The period between 1929 and 1943 was a time of extraordinary ferment among tenants and of innovation and experimentation within the sphere of housing policy. The era began with organized tenant activism at a low ebb; with the exception of a small Harlem-centered movement, there was little protest against the expiration of the last of the Emergency Rent Laws passed after World War I. But the coming of the Great Depression created crises in the housing market, which stimulated mass tenant protest and a powerful liberal-philanthropic coalition for housing reform. First came an anti-eviction movement, led by Communists, that sought to reduce the impact of mass unemployment on beleaguered tenants; then came a campaign for tenement house upgrading led by social work and philanthropic organizations; then came a campaign for public housing supported by liberals and tenant activists; and then a campaign for wartime rent control led by a broad spectrum of the city's Left. The political forces unleashed here were extremely diverse, but they were united by one significant trend: the failure of a depression-weakened housing market and private construction industry to provide safe, affordable housing to the third of the city's population who were unemployed or underemployed.
Under the press of depression conditions, the terms of debate in housing policy shifted dramatically. For the first time in American history, a broad-based housing coalition developed that emphasized aggressive government intervention in the private housing market. "Private capital," WPA head Harry Hopkins told a crowd at the opening of First Houses, New York's first public housing project, "has never spent a dime to build a house for the poor person." Settlement houses joined with Left-led tenant organizations to lobby for code enforcement, rent control, and the construction of public housing, while liberal public officials endorsed tenant protests as needed catalysts for reform. "You will never get anything unless you demand it," Tenement House Commissioner Langdon Post told a group from the City-Wide Tenants Council in 1937. "Nothing was ever gotten in this country except when the people forced it." Important differences existed within this coalition as to the role of public subsidies and market incentives in slum clearance and the construction of public housing; but the fact remains that two major, lasting innovations in the city's housing market came out of the reform effort -- a program of low-income public housing and the imposition of a centrally administered system of rent control.
Tenants organizations also displayed some new aspects that were to become permanent features of the city's political landscape. First, black tenant organizations became influential actors in the city's tenant movement and housing reform coalition. From the 1929 Harlem Tenants League which protested expiration of the Emergency Rent Laws, to the mid-depression Consolidated Tenants League which pioneered new forms of legal defense for tenants, to the Harlem-wide coalition fighting for wartime rent controls, black tenant leaders played a leading role in developing tactics to improve conditions for individual tenants and in shaping the agenda of housing reformers. Alongside the Jewish community, blacks emerged as a solid ethnic base for tenant activism.
Second, the radicalization of depression-era professionals inspired a new form of citywide tenant federation that employed a uniquely effective "mix" of tactics: expert legal representation of individual buildings and tenants, reinforced by rent withholding and picketing; careful research on housing issues, which led to legislation projecting a "tenant perspective"; and aggressive lobbying for tenant interests in cooperation with liberal and left wing organizations. Forming coalitions with grass roots tenant organizations in the city's ethnic neighborhoods, middle-class tenant advocates -- lawyers, public relations experts, architects, and the like -- created a set of strategies and a style of organizing that has survived, with some modification, to the present day. The City-Wide Tenants Council, founded in 1936, displayed professionalism and expertise comparable to philanthropic housing organizations, yet projected a commitment to mass mobilization and an identification with the downtrodden characteristic of the Left. Although City-Wide declined in the mid-1940s, its methods of organizing were adopted by tenant groups associated with trade unions, consumer groups, and left wing political clubs.
However, these innovations in organization came only after years of mass tenant protest that were far more violent and less precise in their targets. During 1932 and 1933, a Communist-led rent strike movement erupted in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and the Lower East Side, which almost reached the proportions of the post-World War I tenant revolt, but which produced no major innovations in legal strategy, no legislative accomplishments, and no permanent forms of tenant organization on a local or citywide level. Concentrated in Jewish neighborhoods, these rent strikes evoked violent opposition from landlords and police and a concerted effort by judges and city officials to neutralize the movement's effects. Failures in the sphere of housing policy, they helped create a climate in the city conducive to liberalized relief policies and the creation of a "safety net" of income maintenance programs that helped keep the poor in their homes.
There are structural explanations for this discontinuity between the two major waves of tenant activism. In the early 1930s, a massive loss of income by all city residents threw housing markets into disarray; tenants could not pay their rents, landlords could not meet their mortgages, and courts received a flood of eviction and foreclosure cases they lacked the capacity to process or enforce. The atmosphere of desperation on both sides created a climate conducive to violence, especially in neighborhoods where there was a tradition of collective action in response to economic setbacks. By the mid-1930s, however, the development of a broad-based home relief system, along with the establishment of federal work relief programs, had removed the atmosphere of mass desperation -- most knew they could at least get funds for food and some kind of shelter. Serious issues still remained for tenants -- building safety, affordable rents, protection from arbitrary evictions, racial discrimination -- but these were issues that could be dealt with more calmly because of a greater sense of security regarding the basic necessities of life (as well as a subjective sense of government responsiveness to the needs of low-income people).
