the legislature, a development that symbolized the general exclusion of the tenant leagues from the negotiation process over legislative remedies to deal with the crisis.
Meanwhile, several new tenant organizations emerged in certain sections of the Bronx and Manhattan. Generally led by persons with ties to local Democratic and Republican organizations, these groups opposed rent striking. Not surprisingly, they were quickly recognized by government officials as the "legitimate" representatives of tenant interests. With the support of such groups and labor unions associated with the established parties, the legislature in April 1920 passed a series of laws that gave tenants limited rights to challenge large rent increases and protected the tenure of some apartment dwellers.
While these "April Laws" led to a noticeable decrease in the number of rent strikes, it soon became clear that they were not really a solution. Tenants still had no real legal defense against most rent increases, and loopholes in the law actually sparked a tremendous increase in eviction proceedings. In response to pleas from the municipal court judges and the conservative tenant associations, the legislature met in special session in September 1920 and passed the Emergency Rent Laws, a series of statutes that granted tenants much more substantial protections against arbitrary rent increases and unjust eviction.
Following passage of the Emergency Rent Laws, the tenant movement experienced major changes. The Socialist tenant leagues faded from the scene, victims of both the court-based remedies passed in September and the ideological warfare that split the party during 1920. Several of the conservative associations in the Bronx and Manhattan, on the other hand, matured into stable organizations with memberships in the thousands. Throughout the early and middle 1920s they provided a range of legal and social services to desperate families. They also served as allies of state and local housing officials; it was their cooperative "pressure" and vacancy-rent surveys that justified the periodic extension of the laws throughout much of the decade.
Yet the orientation and tactics of tenant leaders after 1920 failed to serve the broader and longer-term interests of tenants. Concerned with legitimacy and their own relationships with government officials, they limited their goals almost exclusively to the administration and maintenance of the rent laws and failed to press for more basic advances such as public housing or tougher code enforcement.
Eventually this reactive strategy produced failure. During the decade, New York's residential housing supply expanded rapidly, fueled by large tax incentives for new construction. The resulting high vacancy rate made it increasingly difficult to justify the continuation of "emergency" limits on rents. Thus, starting in 1926, the legislature began to exempt increasing numbers of apartments -- based on rent per room -- from renewals of the Emergency Rent Laws. For the tenant associations, this spelled the start of a cycle of decline: each reduction in the number of tenants covered by the rent laws decreased the constituency available to resist further cuts. By 1928 the movement was so weak that it could put up only token resistance, and the rent laws were phased out over the next two years.
American involvement in World War I produced chaos in New York City's housing market. Defense industries received top priority in the allocation of manpower and materials, thus inflating the cost of construction at a time when war-oriented investment opportunities drew off needed capital. As a result, tenement construction, already on the decline since 1911, came to a standstill. Only 1,481 apartments were completed in 1919 -- a 94 percent decrease from 1915.
The decline in residential construction came at a time when wartime prosperity, fueled by defense jobs, was attracting thousands of families to New York City. Under such pressure the vacancy rate fell precipitously, from 5.6 percent in 1916 to just 0.36 percent in April 1920. Many families, faced with rising rents and the decreasing availability of suitable apartments, were forced to move into smaller or more deteriorated quarters. This reversed a trend in which thousands of substandard units had been abandoned during the previous decade. Thirty-six thousand "old law" (i.e., pre-1901) apartments, vacant in 1916, had been reoccupied by 1920.
This downward movement occurred at a time when the city government lacked a commitment to protect the well-being of tenement dwellers. Under the cost-conscious Mayor John Hylan, the Tenement House Department budget was continuously slashed. While the number of inspectors was set by law at 206 for 103,000 buildings, Commissioner Frank Mann economized by not replacing other departmental personnel who resigned or entered the armed forces. He ordered his staff not to report any "trivial or unnecessary violations" and even deferred action on structural shortcomings. Consequently, buildings that had been grossly inadequate for decades suffered further decay. By the summer of 1919 Mann was forced to admit that even the city's low vacancy rate was misleading since most of the empty apartments were uninhabitable.
Although factors of increased demand and limited building were in themselves capable of producing a housing shortage of crisis proportions, the situation was further exacerbated by intense speculation in tenement housing. A speculator would purchase a building, immediately raise rents, and then resell at a profit, based on its increased rental income. Thousands of properties changed hands in this fashion, with some houses in the Bronx and Brooklyn sold several times in one month.
Another major grievance was the lessee system, through which landlords with more buildings than they could personally manage would lease certain properties to individuals for a fixed yearly fee. The lessee, usually a local small businessman without sufficient capital to purchase a building of his own, made his profit by increasing rents and curtailing services. In areas where the system was prevalent, especially the Jewish communities of the Lower East Side, Williamsburg, and Brownsville, the lessee was hated -- perceived as a traitor seeking profit from the exploitation of his fellow countrymen.
The origins of the postwar tenant movement are somewhat obscure. The first major precursor, however, was a January 1917 rent strike in the Crotona Park section of the Bronx. This was a predominantly lower-class neighborhood with a heavy concentration of Russian Jewish families that had emigrated from the Lower East Side in search of improved living conditions. In the best of times these families had trouble paying their rent. They became even more burdened, and restive, in the face of repeated rent increases and the failure of their landlords to provide heat and hot water. In late December 1916, five hundred to one thousand tenants in twenty-five buildings owned by two major real estate firms were organized by the Socialist Women's Consumers League of the Bronx. At the urging of Theresa Malkiel a Socialist Party State Committee member, the tenants rejected a rent increase demanded for January 1, 1917, and refused to pay any rent until heat and hot water were restored. They formed the Bronx Tenants League, collected a small strike fund, and organized a picket force of the "huskiest women." Leon Malakiel, a Socialist lawyer, agreed to represent the strikers and immediately filed complaints of code violations with the Health Department and the Tenement House Department.
Within a week the landlords responded with a flood of eviction notices. The back of the strike was broken when the first cases came to court. Municipal court judge Michael Scanlon ruled that 296 tenants had no recourse at law because they had no written leases; they had to pay their rent or vacate. Most had no choice but to give in. As one local paper commented, "It is to be presumed that if the five hundred tenants are ejected from their present quarters, that they will not be able to obtain flats elsewhere in the Bronx.
The leaders of the Bronx Tenants League vowed to continue their efforts on behalf of tenants, despite the disintegration of the strike. On January 17 they held a meeting and, formally establishing their organization, enrolled 150 charter members. They also announced plans to form affiliates in all of the city's boroughs to fight for lower rents, better building maintenance, code enforcement, and legal aid for indigent tenants. Despite their excellent intentions, however, a widespread following failed to develop, and. there is no evidence of organized tenant activity for the rest of 1917.
Landlord-tenant bitterness resurfaced one year later, however. The early months of 1918 were unusually harsh, with temperatures hovering around the zero mark for over a month. To make matters worse, the city faced a wartime coal shortage and many landlords failed to supply heat and hot water. By the end of January the Bronx alone had 450 heatless buildings. Residents of the other boroughs endured similar hardship. A-social worker serving the East Harlem and Yorkville areas noted: "Conditions are beyond description. Gas is frozen, homes are dark, no water in the toilets, sanitary conditions unspeakable, faces blue and pinched from the bitter cold and ever so many kiddies down with pneumonia."
In response to these conditions, thousands of families throughout the city refused to pay their full rent. Many had purchased their own heaters or fuel and demanded reimbursement in the form of rent reductions. Landlords reacted not only by denying their immediate responsibility, but also by asserting that the payment of rent did not entitle one to heat and hot water. When they sought to evict non-paying families, however, some municipal court judges disagreed and allowed 10 percent reductions to offset tenant fuel expenditures. Yet for several reasons, appeal to the courts was not an adequate tenant remedy. Justices with sympathy for strikers usually granted reductions only to those with written leases -- a small minority in that period. Furthermore, since the laws governing such cases were vague, decisions varied from one judge to another. Thus building owners could bring a family into court month after month until the case came up before a pro-landlord judge.
Sensing their vulnerability, tenants sought strength in numbers. The Bronx Tenants League emerged from a year of dormancy to capitalize on tenant discontent. Again in cooperation with the Women's Consumers League, it mounted a No Heat, No Rent campaign and organized several large rent strikes in the East Tremont, Morrisania, and Mott Haven sections. A key to the group's success was the legal assistance it offered distressed tenants. Attorneys Morris Gisnet and Alexander Kahn won temporary reductions for hundreds of families in January, February, and March 1918. Socialist assemblyman Samuel Orr, who had been elected from the Fourth Assembly District the previous November, also took an active part in the league's work; at the height of the crisis he introduced several bills in the legislature which would have required landlords to maintain a minimum temperature of 68 degrees at all times and allowed rent reductions if this were not done. Although these bills were throttled in the assembly, they attracted attention to the league and enhanced its reputation among tenants.
Although sporadic rent striking occurred throughout upper Manhattan, the only successful attempt to organize tenants beyond the building level took place in Washington Heights. In late February 1918, representatives of twenty-seven buildings, led by William Herman, an executive with the State Industrial Commission, met and formed the Washington Heights Tenants League. Within several weeks they claimed a membership of over three hundred and had achieved half a dozen victories, both in court and through negotiation with landlords. Their success was largely attributable to the fact that most members, many of whom were professionals, had written leases that were recognized in court and gave them leverage in bargaining with building owners.
Brooklyn landlords and tenants were also involved in a series of struggles. In the Williamsburg section a young Socialist lawyer, Joseph Klein, won a succession of rent cases in the municipal courts and then, in early March, began to organize buildings and negotiate directly with the owners. By April he had established the Williamsburg Tenants League and was threatening to lead a widespread rent strike against all profiteering landlords.
Tenants were also coalescing in Brownsville. The local consumers league had backed several large strikes in the early months of 1918, but the major confrontation did not occur until late April. Landlord demands for a May 1 increase of from three to five dollars per month found tenants in a mood to resist -- the neighborhood already being in the throes of labor strikes by bakers, shoemakers, and barbers. On the eve of May Day the Socialist party daily, the New York Call, reported that "entire blocks are being organized" and that one thousand families were withholding rent. The ensuing struggle was bitter and long lasting. The courts were filled with eviction cases; in some instances landlords emptied entire buildings. Although many families were forced to retreat back to the cheaper, more deteriorated apartments of the Lower East Side, many more remained and fought. Evicted families moved in with neighbors and picketed struck buildings, often threatening prospective tenants. Groups of strikers and guards hired by landlords battled outside of buildings.