But economic determinism alone cannot explain the pattern of tenant activism of the period; one must also look at the history of the organized Left, particularly the Communist party, to understand why tenant protest shifted from mass communal uprisings to the actions of professional advocacy organizations. Communists did not "control" the City-Wide Tenants Council or its affiliates the way they did the Unemployed Councils of the early 1930s, but they were a definite presence in its ranks, influencing its policies and its network of alliances. The politics of anti-fascism dictated this more subtle approach: not only did the Party shift its emphasis from revolution to reform, but it actively courted middle-class professionals and enrolled a sizable group in its ranks. The City-Wide Tenants Council embodied the ethos of the Popular Front Left: simultaneously seeking respectability and projecting identification with the downtrodden; mingling mass protest techniques with sophisticated political bargaining; incorporating struggles against racial discrimination into movements for social reform. This style of organizing lasted well beyond the depression. Tenant organizations resembling City-Wide thrived during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, long after the Communist party ceased to be the dominant force on the American Left.
The Great Depression, therefore, represented a watershed in the history of tenant activism. Tenant organizations were inactive when the decade began, but by World War II they had become a powerful force in the political life of the city and state. Seeking government action to control rents, they fought for the constructions of public housing, worked to improve conditions in slum tenements, and strove to limit the disruptive impact of urban renewal. More than any other time, the 1930s was the period when the tenant movement "came of age."
The Harlem Tenants League
The first harbinger of the new tenant activism came nearly a year before the Great Depression struck. In February of 1928, a black Communist named Richard Moore, recognized for his knowledge of black history and his oratorical gifts, turned a quiet meeting of the Washington Heights Tenants League at the Harlem Public Library into an impassioned protest against the expiration of the city's Emergency Rent Laws. Pointing out that blacks were penned in their neighborhoods by rigid segregation and lacked bargaining power with their landlords, he warned that the expiration of controls on apartments renting for fifteen dollars per month (in December of 1928), and on those renting for ten dollars per month (in June of 1929) would provoke a wave of rent increases in Harlem. Upon his suggestion, tenants present formed a Harlem Tenants League, elected him president, and began holding protest meetings in the community and sending delegations to meetings of the Board of Aldermen, where the rent law was being discussed.
In April of 1929, two months before the expiration of the ten-dollar-a-room controls, the league captured Harlem's attention with a campaign to resist impending rent increases and an attack on Harlem's politicians, editors, ministers, and landlords. Spurred by a series in the Daily Worker documenting the hardship of Harlem tenants, the league claimed that Harlem churches and real estate concerns that owned or managed Harlem property profited from segregation's toll on the black working class. "The capitalist caste system," Richard Moore wrote, "which segregates Negro workers into Jim Crow districts makes these doubly exploited black workers the special prey of rent gougers. Black and white landlords and real estate agents take advantage of this segregation to squeeze the last nickel out of the Negro working class who are penned in the black ghetto. Rents in Negro Harlem are already often double and sometimes triple those in other sections of the city." The league held meetings at the Harlem public library, sponsored marches through the streets of Harlem, and organized individual buildings to resist rent increases. Many of the buildings the league organized were owned by black churches and landlords.
The league's attack on the black middle class, it soon became clear, owed more to the Communist party's sectarian enthusiasm (partly inspired by a recent Comintern edict), than to an accurate assessment of the behavior of local leadership. On June 6, 1929, the Republican and Democratic district leaders of Harlem sponsored a meeting at Abyssinian Baptist Church to demonstrate community support for the preservation of rent control and to urge tenants to bring their housing problems to their local political clubs. Every important Harlem politician, and both Harlem newspapers, lobbying for the preservation of rent controls, pointing out that blacks of all classes faced unfair rents because of segregation in housing. When the city's Board of Aldermen, in June of 1929, passed an ordinance preserving rent controls for apartments renting under fifteen dollars per room, it was partially in response to the pressure of black elected officials (the Socialist party and remnants of the 1920s tenant leagues also made their voices heard). Nevertheless, a certain cynicism characterized this gesture, as the ordinance was soon declared unconstitutional on the grounds that the city had intruded on matters of state concern.
The Harlem Tenants League and Harlem's political leadership both took action once the city's rent control ordinance was struck down. For the Tenants League, the preferred tactic was a "Harlem wide rent strike." During the summer and fall of 1929, the league solicited complaints from individual tenants, held meetings in buildings scheduled to receive rent increases, and tried to persuade tenants to strike when negotiations failed. Such tactics proved of limited effectiveness; the league claimed that strikes took place on an intermittent basis and that non-Communist sources displayed no evidence to support even those limited claims. At this stage in Harlem's history, Communists lacked the cadre (they had less than twenty black members in the neighborhood), the reputation, and perhaps the right issue to arouse militant, risk-taking action on the part of Harlem tenants. Some Harlemites would attend Party protest meetings, march in Communist parades, and bring their complaints to Party tenant organizers, but the tactic of the strike was still unfamiliar and was frought with risk because of the tight housing market blacks faced in a segregated city (blacks evicted could take little comfort from the city's 7.5 percent vacancy rate because they were barred from most apartments). Nevertheless, the Tenants League agitation represented an important step in implanting a culture of collective protest among Harlem tenants, an effort that would bear greater fruit once the depression struck.
Simultaneously, Harlem political leaders used their influence in Albany to propose legislative remedies for the special problems of black tenants. In 1930, Assemblymen Francis Rivers and Lamar Perkins proposed, and won, passage of legislation that expanded the bargaining power of tenants living in deteriorated buildings, or those who lacked alternative sources of housing than the premises on which they resided (which in 1930 meant largely blacks). Rivers's bill, which became section 1446(a) of the Civil Practice Act, provided that if a tenant could offer proof of a serious enough violation of the Multiple Dwellings Law or Health Department Code such as to "constructively evict" that tenant from the premises, the court might stay summary proceedings for nonpayment of rent, provided the tenant deposited all rent owed with the clerk of the court. The Perkins bill, which became section 1436(a) of the Civil Practice Act, provided that if tenants were served with an increase of rent, they might apply to a judge for a stay of eviction of up to six months if the tenant could not find equivalent shelter at comparable rentals. Subject to interpretation by the municipal courts, which were vulnerable to community pressure and political influence, these bills gave some additional leverage to black tenants fighting "rent gouging" in a segregated market and a potential weapon to all tenants living in "old law" tenements (which included over two million people). Their passage demonstrated the growing importance of black political leaders in the struggle for housing reform and the recognition by the political leadership of the state that black tenants faced special problems in their quest for safe, affordable housing.
Communists in the lead: Early Depression eviction protests and rent strikes
The protest meetings of the Harlem Tenants League and the legislative efforts of Harlem's elected officials represented efforts to remedy the special problems of blacks within a steadily loosening housing market. But the depression, which hit the city and the nation with shocking rapidity, changed the context in which all discussion of housing issues took place and the basic texture of landlord-tenant relations. First, the rapid spread of unemployment undermined the capacity of most tenants to pay pre-depression rents, and some tenants to pay any rent at all. Second, the loss of rental income made it difficult for many landlords, especially marginal operators, to meet their mortgage bills, insurance payments, and utility costs and caused some to relinquish their properties and others to reduce routine maintenance. Third, the private construction industry, which had boomed during the 1920s, became instantly unprofitable, even for luxury buildings.
Landlord-tenant relations became suffused with desperation. Facing tenants who could not pay, landlords improvised. Some, hoping that better times would bring them repayment, allowed tenants to stay on rent free. Others accepted labor exchanges in return for rent. Others lowered rents to more acceptable levels. But a good many responded to the crisis in "rational" economic terms and tried to force non-paying tenants to leave. During 1932, the municipal courts of the city issued dispossess notices at two and three times pre-depression levels.
Tenants scrambled desperately to retain or find apartments. Some made arrangements with landlords along the lines mentioned above. Others went to their local political club (or church or synagogue) to get help in "softening" their landlord's stance or to get a donation of a month's rent. Some did not pay rent, saved their money, moved out, and gave a down-payment to another desperate landlord, and moved once again when the dispossess arrived. But a good many simply left when the landlord asked, moved in with friends and relatives, or waited until the marshal put their furniture on the street. Although actual evictions -- complete with marshals and police -- were relatively few (less than 5 percent of dispossesses resulted in evictions), hundreds of thousands of people left their apartments for smaller ones, fell into the status of lodgers, or became part of the army of homeless that slept on streets, lived in Hoovervilles, or rode the rails. During the first three years of the depression, the city's vacancy rate rose precipitously, to over 9 percent in the Bronx and sections of Brooklyn and to over 15 percent in some low-income neighborhoods.
City officials, though sympathetic to the problems of impoverished tenants, were overwhelmed by the misery facing them. The mayor's office, the police, and the municipal courts all tried to avoid massive displacement of tenants. The Mayor's Committee on Unemployment, set up by Mayor Jimmy Walker (and funded by private donations), asked to investigate cases of impending eviction to see if aid could be provided to avoid that contingency. Municipal court judges tried to encourage negotiations between landlords and tenants to achieve settlements short of eviction. And city police and marshals demonstrated a visible reluctance to evict destitute tenants; indeed, landlords in the Bronx actually sued one marshal to force him to carry out eviction orders that were issued by the courts. But such individual humane gestures could not fully blunt the force of the law or the inexorable logic of a private housing system that required the payment of rents to function. In the absence of government programs that put rent money in the hands of the unemployed, the dispossession and relocation of tenants proceeded on a massive scale and at considerable human cost.
None of the tenant organizations that had been active in the 1920s, whether of Socialist or "conservative" origin, developed a strategy to organize tenants in this crisis. It fell upon the Communist party, an organization that had been marginal to the housing campaigns of the 1920s, to spearhead tenant activism, and it did so in a manner that provoked a great deal of hysteria and more than a little disorder.
At the time the depression struck, the Communist party in New York City was hardly a household word. Composed largely of Eastern European Jewish immigrants living in self-contained neighborhoods, it possessed a messianic air of certainty about its revolutionary ideals, which derived more from faith in the Soviet Union than knowledge of American conditions. But despite its sectarianism and insularity, the Party had two great advantages in dealing with the depression -- a cadre that was experienced in collective struggle (both in American trade unions and European revolutionary movements) and a willingness to act outside the law and the established rules of political discourse to make its demands heard. While other groups on the Left tried to understand the crisis before organizing mass protest, Communists literally leaped onto the barricades as soon as the depression struck and demanded that federal, state, and city governments provide direct aid to the unemployed; Communists organized marches, rallies, and disruptions of government agencies to reinforce its demands.