The tenant activity of early 1918 led to an escalation of the landlord-tenant struggle and contributed to a hardening of attitudes on both sides. This was certainly true of building owners, who argued that they had suffered several lean years prior to the war when over-building in the Bronx and Brooklyn had depressed rents. Now when wages and prices were rising steadily, they felt entitled to share in the general prosperity. The refusal of their tenants to pay rent, and especially the actions of judges and politicians in support of strikers, shocked and angered many realtors. One Bronx owner with a flair for hyperbole captured the mood of his colleagues: "Tenants control our property, move in and out of it as they please, pay rent or withhold it as they please and treat with the landlords or ignore them as they please. Politicians seeking votes are now organizing disgruntled tenants to oppose the rights of landlords."
To counteract the effect of the "professional agitators" they blamed for tenant unrest, many landlords formed local organizations to augment the older, established real estate lobbying groups. The Bronx Federation of Real Estate Owners, the Bronx Landlords Protective Association, and the Brownsville Taxpayers and Real Estate Owners Association battled tenants by appealing court decisions that granted rent reductions, evicting tenant "ringleaders," developing a standard lease that waived a tenant's right to heat, and coordinating requests for rent increases.
Tenants had also achieved a new level of solidarity and strength. Unlike other previous rent strike episodes, the winter 1918 agitation did not disintegrate with the arrival of warmer weather. Rather, during the rest of the year the better-organized groups -- the Bronx Tenants League, the Williamsburg Tenants League, and the Brownsville Consumers League -- continued to add members, and new leagues were formed in East Harlem and the Borough Park section of Brooklyn.
All of these successful organizations were marked by a supportive relationship with the Socialist party. That is not to say that membership in the leagues was restricted to party members. But the link between the two was close. The leagues flourished in areas of Socialist electoral strength and held meetings in Socialist halls. Socialist lawyers and officials played key leadership roles, while women of the consumers leagues allied with the party did much of the organizing. In addition, the New York Call gave the leagues their best press coverage. This relationship gave the tenant organizations access to a wide variety of resources that they would otherwise have had to develop on their own.
Thus when landlords in a number of neighborhoods sought yet another round of increases for October 1, 1918, thousands of households were prepared to resist. Many had no choice: there were no other apartments available, and they were being asked to pay twenty-five to thirty dollars per month for quarters that had cost twelve to fifteen dollars a year before.
When used properly by tenant organizers, the rent strike became a most effective tactic. The building owner could usually obtain dispossess orders from the municipal court, but in order to carry out the evictions he had to hire movers, at a cost of ten to twelve dollars per family. In a well-organized building of fifteen to twenty units, this expense might well exceed the income from the proposed increases. If the landlord decided to evict regardless of the cost, however, his troubles were not over. The ousted tenants would move in with neighbors and picket his building, often threatening prospective tenants. Thus many owners, faced with the possibility of such spirited resistance, chose to negotiate a settlement with the tenants league. Generally a contract was drawn up that granted half of the requested increase in return for a one-year lease and the promise of repairs. The league would then hold all rent until the specified repairs were completed.
While such tactics brought many local victories, movement leaders experienced considerable difficulty in achieving goals that went beyond the building level. In late May 1918, leaders from various leagues met and formed the Greater New York Tenants League (GNYTL). Working with the Socialist party, GNYTL representatives drafted a call for state legislation to limit rent increases, regulate lessees, raise the court fees for landlords instituting eviction proceedings, and provide legal aid for indigent tenants. Yet there was little response. Governor Charles Whitman spent a few minutes with a tenant delegation, but refused to call a special session of the legislature. Local officials, led by Mayor John Hylan, condemned rent profiteering but pleaded a lack of authority to deal with the problem.
Even more disturbing was the failure of the Socialists to capitalize on the housing crisis in the November elections. The previous fall's campaign had been extremely successful for the Socialists. As the only party opposing the war, they had received nearly 22 percent of the vote for mayor in a four-way contest and had elected ten assemblymen and seven aldermen. Now, party leaders hoped to do even better, with the tenant leagues serving as a source of new supporters. Several candidates, such as Samuel Orr, A. I. Shiplacoff, and Joe Klein, had served as tenant leaders themselves The leagues, polling the contestants of all parties concerning their rent policies and eventually endorsing the Socialists at campaign rallies, asserted that only they could be trusted to pass pro-tenant legislation. The election produced major setbacks, however. The Socialist share of the vote declined slightly in most districts, and a fusion movement by Democrats and Republicans succeeded in unseating eight of the party's assemblymen. Only Charles Solomon of Brownsville and August Claessens of East Harlem survived.
Other factors may have been largely responsible for these disappointing results, however. First, a large percentage of those who participated in rent strikes were already supporters of the Socialist party. Second, the armistice followed the election by less than a week, and with peace so near, the party undoubtedly lost many of the anti-war votes that had swelled its tally the previous November. Therefore, while many distressed tenants may have turned to the Socialists, the addition of their ballots may only have served to offset the loss of peace votes.
Nevertheless, the developments of late 1918 did reveal a deeper weakness in the growing movement. Tenants were willing to participate in rent strikes when they or their neighbors were threatened, yet they proved reticent to maintain long-term league participation or support programs that went beyond the local level. Thus, although its component groups had led scores of strikes in various areas, GNYTL could report only 1,321 dues-paying members by the end of 1918.
Nevertheless, the defeat of most Socialist incumbents in November 1918 did not allow Democratic and Republican officeholders to ignore the housing crisis. The declining vacancy rate -- 2.18 percent in March 1919 -- and continually rising rents were producing potential tenant leaguers at a rapid pace. In the early months of 1919, therefore, many politicians began to take a more active interest in housing. In the forefront were those who had won fusionist victories in areas of Socialist strength. They feared that increasing numbers of tenants would soon come to echo the sentiments of one man who complained that "My family and myself have always been staunch Democrats but if we get no relief we will have to look to the Socialist party even though we despise their doctrines. They may give us a chance to live."
Sensing similar discontent among many families in their districts, several Bronx and Brooklyn assemblymen warned that their constituents were being "driven toward socialism" by rent profiteering. Similarly, the announcement of yet another round of rent increases for May 1 inspired a flood of protest letters to Mayor Hylan. One implored him to "Keep these Rent Profiteers on the run." A Brooklyn woman wrote of a situation so bad that her husband had attempted suicide by swallowing iodine. A third correspondent returned to a familiar anti-landlord theme; "If Bolshevism ever comes to this country, there is no one to blame but such types of persons as this organized band of thieves." These letters reflected the seriousness of the housing crisis. Working-class families throughout the city were faced with rapidly escalating rents. Landlords were demanding as much as fifty and sixty dollars per month for four- and five-room apartments, far more than many families were able to pay. On one day in early April, a Bronx municipal court judge ordered the eviction of three hundred families and later remarked that he had never before seen the courts burdened with so many rent cases.
Forced to respond in some fashion, leaders on both the city and state level opted to appoint committees. On April 14, 1919, Mayor Hylan created the Mayor's Committee on Rent Profiteering, composed of safe Democratic supporters. The committee was chaired by Nathan Hirsch, a property lawyer, and included the Reverend A. Roy Petty of Judson Memorial Church, Edward Hannah, president of the Central Federated Union, Peter Brady, president of the Allied Printing Trades Council, and Harry Bloch, an attorney. Less than a month later, the legislature appointed its own Joint Legislative Committee on Housing under the leadership of Senator Charles Lockwood, a Republican from Brooklyn who had defeated Socialist incumbent A. I. Shiplacoff on a fusion ticket the previous November. The Lockwood committee immediately launched into a search for scapegoats: over the next nine months it conducted an exhaustive investigation of the building trades unions and building materials suppliers, both alleged to be engaged in restrictive practices that inflated the cost of construction.
The Mayor's Committee, meanwhile, had mounted a more substantive program to aid desperate tenants. Churches and armories were turned into temporary shelters for evicted families and their possessions. With the cooperation of the Democratic party organizations in the boroughs, the committee recruited 150 volunteer lawyers to represent indigent tenants in the municipal courts. Its major accomplishment, however, was the establishment of a panel to arbitrate landlord-tenant disputes. While these efforts provided more direct relief than the Lockwood committee's witch-hunt, neither body was willing to mount a politically costly attack on the source of rent profiteering.
This conservatism was demonstrated at the special session of the legislature held in June 1919. While Governor Alfred E. Smith had originally called the session to consider the women's suffrage amendment to the federal constitution, he granted the Mayor's Committee's request that the housing situation be added to the agenda and invited the chairman Nathan Hirsch to submit recommendations. In doing so, the committee ignored a strong call from the municipal court judges for a temporary rent freeze, mandatory one-year leases, and restrictions on an owner's right to evict. Instead it submitted a far weaker package of bills, which were quickly endorsed by the Lockwood committee and passed by the legislature. The resulting laws increased from ten to twenty days the period of notice required before an owner could dispossess a tenant without a written lease as well as the maximum stay of eviction that a judge could give to such a tenant. More fundamental questions of rent levels, unjustified eviction, and building deterioration were ignored.
Yet it was such questions that were creating turmoil in the city's working-class neighborhoods. The case of Sophie Epstein serves as a good example. In the summer of 1919 Sophie Epstein lived with her husband, who was a dressmaker, and three children in a tenement on East 138th Street in the South Bronx. When the landlord sought to nearly double the rent in the Epsteins' building and four adjoining houses, Mr. Epstein and several other tenants decided that they could not pay the increase. Forty of the sixty threatened families joined together, selected a strike committee, raised a fund of ten dollars per family, and sought aid from the Bronx Tenants League.
When the landlord took them to court and sought evictions, a lawyer from the tenants league represented the strikers and scheduled a hearing for the following week. Meanwhile, with the men at work, the leadership of the strikers fell largely to Sophie Epstein. Although unaccustomed to such a leadership role, she did not shrink from it. Under her direction, the tenants picketed the local synagogue, of which the landlord was president, and placed Rent Strike signs in their windows. Then, when the tenants' lawyer was unable to appear at the eviction hearing, Sophie Epstein presented their case. "It really fell upon my shoulders," she recalled nearly sixty years later, "and I went through it heroically, so green, not knowing that I went through it." Her pleas were to no avail, however' and judge Harry Robitzek ordered twelve evictions.
Several days later a city marshall carried out the evictions of three families, including the Epsteins. That night the men guarded the furniture on the street while the women and children slept with neighbors. The next day the tenants committee went to city hall to see Captain Charles Goldsmith, head of the Mayor's Committee arbitration panel, who obtained an injunction delaying the remaining evictions. Sophie Epstein returned to 138th Street, triumphantly stopped the marshall from evicting the other families, and gave a rousing speech to the strikers.
Several days later Goldsmith brought the tenants and the landlord together and reached a settlement. The strikers received a one-year lease containing a promise of repairs in return for an increase of just one dollar per apartment per month. Tenants in two adjacent buildings who did not organize and strike were eventually forced to pay a larger increase.
The case of the Epstein family and their neighbors indicates the intensity of building-level struggles throughout 1919. Tenants used every resource at their command -- the Socialist tenant leagues and the Mayor's Committee, social pressure within the neighborhood and religious congregations, and their combined economic power to withhold rent. More important, tenants like Sophie Epstein drew upon talents and reserves of courage that they had not previously exercised.
As noted above, the Mayor's Committee sought to provide desperate families like the Epsteins with an alternative to the Socialist-led leagues. Its hearing officers tried to negotiate settlements similar to those obtained by league organizers: compromises on rent increases, one-year leases, and repairs. In the early fall Hirsch attempted to expand the committee's role. The volunteer lawyers who served in the municipal courts interceded with the Judges to delay many eviction proceedings until arbitration could be given a chance. The arbitration hearings, which had been held in Manhattan, were extended to central locations in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. These hearings were often highly charged mixtures of farce and tragedy. A group of East Bronx tenants arrived at one in a motorcade headed by a jazz band playing "Homesick Blues." But at another meeting three thousand angry tenants stormed the building and jeered the landlords, while one frustrated man assaulted the chairman. Such physical attacks upon participants were commonplace. Chief arbiter Charles Goldsmith became a near folk hero and was regularly featured in newspaper accounts of the committee's work.
By the end of 1919 Hirsch's staff had settled an impressive number of cases; the chairman claimed success in 95 percent of the thirty thousand disputes heard since April. Despite charges from the Socialists that it was a "landlords forum," the committee's negotiation sessions appear to have been conducted fairly; arbitrators generally attempted to elicit evidence of building conditions, expenses, and profit levels upon which to base their recommendations. The real problem stemmed from a lack of authority to enforce agreements and protect those tenants who sought the committee's aid. Chairman Hirsch admitted that many landlords reneged and that some sought revenge against strike leaders and participants. Such faults notwithstanding, the Mayor's Committee was successful in one of its primary tasks. It gave thousands of tenants the opportunity to reach agreement with their landlords without further clogging the courts or turning to the Socialists.
Tenant leaders were quick to ridicule the relief efforts of the Mayor's Committee and to point out the weaknesses of its arbitration machinery. For example, A. I. Shiplacoff told one league meeting, "What the suffering tenants of this city are asking for is not army cots in churches, fly filled tents and army barracks. They're asking for the right to live in their own homes." And indeed, the success of the committee did not seem to slow the growth of the tenant movement. In late April a number of Brooklyn progressive organizations, led by the Socialists and the consumers league, established the Brownsville Tenants League. Pledging to resist further rent increases, the leadership originally planned a general rent strike. While this failed to develop, the organization did lead dozens of strikes during the following summer and fall.
Meanwhile, Socialist assemblyman Charles Solomon and his supporters formed the Brooklyn Tenants Union (BTU) in the same area and quickly demanded 10 percent rent reductions. The building owners balked, however, with one owner's lawyer telling the BTU leaders, "We've got the money and it's money that counts." The BTU retaliated with a rent strike against the eight buildings owned by the president of the landlords association. Over the next ten weeks, tenant leaders were beaten, houses were picketed, prospective tenants threatened, and one building completely emptied. The tenants ultimately achieved victory, but not before 72 of 192 striking families were evicted.
A large strike in the Williamsburg section that same summer showed that tenants could draw upon varying types of support to achieve victory. Four hundred and fifty families in seventeen jointly owned buildings struck on August 1, 1919, under the auspices of the Williamsburg Tenants League. In a rare example of cooperation with the Mayor's Committee, the tenants took the case to arbitration, but the landlord refused to accept an adverse ruling. On September 4 the owner obtained eviction notices for the strikers. Soon a city marshall, fifty policemen, and thirty union movers arrived to dispossess the tenants, but the moving men refused to do so when the striking women displayed their tenant league membership cards and insisted that they too were "union members." Despite the willingness of the landlord to expend the six thousand dollars required to evict the families, three additional attempts to recruit a work force were unsuccessful. In desperation, the owner offered to settle; he received one-third of the increase originally demanded in return for a nine-month lease and improvements in the buildings.
In the late summer the Lower East Side was successfully organized. The absence of this strongly Socialist area from the ranks of the tenant movement during nearly three years of agitation is perhaps accounted for by the fact that its rents had remained relatively low. It had served as a "safety valve," with thousands of families from newer neighborhoods in upper Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn retreating back to its cold-water flats. In time, however, it again became crowded, rents began to rise, and residents became restive. In response, Socialist alderman Abe Beckerman established the East Side Tenants League at the party's headquarters on Avenue C and within several weeks was leading fifteen rent strikes and claiming at least one thousand members.
Thus by late 1919 the tenant movement had achieved considerable stability, with effective local organizations in a dozen working-class neighborhoods in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn. While some Socialist claims of one hundred thousand members were clearly exaggerated, the more-often-stated figure of thirty-five thousand members among the various organizations is probably accurate, if the criterion used is participation in, or active support for, a rent strike rather than long-term dues-paying membership.
While certainly disturbed by the continued growth of the tenant movement, municipal officials were equally alarmed by the large number of cases for which neither the leagues nor the Mayor's Committee could find a settlement. As landlords attempted to squeeze more rent from their tenants or to evict them to bring in a new family at a higher figure, the courts became clogged. A total of 96,623 families faced eviction proceedings in 1919, with the majority of these cases coming before the bench in the fall months. Many judges were hearing several hundred cases per day, and evening sessions had to be introduced. Under these circumstances, some freely admitted their inability to deal with each tenant fairly. Usually a tenant would be allowed to pay his old rent for another month and then vacate. As a result, the October 1, 1919, "moving day" was described as the most congested in the city's history; over seventy-five thousand families in just the Bronx and Manhattan changed apartments. One city paper noted that "Usually on New York's moving day a trend in a definite direction may be noticed, but this is an unusual year. At one time most of the population was flocking to the Bronx, at others they chose new homes on Washington or Morningside Heights or in the suburbs. This year they count themselves among the elect if they have any place to which to go." The market for apartments was so brisk that the real estate section of the Tribune headlined, "Goldmines No More Profitable Than Realty These Days." One Bronx judge charged that the wholesale use of dispossess proceedings by many landlords was causing serious distress, which made tenants "easy prey for agitators who are Bolsheviks and other forms of radicals."
The recurring fear of a radicalized tenantry is explicable by the degree to which the period of rent striking coincided with the postwar Red Scare. The nativist anti-radicalism that the Wilson administration had fostered during the war remained virulent throughout 1919. Early in the year large mobs, often led by veterans in uniform, attacked meetings and parades organized by immigrant and left-wing political groups. In July a major anti-black riot occurred in St. Louis. Labor unrest, at a high level throughout the year, peaked in the fall with major conflicts in the steel, coal, and railroad industries. The federal Justice Department, under A. Mitchell Palmer, attributed the increase in labor strife to radicals and responded with a series of raids in November 1919 and January 1920 in which thousands of alleged subversives were arrested. The hysteria engendered by the Red Scare did not subside for several months, after Palmer's prediction of a nationwide revolt for May 1 proved groundless.
In New York City the tenant movement had experienced red-baiting well before the Red Scare. Landlords had long sought to label organizers as "Bolsheviks" or to claim that their buildings were being seized by tenant "Soviets." But the fall of 1919 saw the start of a concerted campaign against the tenant leagues because of their radical potential. In the municipal courts, some judges began to single out league members and treat them more harshly. One East Side justice bragged that he had "stamped out the Tenant's League." Another judge, in Harlem, found three women strikers guilty of assault, then offered to release them if they revealed information concerning the organizers of their group.
In early October, at the request of Nathan Hirsch, Mayor Hylan instructed Manhattan district attorney Anthony Swann to begin grand jury investigation of "certain east side organizations" that had led a "score or more" rent strikes. Hirsch claimed, "We have records of cases where in effect the tenants undertook to set up Soviet government, and we know of others where the actions of these leaders have been little less than anarchistic. Many of those who join these societies are foreign born, and they have no idea that their actions have been in direct violation of the law."
Throughout October, Hirsch, Swann, and their allies issued a series of statements to the city's newspapers, which nourished fears of the tenant movement. They thoroughly detailed the links between the leagues and the Socialist party and claimed that tenant leaders encouraged the willful destruction of apartments. One judge warned, "I know that if this poisonous virus is not removed these people [league organizers] will lead this great mob of people into anarchy, riot and revolution." Taking the estimates of the most unrealistic tenant leaders at face value, they charged that the Socialists would soon convince 250,000 families to withhold rent -- a force that even the police and the National Guard could not evict. Furthermore, the Socialists were accused of using supposed anti-rent rallies to promote the party's candidates and of diverting strike funds into its campaign coffers.
The Socialists denied that they had misled tenants, yet freely admitted that they hoped to gain votes as a result of their pro-tenant activities. Abe Beckerman observed, "If we can handle the rent situation it is only natural that the people we helped would vote for us. We don't only take Socialists into our tenant leagues. We take anybody and we don't expect all the Democrats and Republicans to vote for us because we bring their rents down, but gratitude ought to give us enough of their votes to win the election."
Indeed, the Socialists realized that they had a potent issue and put it to good use. In the 1919 campaign the party's candidates attacked Republican and Democratic incumbents for their failure to resolve the housing crisis and for their lack of sympathy for tenants. They promised, if elected, to seek a standard one-year lease and restrictions on rent increases and the right of eviction. As an off-year election, the contest was not well covered by the press, but it appears that housing was a key issue. Several years later, an aide to Assemblyman George Jesse, a Republican from Washington Heights, recalled that "The rent question had become more acute and I heard Mr. Jesse make many speeches and I do not think that he ever made a speech during the campaign of  in which he did not state that he was in favor of some law to protect tenants of the City of New York."