By the fall of 1930, Communist-led Unemployed Councils had begun to experiment with two tactics that had a direct impact on the housing market -- eviction resistance and rent strikes. The first of these, eviction resistance, proved to be one of the most effective weapons in the Party's arsenal. Coming upon instances where tenants had been forcibly evicted, Communist organizers would move the furniture back from the street to the apartment, while appealing to neighbors and passersby to resist marshals and police if the eviction were repeated. Since many marshals and police were reluctant to evict (and since landlords had to pay marshals for evictions), such actions often bought time for beleaguered tenants and gave Communists a new-found respect. Through the fall of 1930 and the spring and summer of 1931, Communists employed this tactic in almost every city neighborhood where they were active, although the bulk seem to have occurred in poor communities where the depression hit early and hard -- Harlem, the Lower East Side, Hell's Kitchen, the South Bronx, Brownsville, and Coney Island. In some of these neighborhoods the Party was relatively weak (the Lower East Side and Brownsville were the only ones where the Party had a mass membership), but eviction resistance did not require active support from the population or even the political sympathy of the victim Given the overextended schedules of marshals and police, a handful of Party cadre could move the furniture back, provided the rest of the neighborhood was sympathetic or indifferent. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of such incidents occurred during the early depression years; some of them led to confrontations with police in which hundreds of people participated, but most of them led to some peaceful resolution, be it retention of the apartment by the tenants or a delay in their departure. "The practice of moving evicted families back into their homes has become frequent of late on the Lower East Side," declared the New York Times in describing the arrest of a group of eviction protesters, "but this was the first time that the police had arrived in time to seize any of the participants in such demonstrations."
Rent strikes proved to be more difficult to organize. In the winter of 1931, Unemployed Councils tried to organize tenant leagues in buildings in their neighborhoods to force reductions in rent commensurate with tenant losses in income. Apparently, the tactic did not spread very rapidly; between March of 1931 and January of 1932, only seven rent strikes are mentioned in the Daily Worker (none in the New York Times), and four of those took place in the Lower East Side, a Party stronghold. Unlike eviction resistance, rent strikes required organizational experience and a willingness to take risks on the part of tenants as well as Unemployed Council organizers; tenants had to form committees, develop demands, negotiate with landlords, and keep their ranks firm with a subtle combination of persuasion and intimidation. Such a prospect was not appealing to people who lacked experience in collective protest or a strong belief in the "moral legitimacy" of the strike as an economic weapon. But Communist-led rent strikes posed a deadly threat to depression-era landlords. By demanding that building owners sharply reduce rents in response to mass unemployment, Communists were insisting that landlords "carry" their tenants, irrespective of its effect on their profit margins or their ability to hold onto their investment. A tactic forged in mass desperation, devoid of any respect for the landlord's economic problems, it posed an implicit threat to private ownership of housing. Predictably, landlords responded to such strikes with the vehemence of hungry people about to have the bread snatched out of their mouths.
The Battle of the Bronx
The Great Rent Strike War of 1932 began in a quiet section of the Bronx just east of Bronx Park and west of the White Plains Road elevated line. A neighborhood of modern elevator buildings with spacious rooms, adjacent to a park, the zoo, and the botanical gardens, it seemed an unlikely place for a communal uprising. But by an accident of geography and sociology, this neighborhood contained one of the largest concentrations of Communists in New York City. On the corner of Bronx Park East and Allerton Avenue stood the "Coops" -- two buildings populated entirely by Communists who had moved to the neighborhood as part of a cooperative housing experiment and had remained when the buildings reverted to private ownership Filled with people for whom "activism was a way of life," it was a formidable presence in the community. The Coops were "a little corner of socialism right in New York," one activist recalled, "it had its own educational events, clubs for men and women, lectures, motion pictures." But the rest of the neighborhood's population, while not so militantly radical, came from comparable backgrounds to the Coops people. The majority were Eastern European Jews, skilled workers and small businessmen who had accumulated enough income to move out of the East Side and the South Bronx, but were hardly secure in their middle-class status. More important, many of them grew up in environments in which socialism and trade unionism provided models of heroism and moral conduct, and more than a few had extensive activist backgrounds, whether in bitter garment strikes in New York City or clandestine revolutionary struggle in Europe. Although relatively "privileged" compared to many New York workers ("Certain comrades . . . wanted to ridicule the movement," one rent strike organizer wrote apologetically, "not realizing that these 'better paid workers' are members of the American Federation of Labor, many of them working in basic industries"), they suffered serious losses of income and employment and were not about to sink quietly into poverty and despair in response to the "invisible hand" of the market. When Unemployed Council activists began to organize them into tenant committees, they responded in a manner that perplexed and enraged landlords and city officials.
In early January of 1932, the Upper Bronx Unemployed Council unveiled rent strikes at three large apartment buildings in Bronx Park East -- 1890 Unionport Road, 2302 Olinville Avenue, and 665 Allerton Avenue. In each of these buildings, the majority of the tenants agreed to withhold their rent and began picketing their buildings to demand 15 percent reductions in rent, an end to evictions, repairs in apartments, and recognition of the tenants committee as an official bargaining agent. In all three instances, landlords, moving quickly to dispossess leaders of the strike, argued that the demands were extortionate; judges readily granted them notices of eviction.