The election resulted in a limited victory for the Socialists. Faced with fusion in many races, the party increased its share of the vote by several percentage points in most districts and succeeded in electing five assemblymen (two from the Bronx and one each from East Harlem, the Lower East Side, and Brownsville) and four aldermen. The head of the ticket, candidate for president of the Board of Aldermen James O'Neal, received 121,000 votes -- just 20,000 short of Morris Hillquit's mayoral tally in 1917. These results are even more significant since many tenants who might have voted Socialist -- those evicted in October and early November -- were disenfranchised due to their change of residence.
Socialist satisfaction was short-lived, however. When the assembly convened on January 7, 1920, one of the most noteworthy Red Scare episodes began. After being duly sworn in with their colleagues, the five Socialists were summoned to the front of the chamber by Speaker Thaddeus Sweet and denounced for having been elected on a platform "inimical" to the best interests of the United States and the state of New York. By a vote of 140 to 6 they were suspended until their fitness to serve could be considered. A bitter three-month battle ensued, with the right of the Socialists to serve debated in the press as well as in the assembly chamber. But ultimately Sweet's control of a solid bloc of upstate Republicans proved decisive, and the five were expelled on March 31, 1920.
Meanwhile, as the Red Scare was focusing attention on the Socialists and their allies in the tenants movement, new and more conservative forces were becoming involved in the housing crisis. First were the Community Councils of National Defense. Over sixty of these neighborhood-oriented bodies had been formed during the final months of the war to aid in civil defense, the re-employment of veterans, and the reporting of all types of profiteering. By late 1919 about a dozen councils remained active in a number of programs -- Americanization, the improvement of neighborhood health and transportation facilities, and campaigns against rising food prices. As the housing crisis continued to grow in severity, several councils in upper Manhattan and the Bronx established committees to aid tenants. In early 1920 they were joined by two new tenant groups. The Washington Heights Tenants Association, led by Harry Allen Ely, was an outgrowth of the Audubon Community Council. By far the most influential, however, was the Fair Play Rent Association of the north-central Bronx. Initially founded at the end of January, the organization grew rapidly and had over thirty-five hundred members in more than two hundred buildings by mid-March.
Although good data concerning the makeup of most of the community councils and conservative tenant associations is lacking, it can be established that they differed from the Socialist-led tenant leagues in several very important respects. The latter represented a predominantly Jewish, and to a lesser extent Italian, working-class constituency, had a Jewish leadership, and maintained alliances with the Socialist party, the consumers leagues, and the labor unions of the United Hebrew Trades. The community councils and conservative tenant associations present a different picture. Their membership, which was open to landlords as well as tenants, appears to have been considerably more middle class and was concentrated in areas of better housing. The leadership was largely Irish-American, with some Germans and old-stock Americans. They had close political ties to local Democratic and Republican organizations. For example, Fair Play's president, George Donnelly, had once been secretary to the Bronx borough president. Their allies were the municipal unions (police, firemen, teachers) and various patriotic groups such as the American Legion and the Sons of the Revolution.
As the respective political allegiances of the two forces would suggest, the greatest differences between the Socialist groups and the conservative tenant organizations concerned ideology and tactics. Leaders of the community councils and newer tenant associations were both strongly anti-Socialist and unalterably opposed to rent striking. This attitude is best illustrated by the founding of the Fair Play Rent Association (FPRA). Faced with a rent increase they did not wish to pay, the residents at 2789 Valentine Avenue felt legally bound to do so. Their frustration led to the formation of the association -- dedicated to the election of pro-tenant legislators and the use of "moral force" to effect legal remedies. From its inception, the FPRA was careful to note that it did not interfere in individual cases and that it bore no ill feelings toward most landlords. Under the motto "Fair play to the landlord and tenant, and jail to the profiteer," the organization invited the cooperation of building owners.
While the leadership of the tenant associations and community councils certainly possessed sympathy for families pressed by rising rents, evaluation of their broader motives is difficult. Their close ties to local Democratic and Republican leaders suggest that their efforts may have represented a covert attempt to blunt the political impact of the Socialist tenant movement, but this cannot be demonstrated. It does seem certain, however, that one of their key goals was to direct tenant discontent into legitimate channels, namely the legislative process and the courts. In this sense the conservative groups functioned much as the Mayor's Committee.
At the same time that the conservative tenant associations were being founded, the organized labor establishment was also growing restive. The various unions of the 350,000-member Central Federated Union (CFU) had negotiated contracts in 1919 on the basis of assurances from President Woodrow Wilson that postwar inflation was at an end. Such had not been the case, however, and CFU president Edward Hannah, who was also a member of the Mayor's Committee, came under increasing pressure from rank and file. Union labor, he reported, felt that it was receiving fair dollar wages but that the increased cost of living, with rents a major factor, was lowering real income.
In early February 1920 a delegation from the CFU, headed by Hannah and Ernest Bohm, met with Mayor Hylan to demand legislative curbs on rent increases. Bohm reportedly told the mayor: "We mean business. We do not intend to permit action to be put off indefinitely. Our membership has been hard hit by rent profiteering and they are in no mood to be put off by kind words."
One month later CFU delegates met to consider further action. In an incident typical of early 1920, the Times and the World erroneously reported that the delegates had endorsed a general strike and had instructed membership not to pay exorbitant rents. Although the Times corrected itself the next day and admitted that the idea of a general strike had been rejected by the CFU, the impact remained.
Indeed, the very hint of such action by its labor supporters spurred the Hylan administration to cooperate. The mayor threatened to increase the property assessments of landlords who raised rents. He called a conference of real estate men and building trade union leaders to explore possible means of stimulating building, after which the CFU and the Mayor's Committee jointly proposed a $20 million city bond issue for public housing. Most important, however, was the city administration's endorsement of a CFU proposal that municipal judges be given the discretionary power to determine the reasonableness of rent increases.
For Socialist tenant leaders, the early months of 1920 represented a period of great uncertainty. New participants were entering the housing struggle, while league members faced discrimination in the municipal courts, and the Socialist party's elected representatives, expected to advance pro-tenant legislation, had been suspended. The maintenance of the movement appeared in jeopardy unless the proper tactics could be utilized. Most of the leagues responded by adhering to the fundamental, building-level activities that had contributed to their early growth. While avoiding the courts as much as possible, tenant leaders continued to lead rent strikes and negotiate settlements with landlords. The Harlem Tenants League alone signed over four hundred leases in the period from October 1919 to March 1920.
Some individuals within the movement demanded the use of more extreme tactics, however. In early March the Brownsville Tenants League, under the leadership of Leo Gitlin, began to organize a general rent strike for May 1. Members of the Brownsville group had advocated such a step in 1918 and 1919, but had met with opposition from the other leagues. Now Gitlin began to mobilize and predict success. His bulletins reported a steadily increasing following: 2,000 on March 5; 10,000 two weeks later; by March 22, 500 organized buildings with 29,000 tenants ready to withhold rent.
In retrospect, it is clear that Gitlin represented only a small minority in the tenant movement and that he greatly exaggerated the extent of his following. But the significance of the general-rent-strike threat rested not in its actual strength but rather in the fact that it was widely accepted as bona fide. There were several reasons for that acceptance. First was the widespread realization that thousands of tenants were indeed angry and desperate. Another round of increases on May 1, the city's heaviest moving day, might have been the last straw. Second, until Gitlin was denounced by other Socialist tenant leaders in mid-April, the Call accepted his statements as accurate and added to their impact by incorrectly linking all rent strikes to the "general strike movement in Brownsville and other sections of the city." Last, and most important, was the fact that Gitlin's campaign was a prophesy fulfilled. Caught up in the Red Scare hysteria, Hirsch, District Attorney Swann, and others had warned of Socialist attempts to organize hundreds of thousands of tenants. Thus they were predisposed to accept the general-rent-strike threat as genuine, regardless of its substance.
Conservative tenant leaders and city officials responded to the threat of a tenant uprising by increasing pressure on the legislature. Edward Murphy of the Inwood Community Council told an assembly committee: "We are playing with fire. If you had the sentiments expressed by sober-minded, law abiding citizens in my district, you would know that action must be taken now. They have been driven into a condition that is no good for any country." State senator Loring Black, Jr., of Brooklyn warned of a "social revolution beyond description on May 1." Fiorello La Guardia, recently elected president of the Board of Aldermen, predicting that tenants would refuse to pay rent if not aided, noted, "You can't dispossess every tenant in the city." Municipal court judge Joseph Callahan insisted that landlords would have to trust the courts -- "Somebody must stand between them [landlords] and the Bolsheviki of this state." Lastly, Judge Harry Robitzek told a legislative committee, "if you do not give us legislation I have no hesitancy in telling you that you cannot prevent the socialist voting population in the Bronx from increasing from 30,000 in the last election to one hundred and fifty thousand."
In a 1962 article Stanley Coben argued that the Red Scare represented an attempt to deal with "a number of severe social and economic dislocations," such as inflation, disillusionment over the war, labor strife, and scattered acts of terrorism, "which threatened the national equilibrium." Many Americans responded by reaffirming their own national values -- through the 100 percent Americanism movement -- and by attributing responsibility for the nation's problems to foreign influences. Statements made by public officials and representatives of the conservative tenant groups indicate that a similar process shaped attitudes about the housing crisis -- indeed that such attitudes epitomized the Red Scare mentality.
Thus the profiteering landlord became stereotyped as a "Bolsheviki Russian Jew landlord." A letter to Governor Smith from an "American Jew" demonstrates the virulence of such views: "I hope that you will pass those rent bills to kill those Bolsheviki profiteering Russia Jew landlords.... The Russian Jews pass a remark that they will make the American people kiss their hands and feet. If you will let me carry a gun and look out for me, I will kill these Russian dogs in a few hours."
Such unrestrained bigots were not alone in promoting this stereotype, however. At a meeting of the Board of Aldermen in March, Republican Fred Smith of Brooklyn asserted that "Most of the rent profiteers are Hebrews." While testifying at a hearing in Albany, La Guardia responded to a heckling landlord by shouting, "Yes, hiss, my friends. You people who emigrated from the pales of Russia but a short time ago." Not surprisingly, the legislature also received numerous requests to restrict the rights of aliens or those who did not speak English to lease or own property.