But the first set of attempted evictions, at 2302 Olinville Avenue, set off a "rent riot" in which over four thousand people participated. As the city marshals and the police moved into position to evict seventeen tenants, a huge crowd, composed largely of residents of the Coops, gathered in a vacant lot next to the building to support the strikers, who were poised to resist from windows and the roof. When the marshals moved into the building and the first stick of furniture appeared on the street, the crowd charged the police and began pummeling them with fists, stones, and sticks, while the "non-combatants urged the belligerents to greater fury with anathemas for capitalism, the police and landlords." The outnumbered police barely held their lines until reinforcements arrived. As the police once again moved to disperse the crowd, the strikers agreed to a compromise offer that called for two- to three-dollar reductions for each apartment and the return of evicted families to their apartments. "When news of the settlement reached the crowd," the Bronx Home News reported, "they promptly began chanting the Internationale and waving copies of the Daily Worker as though they were banners of triumph."
At 665 Allerton Avenue, the attempted eviction of three tenants evoked disorders of nearly equal magnitude. The same elements all appeared: tenants barricading apartments and hurling objects at marshals and police; sympathetic crowds gathering and engaging police in hand-to-hand combat; the shouting of Communist slogans and ethnic-political epithets ("Down with Mulrooney's Cossacks" -- an insult reserved for police -- being the favorite). "The women were the most militant," noted the New York Times they constituted the majority of the crowds, the arrestees, and those engaged in physical conflict with the police. This time, the evictions did occur, but only with the help of over fifty foot and mounted police and a large and expensive crew of marshals and moving men.
Bronx property owners moved quickly to try to contain the movement At first, they tried arbitration. Following the evictions at 665 Allerton landlords in Bronx Park East asked a blue ribbon committee of Bronx Jewish leaders to arbitrate the dispute, convinced that an impartial examination of the building's books would show that the landlord could not meet the strikers' demands without operating at a loss. But the strike leaders at 665 Allerton contemptuously rejected arbitration and indeed the whole notion that a "reasonable return" on one's investment represented a basis for negotiation. "When times were good," strike leader Max Kaimowitz declared "the landlords didn't offer to share their profits with us. The landlords made enough money off us when we had it. Now that we haven't got it, the landlords must be satisfied with less." Faced with this kind of bargaining position, landlords felt they had no choice but to pull out the stops to suppress the movement. By the second week of February 1932, two major organizations of Bronx landlords had formed rent strike committees that offered unlimited funding and legal support for any landlord facing a Communist-led rent strike. Using the considerable political influence and legal expertise at their disposal, they developed a strategy that included "wholesale issuance of dispossess notices against striking tenants," efforts to win injunctions against picketing in strikes, agreements by judges to waive normal delay periods in evictions, and efforts to ban rent strikes by legislative enactment. "The situation has become much graver than most persons suppose," one landlord spokesman declared. "The strikes are spreading rapidly and scores of landlords are facing financial ruin or loss of their properties as a result of them." Former state senator Benjamin Antin told landlords: "This is a peculiar neighborhood. It is the hot bed of Communism and radicalism. The people in this neighborhood are mostly Communists and Soviet sympathizers. They do not believe in our form of government."
The landlord mobilization broke the back of some of the strikes -- mass evictions took place at 665 Allerton Avenue and 1890 Unionport Road -- but it did not discourage Communists from continuing rent strikes in Bronx Park East or spreading the movement to other neighborhoods. During January and February of 1932, Communist-led strikes for rent reductions began breaking out in Brownsville, Williamsburg, and Boro Park (in Brooklyn), and in Crotona Park East, Morrisania, and Melrose in the Bronx. Like Bronx Park East, these were neighborhoods primarily inhabited by Eastern European Jews, possessed of a dense network of radical cultural and political organizations, but they were poorer, more troubled, and harder hit by the depression. Irving Howe's description of Crotona Park East, the neighborhood where the second wave of Communist rent strikes attracted the greatest following, gives a sense of the grim atmosphere in which the Party's message was received:
The East Bronx . . . formed a thick tangle of streets crammed with Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, almost all of them poor. We lived in narrow, five story tenements, wall flush against wall, and with slate covered stoops rising sharply in front. There was never enough space. The buildings, clenched into rows, looked down upon us like sentinels, and the apartments in the buildings were packed with relatives and children, many of them fugitives from unpaid rent. Those tenements had first gone up during the early years of the century, and if not so grimy as those of the Lower East Side in Manhattan or the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, they were bad enough.... Hardly a day passed but someone was moving in or out. Often you could see a family's entire belongings furniture, pots, bedding, a tricycle, piled upon the sidewalks because they had been dispossessed.
In neighborhoods like these, Communists' appeals to strike invoked both indigenous traditions of militancy and a certain desperate practicality -- since people were getting evicted anyway, why not put up a fight? Using the networks they possessed in fraternal organizations, women's clubs, and left wing trade unions, aided by younger comrades from the high schools and colleges, Communists were able to mobilize formidable support for buildings that were on strike and to force police to empty out the station houses to carry out evictions. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the strike of five buildings on Longfellow Avenue between 174th and 175th streets, which the Greater New York Taxpayers Association made a test case of its efforts to suppress the movement. Three separate waves of eviction provoked confrontations between police and neighborhood residents, the largest of which involved three thousand people "hurling stones, bottles and other missiles." On another occasion, a mob of fifteen hundred fought the police for an hour and then took off after the landlord when they saw him moving through the crowd. The strike finally was broken, but only after more than forty evictions, an injunction against picketing, and numerous arrests and injuries. The police needed full-scale mobilization to suppress such strikes. "The police have set up a temporary police station outside one of the buildings," read the Daily Worker description of a Brownsville rent strike. "Cops patrol the street all day. The entire territory is under semi-martial law. People are driven around the streets, off the corners, and away from the houses."