The rent-striking tenant was often portrayed in an identical fashion -- as an alien ignorant of American law and norms of behavior. Unable to pay the high rents demanded by profiteers, he turned in desperation to the organizers of the Socialist tenant leagues who sought political advantage in his plight by organizing illegal rent strikes and anti-landlord vandalism and cheated him through fraudulent demands for strike funds.
The solution to the crisis, conservative spokespersons argued, was to be found in compromise legislation. They repeatedly expressed the belief that most tenants and landlords (implicitly American tenants and landlords) could cooperate with a well-informed legislature to develop the proper remedies. As a representative of the Fair Play Rent Association told the Lockwood committee:
Now, I am through but I have got just this to say. I am an American woman. The American form of government has never failed us since it was established and it will not fail us now, and you men will help us now that you realize and understand the situation down there. You are going to pass laws. You are going to protect landlords. They have got rights under the constitution. And you are going to help the rest of us, because I tell you, gentlemen, that between the Bolshevism of the poor, helpless, ignorant, illiterate alien, that came here believing that this was the golden land and finds out it is not the land of plenty and between the Bolshevism of the people that will squeeze every last dollar out of their fellow men and women and then in the name of patriotism put it in Liberty Bonds, I am going to tell you that between the Bolshevism below and the Bolshevism up above, it is a case of God help the rest of us in the middle.
By late March, Socialist tenant leaders were also looking toward the legislature for assistance. Although rebuffed in the past, they agreed to join a coalition to pressure Albany. The driving force behind this effort was the United Hebrew Trades (UHT), which called a mass meeting for March 29. Six hundred and forty-eight delegates from several hundred organizations, such as Jewish labor unions, consumer societies, synagogues, fraternal orders, Socialist party locals, and ten tenant leagues, gathered at Beethoven Hall on Fifth Street and formed the United Tenants Organization (UTO). Although some representatives advocated the use of a general rent strike as the ultimate tactic, the UTO's sixty-member executive committee adopted a milder approach. The new organization decided to seek favorable court decisions, work for the designation of housing as a public utility, and petition the legislature for legislation similar to that sought by the CFU, namely laws giving judges discretion to set fair rents.
The United Hebrew Trades (UHT) had entered the tenant struggle for several reasons. Of great importance was leadership's desire to aid union members who were directly affected by rising rents and deplorable housing conditions. Many also wished to support their allies in the Socialist-led tenant leagues. But the major impetus was the fear of growing anti-Semitism. As noted above, the central position of Jews on both sides of the controversy, combined with the irrational passions of the Red Scare, were contributing to an increasing number of anti-Semitic attacks. In seeking compromise solutions to the housing crisis, the leaders of the UHT and other Jewish organizations hoped to defuse the situation.
Ironically, this last ditch attempt by the UHT, the Socialist tenant leagues, and their supporters to seek compromise was totally misunderstood. The New York Times, pro-landlord and alarmist from the outset, headlined its page-one story "Organize Revolt against Rents" and reported that "The delegates were exhorted to combine, not as they had been doing, in houses, but in entire blocks and in sections of &e city, and to withhold all rents they deem oppressive." The next day, Arthur Hilly, who had succeeded Nathan Hirsch as chairman of the Mayor's Committee, charged the United Tenants Organization with fomenting a general rent strike and condemned such action as a "planned display of Red flagged disorder."
By this time, however, the shape of the legislature's response had been largely determined. In mid-March state senate and assembly leaders had conferred with Charles Lockwood and members of the Bill Drafting Department. They produced a package of bills that reflected the key aspects of the proposals offered by conservative tenant leaders and by the CFU and UHT. After a series of hearings in late March, the bills were slightly modified, with concessions made to all parties. This compromise slate was passed overwhelmingly on March 31 and signed by the governor on the following day. Ironically, the assembly had voted to expel its Socialist members just hours before passing the housing bills.
The April Rent Laws, as these statutes came to be known, included several major provisions: 
Chapter 137 granted to municipal court judges power to grant stays of eviction lasting up to one year when convinced that the tenant was unable to find similar quarters at a rate equal to that which he had been paying.
Chapter 136 allowed a tenant to defend against eviction for nonpayment on the grounds that the rent demanded was "unjust, unreasonable and oppressive." On increases of 25 percent or less the burden of proof was on the tenant. Larger increases had to be justified by the landlord.
Chapter 130 extended until October 1 following occupancy all written leases that did not specify the duration of tenancy.
Chapter 133 required landlords to establish "to the satisfaction of the court" that a tenant was "objectionable" when such charges were made as the grounds for a summary eviction. Previously, a landlord had only to swear that he was acting in "good faith."
The housing situation remained tense for several weeks following passage of the rent laws. Arthur Hilly continued to predict a large-scale tenant uprising for May Day, with a thousand buildings "organized into a kind of a soviet" and widespread sabotage, but Socialist tenant leaders dismissed such charges. On April 21 representatives of the United Tenants Organization and its component groups condemned Leo Gitlin, the leader of the alleged general rent strike, as irresponsible. Harry Rich of the Brooklyn Tenants Union told the Call, "If there is any rent strike being planned in Brooklyn or Brownsville by any such large bodies of tenants, I have never heard of it." He insisted that since April 1 his members had been "satisfied in nearly all cases with the decisions of the Brownsville justices under the laws." When May Day arrived, Hilly's fears were, in fact, proved groundless as only 392 tenants were reported on strike.
Despite their initial positive reception, however, it soon became apparent that the April Rent Laws were inadequate and, in the long run, capable of producing an even greater crisis than that which had prompted their passage. In effect, the laws had created three categories of tenant: Those with written leases were safe until their agreements expired. They were the only lucky ones. The second category included month-to-month tenants -- those without any written lease. Thousands received demands for 25 percent increases during the spring and summer. According to chapter 136 they could fight such demands in court as "unjust, unreasonable and oppressive," but this proved virtually impossible. Judge Robitzek noted that "I do not know of a single tenant who has been able to establish that the 25 percent was unreasonable. You see, the figures are all in the possession of the landlord and it is impossible." Tenants who lost such cases were invariably given stays of from one month to a year. Robitzek alone claimed to have granted ten thousand between April 1 and the end of July. But eventually these stays would expire and thousands of families would be on the street.
The third category of tenancy represented the greatest danger. Chapter 130 provided that written leases of unspecified duration would expire on October 1. Landlords were under no obligation to renew these leases, and therefore began notifying such tenants months in advance to move on September 30 -- since new tenants were not covered by the rent laws and could be charged much higher rents. The city faced the prospect of sixty thousand evictions from this provision alone.
During the summer of 1920, as the implications of the April Laws became apparent, pressure for new legislation grew. But the roles of the major groups were markedly different from what they had been earlier in the year. For the Socialist tenant leagues, the spring and summer months represented a period of relative inactivity. The Call, generally eager to publicize any example of organized tenant protest, mentioned only one mass meeting and a handful of strikes during the entire period. There were several reasons for this quiescence. As was noted previously, the level of rent striking was directly related to the extent of tenant discontent. During the spring, there was general satisfaction with the operation of the laws, based primarily on the wholesale granting of long-term stays by the courts. Most families remained calm so long as they did not face immediate ouster.
Ironically, the limited activity of the tenant leagues was probably also the result of their close relationship with the Socialist party. Ordinarily this bond benefited tenants by providing trained leaders, meeting halls, a newspaper, and other resources that the leagues would otherwise have had to develop independently. After March 31, however, the Socialist party devoted itself almost entirely to the reelection of its expelled assemblymen in the fall campaign. In the case of those who held key positions in both the party and a tenant league, this may have led to neglect of housing problems.
The conservative tenant associations, on the other hand, were quite active during the summer months. In late July a new organization, the University Heights Tenants Association, was formed in the Bronx. Early in the following month the Fair Play Rent Association established a second branch in the Mott Haven-Morrisania section. Most important, however, was Fair Play and the Washington Heights Tenants Association pressure for a special session of the legislature to pass additional rent laws. On August 10 a delegation estimated at two thousand tenants met with Governor Smith in Albany and presented him with a petition containing six thousand signatures; the delegates predicted riots unless the April Laws were strengthened. Three days later Smith issued a call for the special session.
Despite the timing of these events, tenant associations were not the dominant influence on Smith or the legislature. For with the end of the Red Scare and a reduction in the level of rent striking, political leaders no longer viewed the housing crisis as the cutting edge of a social revolution, but rather as a specific, though grave, political-administrative problem. In fact, the most significant pressure came from the municipal court judges. They had been at the center of the storm from the outset. Several members of the bench had argued for greater discretionary powers as early as the spring of 1919, but government officials had opted for appointment of the Mayor's Committee and the Lockwood committee. The April 1920 laws had also represented a partial yet poorly conceived concession to judicial requests.
By the summer of 1920 each day was offering further demonstration that the April Laws were inadequate. Now the judges spoke out even more forcefully. At legislative hearings held in July and August, judges testified to the gravity of the situation -- thousands of stays of eviction which would soon come due, thousands of tenants denied lease renewals, and ever-increasing court calendars. It was their pressure, more than that of any other group, that spurred the legislature to action.
When the special session convened on September 20, there was little doubt that it would have to act quickly. Architect and housing reformer Clarence Stein captured the mood of the situation perfectly when he wrote in the September issue of the Survey, "In New York City this summer the housing situation is calm. It is the calmness that comes before the storm."
The president of the Board of Municipal Court Judges was more specific when he warned:
the dispossess proceedings against tenants during the month of October will exceed in number the record for the whole year of 1919. If the hard-hit public is to be relieved, action must be taken within a period of ten days after the Legislature convenes, otherwise our new May Day, October first, will find us in a terrible condition. Our courts will be packed with frantic men and women. You will have to act quickly.
Further encouraged by a strong message from the governor, the legislature on September 27 passed the Emergency Rent Laws, a series of statutes incorporating the recommendations of the judges.
Chapter 944 reenacted all provisions of chapter 136 but eliminated the 25 percent clause, thus allowing the municipal court judges to determine the reasonableness of all increases and placing upon the landlord the burden of proof. To assist the judges in making their determinations, landlords seeking increases were required to submit a bill of particulars setting forth figures as to gross income and expenses.
Chapter 942 was directed at the threat of evictions for those whose leases expired on October 1. It severely restricted the rights of landlords to deny lease renewals to such tenants.