For rent strike organizers and sympathizers, and for landlords and city officials, the issues the strike evoked transcended housing and were not readily conducive to "rational" negotiation. For Communists, rent strikes represented a way of arousing popular militance and of recruiting people into the unemployed movement and the Communist party. The Party had no systematic analysis of housing issues and no legislative solution to the housing crisis; in the one theoretical article in the Party press dealing with the rent strike movement, the emphasis was on "Building or organizations, on getting rent strikers ... to join our unions, to form shop committees ... to recruit them for the Party." Although some strikes resulted in rent reductions for the tenants, many, if not most, resulted in eviction of some of the strikers Communists almost seemed to relish the confrontations resulting from evictions, regarding them as experiences that would radicalize the masses. Witness the rhetoric following the eviction of a rent striker on Seabury Place, in Crotona Park East: "A crowd of between 1,500 and 2,000 people witnessed the eviction of Zuckerman and his family.... Orators delivered blistering speeches from the fire escapes in denunciation of the policemen, the landlords, the marshal! ... the capitalist system, the vested interests, and the imperialist designs of Japan in the Far East." The Unemployed Councils had no coherent legal strategy to prevent evictions, or to argue the legitimacy of the rent strike before municipal judges -- their major courtroom strategy appeared to consist of "intimidation by numbers."
Given the Party's disdain for legal niceties, its rejection of arbitration, and its open appeal for conflict between citizens and police, it is not surprising that municipal judges, city officials, and police, normally quite sympathetic to tenants in distress, regarded the Communist rent strike movement as a pestilence to be stamped out. During the Longfellow Avenue protests, a municipal court judge warned striking tenants that "There are 18,000 policemen ready to keep order" and immediately issued dispossesses for all tenants who had withheld rent. Two weeks later, another judge granted an injunction restraining the picketing of Longfellow Avenue buildings. In the same strike, "the Mayor's Committee, police, and city marshalls ... suspended their ordinary routine in evictions and [would] not withhold service of writs of eviction to investigate the neediness of the families.
This fierce counterattack, for a time, appeared to put a damper on Communist-led rent strikes. In May of 1932, the Real Estate News described the injunction against picketing as a "body blow" that "broke the Bronx rent strikes," and events of the next six months appeared to bear out that claim. From May of 1932 to December of 1932, all articles on rent strikes in the Bronx Home News and the Daily Worker described disorders provoked by evictions rather than newly launched rent strikes -- the landlords, not the strikers, appeared to have taken the offensive.
However, in December of 1932 and January of 1933, the Unemployed Councils began a new wave of strikes that rapidly assumed far greater proportions than the last one. Beginning in Crotona Park East, the strikes spread into Brownsville, Williamsburg, Boro Park, the Lower East Side, and much of the East Bronx. In February of 1933, a panicked Real Estate News writer warned that "there are more than 200 buildings in the Borough of the Bronx in which rent strikes are in progress, and a considerably greater number in which such disturbances are brewing or in contemplation." The reappearance of massive rent strikes appeared to owe less to deteriorating housing conditions than to a strategic decision by Communists to use the tactic as a component of a new campaign to mobilize the city's unemployed. During the winter of 1932-1933, Communist organizing among the unemployed expanded in breadth and effectiveness. Party leaders not only organized hunger marches on Washington, Albany, and city hall, but initiated demonstrations and sit-ins at neighborhood relief bureaus that had been set up by the state to dispense direct relief to the unemployed. The simultaneous deterioration of employment prospects in the private sector, and a growing receptivity of public officials to providing aid to the unemployed, gave Communists both a ready constituency and a target amenable to pressure. Party leaders responded by doing everything in their power to dramatize the hardship of the population and to stimulate mass action by the unemployed. Rent strikes had a proven capacity to inspire popular militancy, and the Party urged its organizations of the unemployed and neighborhood cultural groups to make rent and eviction issues primary concerns.
The campaign took hold first, and most strongly, in densely packed blocks of tenements at the southeast corner of Crotona Park (a neighborhood whose huge stretches of abandoned buildings made it a national symbol of urban decay in the 1970s). During December of 1932, rent strikes broke out on Franklin Avenue, Charlotte Street, Bryant Avenue, and Boston Road, all within five blocks of each other. Attempts by landlords to break the strikes with evictions produced street battles of epic proportions. "News of the impending eviction of the Lerner and Pzelsky families spread like wildfire," wrote the Bronx Home News about a Franklin Avenue disorder:
Jeers and epithets were hurled at the police as they were jostled, shoved and manhandled.... A woman tenant appeared on a fire escape and screamed to the crowd to do something. This time, the efforts of Sergeant Maloney and his small force were unavailing. They were overrun, kicked, clawed and scratched. For more than an hour, the battle raged. Policemen were scratched, bitten, kicked and their uniforms torn. Many of the strike sympathizers received rough handling and displayed the scars of battle when order was again restored.