Enactment of the Emergency Rent Laws of 1920 marked a historic occasion -- save for a federal statute governing the District of Columbia passed several months before, it was the first rent control program passed in the nation.
Although the impact of the Emergency Rent Laws remained a subject of debate throughout the 1920s, several effects of the legislation were clear from the outset. Most notable were the designation of the municipal courts as legal arbiters with authority over disputed rents and a reduction in radical tenant activity.
As noted earlier, the level of rent striking during the summer of 1920 had been relatively low. The decrease in rent striking was even more dramatic following passage of the September laws. The only major strike noted in the news media was that of forty-five hundred tenants led by the Bronx Tenants League in the East Fordham section -- and that was for a 7 percent rent reduction demanded by garment workers who had received a 20 percent wage cut. On the whole, it would appear that the Socialist-led groups were satisfied with the Emergency Rent Laws. In early October several thousand members of the Workmens Consumer League of Brownsville held a victory parade in which they carried signs reading No More Moving and Victory Is Ours.
As tenants rejoiced, the thousands of lease termination cases slated for October 1 worked their way into the municipal courts, where the crowding of court calendars surpassed even spring 1920 levels; indeed, the number of cases continued to increase during late 1920 and early 1921. Judge Robitzek of the Bronx municipal court reported that the backlog of cases would take several years to hear and complained that the Board of Estimate had "turned a deaf ear" to judicial requests for additional clerks and courtroom facilities. Robitzek's prediction proved accurate: the courts remained clogged with rent cases as late as 1925. This is understandable since neither landlords nor tenants had much to lose by going to court. In contesting a rent increase, a tenant was assured of his apartment at the old rent pending hearing of the case, often after a delay of several years. If the tenant eventually lost the case, he was required to pay the increase retroactively, but many families moved quietly before their cases came to trial. Landlords were encouraged to sue because they were assured the old rent, collected arrears if victorious and if the tenant had not moved, and could even include legal costs in bills of particulars filed with the court.
Faced with a steadily mounting caseload, the municipal court justices sought to develop practical guidelines for the administration of the rent laws. After much confusion and several higher court reversals, a common approach evolved. Landlords were allowed to bring suit only in the court district in which the building was located, or that in which they lived. This prevented landlords from forcing tenants to appear in distant court districts in Staten Island or Queens. More important, the justices agreed that a "reasonable rent" would be that which gave the landlord an 8 percent profit on the market value of his property. While this system encouraged many "paper exchanges" of buildings to enhance their market value figure, it was used throughout the 1920s.
Against this background, both major components of the tenant movement experienced a significant transformation. The Socialist-led wing of the movement went into decline shortly after passage of the September laws. It is most likely that the serious schism that split the Socialist party itself also weakened its dependent tenant organizations. The party's split over the Communist issue started in February 1919 with the organization of the Left Wing Section and was completed during the Chicago Emergency Convention in August of the same year. National dues-paying membership, which had peaked at 108,504 in 1919, declined to only 13,484 by 1921. Although the New York local remained the strongest of the remnants, it was obviously much weaker after the traumatic summer of 1919. Another major factor inhibiting the activities of Socialist tenant leaders was the repression associated with the Red Scare. Whatever the exact reasons, there is no evidence of Socialist-led tenant activity after early 1921.
The conservative tenant associations and community councils experienced a far different fate -- continued growth, an expanding role in landlord-tenant matters, and increased unity. The relative complexity of the Emergency Rent Laws accounted for this in large part, since most tenants needed assistance in using them properly. The tenant associations were well suited for this role. Their leaders had good ties with both city and state officials and had consistently advocated legal, legitimate alternatives to the rent strike. Above all, association leaders wished to retain the status and prestige gained during the 1920 crisis. Thus, while the Socialist tenant leagues ceased activity, the conservative tenant associations readily increased their efforts.
In doing so, they continued to concentrate their activities in the Bronx and the northwest section of Manhattan. Although there may have been some slight, independent activity in Brownsville, East New York, and Yorkville during the early part of the decade, the areas of previous Socialist tenant league strength were not really represented in the movement after 1920.
Of the conservative groups, several deserve special attention. The Washington Heights Tenants Association (WHTA) grew out of the Audobon Community Council in late 1919. Headquartered on Saint Nicholas Avenue, WHTA maintained a large membership -- consistently above seven thousand -- and was one of the most effective and vocal tenant organizations of the decade. This was due, in large part, to the organization's leader, Harry Allen Ely. A vigorous, seventy-one-year-old self-proclaimed "soldier of fortune," Ely led most of the movement's lobbying efforts and published a short-lived periodical The Tenant. He was an acerbic critic of landlords and city officials; indeed, he was found guilty of criminal libel for maligning a municipal court judge in 1925. He obviously had the allegiance of his members; following his conviction, a meeting of the WHTA raised $600 in bail money in only ten minutes.
Another strong group from Manhattan was the Academy Tenants Association. Led by attorney Lucille Zeumer, Academy represented several thousand tenants on the West Side from 96th to 125th streets. Zeumer, who also represented other Manhattan tenant groups, kept Academy functioning from its founding in 1924 through the end of the decade and remained a major movement spokesperson after many other tenant leaders had passed from the scene.
The best organized borough was the Bronx, with each of several territories served by a specific group. The South Bronx Tenant and Civic League recruited in the entire area south of 149th Street. The Melrose Tenant and Civil League was responsible for the section from 149th to 167th streets. The Tremont League handled tenants living north of 167th Street and east of the Grand Concourse. Its jurisdiction coincided slightly with that of the Fair Play Rent Association, which gave its boundaries as north of Tremont Avenue and west of the Grand Concourse and Third Avenue. In addition, several other organizations served smaller subsections of the borough. The University Heights League was active in the area bounded by Fordham Road, 180th Street, the Grand Concourse, and Sedgewick Avenue. The Bronx Protective Tenants Association organized the largely Italian East Fordham Road section.
Although each group was autonomous within its own territory, there was a good deal of cooperation among the various organizations. The Melrose, South Bronx, Tremont, and University leagues were united in an umbrella organization called the Bronx Council of Tenant Leagues. The council's chief attorney, Agnes Craig, handled most lobbying activities and was the borough's most prominent tenant representative during the decade. Many of the city's neighborhood tenant groups were also affiliated with the Federation of Tenant Associations (FTA). Founded in February 1921 by several Bronx organizations, including the Fair Play Rent Association and the Tremont League, the FTA was described as "made up for the most part of tenants of the so-called middle class" and "perhaps the strongest organization of its kind ever attempted." The federation's first president was Thomas Moore of the Tremont League, but Harry Allen Ely soon assumed leadership. The FTA's center of power seemed to shift also, with the Washington Heights and other Manhattan groups becoming its most active affiliates. Under Ely's aggressive leadership, the federation served as a key lobbying force into the late 1920s.
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. 
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.  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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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." 
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. 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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. The program sparked a tremendous surge in residential building. As shown in table 2.1, 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, 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. 
Rate of Vacancies in Rental Apartment Units,
New York City, 1919-1928
Year Rate (%)
1922 Not available
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.
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." 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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
The events and processes that both led to and followed enactment of the Emergency Rent Laws warrant study, for they provide excellent insights into the development of tenant organization tactics and strategies, the dynamics of movement building, the ways in which change is effected, and the problems associated with maintaining and adding to tenant protections once achieved.
The Socialist tenant leagues were clearly the organizational catalysts of the postwar movement. Despite limited resources, they greatly improved upon the building- and neighborhood-level rent strike. Picketing, demonstrating at the place of business if the owner was a local merchant, threatening prospective replacement tenants, and exerting pressure within local religious congregations made it extremely difficult for landlords to achieve large rent increases or evict families who resisted. While rent striking has gained legal legitimacy and hence greater efficacy in the past twenty years, the actual organization and implementation of a building-level rent strike has probably not changed significantly since its maturation in 1919 and 1920.
Successful organizing and rent striking resulted in major accomplishments on two fronts. The most basic, and most often overlooked, were the individual victories won against local landlords. Direct action, coupled with effective use of the courts and even the competing Mayor's Committee, enabled thousands of families to resist exorbitant rent increases. avoid eviction, and win improved building conditions.
The leagues' most important achievement, albeit indirectly, was the legislation passed to deal with the housing crisis. The Emergency Rent Laws were revolutionary in that the right of a property owner to charge what the market would bear was subordinated to the larger public good. Of course, the precedent was somewhat limited by their administration since an established profit level was the key criterion for determining whether a requested increase was reasonable; thus the right to a profit was not entirely secondary to the needs of poor families. One can also argue that the tax exemption program of the 1920s was also a major milestone, given the amount of construction that was subsidized.
It must also be recognized, however, that the laws passed in 1920 only represented a limited victory. Indeed, it is significant that the Socialist leagues failed to develop support for more far-reaching goals such as public housing, among non-Socialists ensnared in the crisis. This partly reflects how difficult it is to maintain a family's participation in a local tenant organization once its immediate problem has been successfully dealt with. More important, however, the failure of the Socialists to build a larger agenda resulted from the particular chain of events during the postwar period.
The achievement of a major policy or programmatic change requires four major steps. The issue must be raised and recognized; it must be introduced into the decision-making arena; it must pass through the decision-making process; and, lastly, it must be fully implemented.
In this case, such change took place only in response to an extremely widespread crisis and only through the complementary efforts of a variety of groups -- the tenant leagues and the more conservative associations, as well as third parties -- some of whom did not view each other as allies.
The issue initially gained legitimacy because of two interrelated factors. First, the impact of the post-World War I housing crisis, unlike the situations in 1904 and 1908, was so widespread and serious that it could not be ignored. Second, the Socialists proved capable of mobilizing desperate tenants and capitalizing politically on the inability of the city and state to respond effectively. Had the crisis not developed such broad and multifaceted implications, significant change would not have resulted.
While the Socialists advocated controls on rents and public housing, they only achieved mass support for direct, local activities such as rent strikes. Government officials responded by ignoring the calls for far-reaching (and politically costly) solutions and by undercutting the appeal of the tenant leagues. Creation of the Mayor's Committee was a clear attempt to blunt the appeal of the Socialists while directing discontent into legitimate channels.
Given the situation by late 1919 -- rents rising throughout the city, widespread striking, thousands of evictions, and Socialist victories in November -- it is not surprising that the Red Scare hysteria had a great effect on the movement. Officials and established party leaders, whether genuinely or calculatedly, linked the real anger and desperation of tenants to paranoid images of a larger left wing threat. Meanwhile, the conservative tenant associations emerged -- or perhaps were created -- to replace the Socialists as the designated "proper" representatives of tenants just at the time when the crisis was most threatening and it was obvious that substantive legislative action was needed.