Evictions on Charlotte Street, occurring two weeks later, inspired a street battle with two thousand participants. The size of these protests reflected the movement's unique ability to tap the energies and organizational skills of neighborhood women, who used networks developed in child rearing to mobilize the community and exploited the "myth of female fragility" to neutralize police attacks. "The women played a very big part in the rent strikes," one Franklin Avenue tenant wrote. "When the police went for the men, the women rushed to protect them.... While the men were busy looking for work, the women were on the job." "On the day of the evictions we would tell all the men to leave the building," another activist recalled. "We knew that the police were rough and would beat them up. It was the women who remained in the apartments, in order to resist. We went out onto the fire escapes and spoke through bullhorns to the crowd gathered below."
By early January, strikes for rent reductions had broken out in an artists colony on the Lower East Side, in several tenements in Brownsville and Williamsburg, and in elevator apartment houses in Bronx Park East. Communist party leaders now felt they had the nucleus of a citywide movement. "With demonstrations of 3,000 to 5,000 people," wrote the Daily Worker:
with tenants of one house after another organizing, with block committees, unemployed council branches, workers clubs ... uniting around tenant grievances, a hot fight against high rents and evictions is spreading through the working class sections of New York.
Today is a high point in the struggle in the three main centers of conflict; the Bronx, the Avenue A section of Manhattan, and Williamsburgh.
The battle is on! Go this morning to the nearest picket line and put up a united front, mass struggle against the greedy landlords of New York.
The Party's strategy of mobilizing its full network of organizations to picket rent-striking buildings and of organizing street rallies and protest marches through striking neighborhoods made the movement far more intimidating and effective than it had been the year before. "Yesterday, 1,500 people massed in front of 1433 Charlotte Street," one account read, "preventing the eviction of eight tenants.... Speaking and picketing went on all day. There were 35 speakers from the Prospect Workers Club, Bronx Workers Club, the International Labor Defense, the International Workers Order, the Women's Council, and the 170 Street Block Committee." Although evictions did occasionally take place, many tenants won substantial reductions by striking and some won reductions merely by threatening to strike. In late January of 1933, the secretary of the Bronx Landlords Protective Association warned of "scores of landlords capitulating to demands of tenants threatening to strike" and claimed that Landlords' capacity to collect rent was being seriously impaired. "Rent strikes can be compared to epidemics," he asserted, "for when a strike breaks out in one apartment house, strikes start in nearby houses or landlords are forced to capitulate to threats of tenants. Some landlords have been forced to reduce their rent a number of times."
Although several hundred buildings throughout the city may have been organized, the rent strike "epidemic" spread only to neighborhoods that had strong Communist party organization. The majority of participants (using names of evicted tenants or arrested protesters as a guide) were Jewish, with some representation of Italians, Slavs, and blacks. Irish-Americans, though composing a large percentage of the city's working class, were almost entirely absent from the striking group (they tended to deal with tenant grievances through their local political clubs rather than through the Left). Launched by Communists as part of a comprehensive unemployment strategy, the strike had the aura of a communal revolt by Eastern European immigrants. In neighborhoods like Crotona Park East, evicted tenants were taken in by their neighbors until they could find new housing, and tenants opposed to the strike faced intimidation and harassment. The expressive elements of the strike -- the picketing, the marching, the songs sung and the slogans shouted -- embodied the anxieties and hopes of people who had recently escaped an oppressive past and now faced the prospect of descent back into poverty. But despite the foreign accents and sectarian slogans, the movement had considerable force ("The entire East Bronx is full of fire," one landlord lamented). Making a worse case analysis, landlords feared that the communal pressures at the strikers' disposal would make it impossible to collect rent in large sections of the Bronx and thereby undermine the political and legal climate necessary to profitably operate rental property.
By the last week of January 1933, the two major associations of Bronx landlords had developed a "concerted drive against rent strikes" which included "every legal device at their command." It included some tested tactics -- a central fund to pay the mortgages and legal expenses of landlords engaged in strikes; eviction of striking tenants; requests for injunctions against rent strike picketing. But it also included some new approaches -- requests for "criminal conspiracy" indictments against rent strike leaders; circulation of a "red list" of tenants who had participated in rent strikes; and demands that the mayor's office develop a coordinated program to suppress the strike. In approaching city officials, landlords emphasized the importance of "taking the streets away from the strikers," since they believed that "picketing has always been the most important weapon of Communists in conducting rent strikes."
City officials and judges appeared to share this sense of urgency about the Communist "rent revolt." In late January, Mayor John O'Brien called a conference on the rent strike situation, which included the police commissioner and chief magistrate, representatives of the district attorney's office, the office of corporation counsel, and savings banks and mortgage companies. Within the next two months, several actions followed that significantly increased the risks of participation in strikes. In mid-February, Magistrate William Klapp of the Bronx Supreme Court, holding two rent strikers on charges of "criminal conspiracy," argued that they had "intimidated and threatened" tenants who were not ready to join in the strike. Two weeks later, Magistrate John McGoldrick of the Bronx Supreme Court granted an injunction restraining nontenants from picketing a house that was on strike. Finally, in the last week of March, City Corporation Counsel Edward Hilly issued a ruling that the "picketing of apartment houses in rent strike demonstrations is unlawful" and conveyed to city police "authority for the arrest of such pickets." This last action, based on the dubious ground that "there is no such thing known to law as a rent strike," represented the most serious effort by the city's law enforcement establishment to suppress the rent strike movement. Several days after it was issued, the counsel for the Bronx Landlords Protective Association claimed that the ruling "had such a sweeping effect that not a single rent strike is now in progress in the Bronx, although the borough seethed with such demonstrations before the circular was sent out."