Thus with the Socialist assemblymen, two of whom were actually tenant leaders, excluded from their seats, a coalition of the conservative tenant associations, the Central Federated Union, the municipal court judges, and Democratic and Republican leaders combined to treat the needs of the city's apartment dwellers. After cursory consideration of public housing, they pushed through the April Laws and then, five months later, the Emergency Rent Laws. In effect, they had coopted the momentum and pressure built by the Socialists and yielded as little as possible during a skillful retreat.
With the fading of the Socialist leagues after September 1920, conservative tenant leaders had a freer hand. Ironically, it is their failure to expand the tenant agenda and gain additional benefits that is most tragic. They had a good relationship with state and local officials, legitimacy in the broader sense, and a sizeable and still quite desperate constituency, yet they made no attempt to use these advantages pro-actively. This was partly due to ideology; most felt a larger government role in housing was inappropriate. Others may not have wanted to risk their influence by seeming militant. Whatever the motives, from the outset they demonstrated a willingness to work within the existing legal and economic framework. As a result, the organizations that survived into the 1920s adopted a "service agency" perspective, with tenants often viewed as clients, and avoided confrontation with realtors or government leaders.
Initially this posture exerted a positive influence: the leaders of such organizations received the cooperation and support of government officials and eventually assumed a quasi-governmental role as fact finders and facilitators of rent law administration. Yet they also made themselves "prisoners" of the laws by stressing their continued belief in legitimacy and the justification of rent control as an "emergency" measure.
Seen from this perspective, subsequent developments during the decade are understandable. During the early 1920s, at the height of the housing shortage, there was little difficulty in maintaining rent control; in fact, the laws were slightly broadened in 1922 and 1923. But during this period, tenant leaders mounted no pressure for major new advantages -- a broader, permanent rent control program, effective code enforcement, public housing. In viewing themselves as partners in the state's housing program, they allowed government officials to define the parameters of organized tenant activity.
The very seeds of the movement's destruction were sown when the leaders accepted the premise that tenant rights would expand and contract in direct proportion to the scope of the housing shortage. Once started in 1926, the process of gradual decontrol was irreversible. By 1928, when the State Board of Housing recommended that the Emergency Rent Laws be allowed to lapse, only 193,000 families -- about 10 to 12 percent of the city's population -- were covered by rent control. Tenant leaders had allowed their following to be stripped away step by step, until those that remained were not strong enough to resist the final defeat. Over a ten-year period they had let rent control and the potential for even larger gains slip through their fingers.
1. Works Progress Administration Historical Records Survey, Box 3647, New York City Municipal Archives, (hereafter cited as WPA Survey); Katherine J. Meyer, "A Study of Tenant Associations in New York City with Particular Reference to the Bronx," Master's thesis, Columbia University, Department of Sociology, 1928, p. 8.
2. Report of the State Board of Housing Relative to the Housing Emergency Arising out of the Recent World War, New York State Legislative Document (1928) No. 85, p. 21.
3. Tenement House Department figures cited in Clarence Stein, "The Housing Crisis in New York," Survey 44 (Sept. 1920): 659-661.
4. Frank Mann to Mayor John Hylan, Mar. 5 and Oct. 11, 1918, Hylan Papers, Box 276, New York City Municipal Archives (hereafter cited as Hylan Papers); New York Times, Aug. 10, 1919, sees. 2 and 4.
5. The widespread nature of this speculation is detailed in Report of the Mayor's Committee on Taxation and Investigation of Mortgage Loans and the Mayor's Committee on Rent Profiteering (New York, 1919), pp. 39-40 (hereafter cited as Report of the Mayor's Committee); New York Times, Dec. 3, 1919; New York Call, Apr. 18, 1919.
6. Report of the Mayor's Committee, pp. 3941; New York Times, Feb. 24, 1918, sec. 7.
7. Ada H. Muller, "A Study of a Bronx Community," Master's thesis, Columbia University, Department of Political Science, 1915, pp. 15-26. Muller noted that the vast majority of families had an income of less than fifteen dollars per week and that in 1915 (even before the onset of the housing crisis) Hebrew Charities had a heavy caseload in the area.
8. New York Call, Dec. 31, 1916, Jan. 1, 2, 4, 1917; New York Times, Jan. 1, 1917; Daily North Side News (Bronx), Jan. 2, 4, 1917.
9. New York Call, Jan. 6, 1917; Daily North Side News, Jan. 6, 1917.
10. Daily North Side News, Jan. 3, 10, 1917.
11. Ibid., Jan. 19, 1917; New York Call, Jan. 18, 1917.
12. New York Tribune, Feb. 6, 1918; New York Times, Feb. 10, 1918, sec. 4; Daily North Side News, Jan. 29, 1918.
13. Home News (East Harlem and Yorkville ea.) Jan. 6, 1918. (Unless otherwise specified, Home News citations are for the Bronx edition. ) At this time the city's health code had no provision requiring a landlord to provide heat.
14. Daily North Side News, Feb. 24, 1918; New York Times, Feb. 10, 1918, sect. 4; New York Tribune, Jan. 30, 1918. The Bronx alone had twenty-five hundred eviction cases between Dec. 1917 and the end of Feb. 1918; Daily Forward, Jan. 12, 20, 1918
15. New York Call, Feb. 8, 10, 16, 1918; Home News (West Harlem and Washington Heights ed.), Jan. 13, 1918; Daily North Side News, Feb. 24, 1918; Home News (East Harlem and Yorkville ed.), Feb. 10, 1918.
16. New York Call, Feb. 8, 10, 16, 1918; New York Tribune, Jan. 30, 1918; Daily Forward, Jan. 12. 20, 26, Feb. 9, 1918.
17. New York Times, Feb. 5, 1918; Home News (Harlem ed.) Feb. 10, 1918.
18. Home News (Harlem ed.), Feb. 27, Mar. 3, 10, 1918; New York Tribune, Mar. 12, 1918.
19. New York Call, Feb. 16, Mar. 13, 31, Apr. 9, 1918.
20. Ibid., Apr. 30, May 19, 21, 28, June 2, 1918; Brooklyn Standard Union, May 3, 1918; Daily Forward, Jan. 28, 31, Feb. 1, 3, 4, 23, 1918.
21. New York Tribune, May 16, 1918.
22. Daily North Side News, Jan. 28, 1918.
23. Ibid., Feb. 24, Apr. 14, 1918; New York Times, Feb. 10, 1918, sec. 4; Apr. 7, 1918, sec. 3; Daily Forward, Jan. 29, Feb. 23, 1918.
24. New York Call, Aug. 13, 16, 20, 26, 29, Sept. 1, 4, 9, 17, Oct. 5, Dec. 31, 1918; Home News, Aug. 8, 20, 25, Sept. 10, 19, 1918; Daily Forward, Sept. 2, 1918.
25. New York Call, Dec. 31, 1918; New York Tribune, Nov. 1, 1919.
26. New York Call, June 8, 21, July 4, 5, Aug. 24, Sept. 9, 1918; on one day, for example, Judge Robitzek of the Bronx Municipal Court heard twelve hundred dispossess motions. Daily North Side News, July 5, 1918; Daily Forward, Aug. 22, 24, Sept. 11, 14, 1918; Home News, Aug. 23, 1918.
27. New York Call, Oct. 22, 25, 29, 1918; New York Times, Nov. 7, 8, 1918; Daily Forward, Sept. 26, Nov. 7, 1918; James Weinstein, The Decline of the Socialist Party in America: 1912-1925 (New York, 1967), p. 154. Both the Socialist party and the tenant movement suffered a tragic loss even before the election with the premature death of Joseph Klein.
28. New York Call, Dec. 14, 1918.
29. Report of the State Board of Housing, ID. (1928) No. 85, p. 21.
30. Letter to the New York State Reconstruction Commission quoted in New York Times, Apr. 17, 1919.
31. New York Times. Feb. 23, 1919, IX.
32. A selection of these Letters is contained in Hylan Papers, Box 348. "Hylan Housing, 1918-1919."
33. Daily Forward, Apr. 9. I 1. 1919.
34. Home News, Feb. 19, 1919; New York Call, Jan. 11, 31, Apr. 10 1919; New York Times, Mar. 11, May 8, 1919; Daily Forward, Apr. 16, 1919; Joint Legislative Committee on Housing, Hearings, 1919-1920, 7 vols., unpublished.
35. Report of the Mayor's Committee, pp. 38-39; New York Times, Apr. 30, May 3, Sept. 2, Oct. 22, 1919; Home News, Nov. 2, 1919
36. Nathan Hirsch to Governor Alfred E. Smith, June 12, 1919, and Charles Lockwood et al. to Smith, Smith Papers, Box 260-46; New York Times, May 8, 1919.
37. Author's interview with Sophie Epstein, Oct. 29, 1975.
38. Report of the Mayor's Committee, pp. 41, 43, 51; press release of the Mayor's Committee, dated Nov. 9, 1919, Smith Papers, Box 260-46; Home News, Sept. 11, 24, 1919; New York Times, Sept. 24, 1919, Sept. 14, 1919, sec. 7.
39. Report of the Mayor's Committee, p. 48; Bronx Home News, Sept. 4, 21, Dec. 9, 1919; New York Call, Apr. 25, 1919.
40. Report of the Mayor's Committee, p. 42.
41. New York Call, May 4, 1919.
42. Ibid., Apr. 22, 25, May 6, 1919; New York Times, May 7, 1919; Daily Forward, Apr. 25-30, 1919.
43. New York Call, Apr. 26, May 3, 5, July 17, 20. 25, 1919; Daily Forward, Apr. 3, 1919.
44. Brooklyn Eagle, Sept. 5, 6, 7, 1919; New York Call, Sept. 5, 1919; New York Times, Sept. 5, 6, 1919.
45. New York Call, Sept. 10, 1919; New York Times, Oct. 18, 1919.
46. New York Tribune, Oct. 31, 1919; New York Sun, Oct. 21, 1919; New York Call, July 17, 1919.
47. Report of the Joint Legislative Committee on Housing, September 20, 1920, L.D. (Special Session, 1920) No. 11, p. 5; Home News, Sept. 20, Oct. 2, 12, 1919.
48. New York Tribune, Oct. 1, 1919.
49. Ibid., Oct. 12, 1919.
50. Home News, Nov. 30, 1919.
51. Ibid., Sept. 20, Oct. 2, Nov. 30, 1919.
52. New York Times, Sept. 4, 1919; New York Call, Sept. 11, 1919.
53. New York World, Oct. 7, 1919; Joint Hearing of the Senate and Assembly Committees on Cities, Mar. 23, 1920, mimeographed transcript in Smith Papers, Box 260-4611. (Hereafter cited as Hearing Transcript, Mar. 23, 1920.)
54. New York World, Oct. 4, 1919; New York Call, Nov. 22, 1919.
55. New York Tribune, Nov. 23, 1919.
57. Ibid., Oct. 18, 31, 1919.
58. New York Tribune, Oct. 8, 31, 1919; Home News, Oct. 21, 1919.
59. Home News, Nov. 2, 1919; New York Call, Oct. 2, 1919; New York Times, Oct. 6, 1919.
60. Ward V. Tolbert to Governor Alfred E. Smith, Nov. 3, 1923, in Smith Papers, Box 200-51 -1.
61. New York Times, Nov. 6, 1919; Home News, Oct. 7, Nov. 6, 1919.
62. Thomas E. Vadney, "The Politics of Repression: A Case Study of the Red Scare in New York," New York History 49 (1968): 58-74.
63. Melvin I. Urofsky, "A Note on the Expulsion of the Five Socialists," New York History 47 (1966): 41-51.
64. Home News, Oct. 5, Nov. 9, 13, 16, 18, 20, 1919; Fleetwood Community Council to Smith, Feb. 25, 1920. Smith Papers, Box 260-46.
65. Brooklyn Eagle, Mar. 4, 5, 12. 1920; Home News, Feb. 1, 5, 8, Mar. 7, 9, 1920; Hearing Transcript. Mar. 23, 1920, pp. 75-77; Commission of Housing and Regional Planning Hearings, 1923, p. 318, (hereafter cited as Stein Commission, Hearings, 1923).
66. The following is a list of last names of all community council and conservative tenant association leaders listed in the press in 1920: Boyle, Sullivan, McGlynn, Crowley, Donnelly, Craig, Ely, Arthur, Goldfarb, McPherson, Ryan. Cooney, Anson, Murphy, Cahil, and Gray. In addition, two of the community councils met in parish houses of Catholic churches. Home News, Nov. 13, 16, 1919.
67. Home News, Feb. 5, Mar. 16, 25, 1920.
68. Ibid., Feb. 29, 1920; Evening World, Mar. 9, 1920. A Home News account of a Fair Play Rent Association meeting on Feb. 23, 1920, demonstrates the patriotic fervor of the organization. The meeting began with a "patriotic program": three men presented a dramatization of the Spirit of '76, a man dressed as George Washington gave a speech, and the daughter of FPRA founder Patrick McGlynn recited a poem entitled "The True American."
69. Home News, Feb. 1, 5, 8, 12, 29, 1920.
70. New York Times, Feb. 9, Mar. 7, 1920; New York Call, Mar. 8, 1920; Daily Forward, Mar. 3, 1920.
71. New York Times, Feb. 9, 1920.
72. Ibid., Mar. 7, 8, 1920; World, Mar. 7, 1920.
73. New York World, Mar. 19, 1920; New York Journal, Mar. 13, 1920; New York Times, Mar. 12, 7, 1920.
74. New York Call, Mar. 25, 1920.
75. Ibid., Mar. 5, 18, 22, 1920.
76. It was not until mid-April that other tenant leaders disavowed any connection with Gitlin and branded him a sham.
77. New York Times, Mar. 7, 1920; Brooklyn Eagle, Mar. 7, 1920.
78. New York Call, Mar. 19, 1920.
79. New York Tribune, Mar. 4, 1920.
80. New York Call, Mar. 4, 10, 24, 1920; Hearing Transcript, Mar. 23, 1920, pp. 18, 64, 65; New York Tribune, Mar. 4, 1920.
81. Hearing Transcript, Mar. 23, 1920, p. 120.
82. Stanley Coben, "A Study in Nativism: The American Red Scare of 1919-1920," Political Science Quarterly 79 (Mar. 1964): 52-75.
83. "American Jew" to Smith, Mar. 25, 1920, in Smith Papers, Box 260-46, pt. 1.
84. Brooklyn Eagle, Mar. 17, 1920; Hearing Transcript, Mar. 23, 1920, p. 66; Report of the Mayor's Committee, Appendix; Home News, Mar. 9, 1920.
85. Hearing Transcript, Mar. 23, 1920, pp. 77, 122.
86. New York Call, Mar. 30, Apr. 21, 1920; New York Tribune, Mar. 31, 1920; New York Times, Mar. 30, 1920.
87. Daily Forward, Mar. 16-19, 21, 28-31, 1920.
88. New York Times, Mar. 30, 1920.
89. Ibid., Mar. 31, 1920.
90. New York Tribune. Mar. 4, 1920; Home News, Mar. 2, 1920; Brooklyn Eagle, Mar. 9, 17, 1920; New York Call, Mar. 10, 1920.
91. For the full text of the laws see Edgar Lauer and Victor House, The Tenant and His Landlord (New York, 1921), Appendix A. Besides the major provisions mentioned in the text, the April Rent Laws gave tenants several other advantages. Chapter 135 allowed tenants to make an oral answer before the clerk, thus eliminating the expense of hiring an attorney; chapter 132 allowed the court to give affirmative relief without the defendants having to file a separate action; chapter 131 made it a misdemeanor for a landlord to harass tenants by curtailing services.
92. New York Call, Apr. 21, 1920.
93. Ibid., Apr. 1, 18, 24, 1920.
94. Ibid., May 2, 1920.
95. Joint Legislative Committee on Housing Hearings, July 29, 1920, p. 2947.
96. Ibid., pp. 2936, 2937, 2966.
97. Joint Legislative Committee on Housing Hearings. July 19, 1920, pp. 2853 - 2854; Report of the Joint Legislative Committee on Housing, L.D. (Special Session, 1920) No. 11, p.5.
98. New York Call, June 9, 22, 23, July 1, 8, 10, 31, 1920.
99. Joint Legislative Committee on Housing Hearings, July 22, 1920, p. 2912; New York Call, July 31, Aug. 4, 1920; Stein, "Housing Crisis in New York," p. 659.
100. Examination of the Call for the summer of 1920 demonstrates the extent to which the reelection effort dominated party activities. The campaign was successful, as all five were reelected at a special election prior to the special session.
101. New York Call, Aug. 3, 11, 1920; Home News, Aug. 1, 12, 1920.
102. Joint Legislative Committee on Housing Hearings, July 1920, passim.
103. Stein, "Housing Crisis in New York," p. 659.
104. Report of the Joint Legislative Committee on Housing, L.D. (Special Session, 1920) No. 11, p. 5. Emphasis in original.
105. Text of the laws can be found in Lauer and House, Tenant and Landlord, Appendixes A, B.
106. New York Times, Dec. 3, 1920, Oct. 3, 1920.
107. Ibid., Jan. 21, 1921.
108. Ibid., Nov. 3, 1921.
109. For a detailed account of the Socialist party schism, see David Shannon, The Socialist Party of America (New York, 1955), chap. 6.
110. New York Times, Jan. 24, Feb. 4, 11, 1925.
111. New York State Commission on Housing and Regional Planning Hearings, 1925, p. 61. (Mimeograph, hereafter cited as Stein Commission Hearings, 1925.)
112. Stein Commission Hearings, 1923 and 1925, passim; Mayer, "Study of Tenant Associations," passim; Smith Papers, 200:51; New York Times, Feb. 8, 1921.
113. Stein Commission Hearings, 1923, pp. 81, 172-179; Stein Commission Hearings, 1925, p. 52.
114. For example, if a tenant paid a rent increase for three months, he forfeited his right to charge subsequently that it was unreasonable.
115. Stein Commission Hearings, 1925, pp. 70-140 passim.
116. Stein Commission Hearings, 1923, p. 285.
117. Mayer, "Study of Tenant Associations," pp. 21 - 23.
118. Ibid., pp. 24-26.
119. Stein Commission Hearings, 1923, p. 101.
120. Stewart Browne to Alfred E. Smith, Jan. 2, 1924, Smith Papers, Box 200: 51-1.
121. Samuel Untermeyer to Alfred E. Smith, Mar. 5, 1923, Smith Papers, Box 200:102.
122. Stein Commission Hearings, 1923, pp. 7-333 passim; quote from p. 237.
123. New York State Legislative Document (1924) No. 43, pp. 11-14, 22, 27.
124. New York Times, Dec. 8, 1925, Jan. 5, 1926.
125. Stein Commission Hearings, 1925, pp. 4 - 144 passim.
126. Ibid., pp. 12, 58.
127. For details of such tenant meetings, see the Home News, Oct. 24, 1925-Feb. 15, 1926.
128. Home News, Sept. 25, 1925; New York Times. Oct. 17. 1925.
129. Home News, Sept. 25, 1925; New York Times, Oct. 13, 16, 19, 1925.
130. Home News. Oct. 14. 22, 1925; New York Times, Oct. 21, 22, 23, 1925.
131. New York Times, Jan. 16. Feb. 6, 1926.
132. WPA Survey, Box 3603. "Housing Guidebook for NYC" pp. 35-36.
133. Data from Real Estate Board of New York, Apartment Building Construction in Manhattan, 1902-58 (New York, n.d.), pp. 9, 18, 119.
134. Tenth Report of the Tenement House Department (for the Years 1918 - 1929) (New York, 1930), pp. 162-163.
135. WPA Survey, Box 3634, "Housing in New York, first Draft," passim.
136. Tenth Report of the Tenement House Department, pp. 162-163
137. Home News, Feb. 5, 1927.
138. New York Times, Feb. 9, 1927.
139. Ibid., Mar. 22, 24, 1927; Apr. 24, 1927, sec. 10.
140. Home News, Mar. 12, 15, 1928.
141. New York Times, Mar. 10, 1928.
142. Ibid., Mar. 14, 22, 1928; Home News, Apr. 7, 1928.
143. Home News, May 18, 1929.
144. The legislature had, however, reenacted protections against unjust eviction and provisions for stays of eviction in certain hardship cases