Without question, the Hilly ruling put a damper on the rent strike movement. Sporadic strikes continued to occur -- in the East Bronx, in Brownsville, in the Lower East Side -- but the "epidemic" quality of the movement disappeared; arrests of pickets made the strikes more difficult and dangerous to carry out. However, the Unemployed Councils did not relinquish their drive to prevent evictions of tenants or to assure that rent levels were commensurate with incomes. Instead, they changed their target from the landlord to the home relief system. During the spring and summer of 1933, Unemployed Councils throughout the city began taking large numbers of tenants to the home relief bureaus and having them sit in until they were given funds to pay rent. "In Williamsburgh," the May l9, 1933, Daily Worker claimed:
half a dozen workers who refused to leave the Bureau ... forced the Home Relief Bureau to pay the rent in spite of previous repeated refusals. In Coney Island, over 30 families secured their rent by similar actions. In Manhattan and the Bronx, the Home Relief Bureaus were forced to revoke the "no rent" order in cases of workers participating in these militant actions.... In Harlem, struggles against the marshall and the restoring of workers furniture to their homes hastened... the payment of rent to Negro families.
Three weeks later, the Worker claimed, "Rent checks [were] ... being issued to nearly 500 unemployed families in the Bronx by the Home Relief Bureau ... as a direct result of picketing, demonstrations, and anti-eviction fights led by the Unemployed Councils."
The Unemployed Councils' campaign to shift the onus of preventing evictions from individual landlords to the government proved a shrewd tactic. Stymied in their effort to sustain a massive rent revolt (partly by effective repression, partly because landlords could not profitably make concessions), Party organizers found the city government amenable to collective pressure because of new funds made available by the Roosevelt administration and because of a political climate increasingly receptive to government aid to the unemployed. In June of 1933, Mayor O'Brien issued an order to city marshals instructing them to inform "the rent consultant of the home relief bureau" upon issuance of a dispossess and to give the bureau time to provide aid prior to the implementation of any eviction. In addition, if evictions did occur, marshals were ordered to guard tenants' furniture until a representative of the home relief system arrived. The thrust of this action was to make the home relief bureaus serve as a cushion for tenants who were behind in their rent, either by helping them remain in their apartments or by securing new quarters.
O'Brien's program, coupled with a gradual expansion of home relief funds and the implementation of New Deal work relief programs, rapidly eased the early depression eviction crisis. Communist organizations of the unemployed still served as watchdogs for tenants with rent problems, but their actions increasingly took the form of advocacy at the relief system. Through the mid-depression years, Communist organizations of the unemployed still participated in eviction resistance, but rarely organized rent strikes. If tenants had difficulty paying their rent, Unemployed Councils (and later the Workers Alliance) took them to the relief bureaus, where they acquired semiofficial recognition as bargaining agents for the city's poor, and persuaded relief officials to release sufficient funds to keep them in their apartments.
The Communist rent strike movement of the early 1930s must therefore be judged a qualified success, but in the sphere of income maintenance, not housing policy. Communist organizers did not succeed in establishing the legitimacy of the rent strike, did not leave a viable legacy of courtroom strategy, and did not develop an effective campaign for legislation aiding low-income tenants. Their analysis of the economics of housing ranged from the primitive to the nonexistent. But they did give some unemployed tenants an opportunity to resist eviction from their homes and others a chance to dramatize a level of personal suffering that the mechanisms of the private housing market could not alleviate. Unable to offer "responsible solutions" to tenant problems, they helped force government into an income strategy that gave unemployed tenants a much-needed sense of security.
Housing reform and the roots of the City-wide Tenants Council
The decline of Communist-led rent strikes left something of a vacuum in grass roots tenant activism. Rent strikes and militant tenant associations did not reappear on a significant scale until the summer and fall of 1934 and they were launched under different auspices and among very different constituencies.
Nevertheless, the years 1933 and 1934 saw the emergence of a powerful housing reform coalition in New York City, rooted in settlement houses and philanthropic organizations, but with a significant base in the administration of a newly elected mayor, Fiorello La Guardia. Concerned with deteriorating conditions among the city's two million inhabitants of old law tenements, reformers lobbied for the construction of low-rent public housing and the improvement of health and living conditions in the city's slums. By the time a grass roots tenant movement did reemerge, the reformers represented a formidable ally, offering tenant leaders office space, funds, and help with lobbying on issues of common concern.
One important component of the reform coalition was the Lower East Side Public Housing Conference. Organized in a neighborhood with the largest concentration of old law tenements in the city (and the highest rates of foreclosure and tax delinquency), the conference brought together settlement houses, mothers clubs, and religious organizations to lobby for housing reforms that could not be won on a neighborhood level. Led by professional social workers, it organized delegations of slum dwellers to Washington and Albany, published a journal, took legislators on tours of the slums, and sponsored a Better Housing Week to raise public awareness of the need for government-funded low-income housing. A brilliant advocate for slum dwellers, it avoided organizing individual buildings or engaging in confrontations with landlords; its forte was legitimizing once-controversial legislative proposals.
The Emergency Committee on Tenement Safety represented a group of comparable origins and purposes, organized by the city's settlement houses to "obtain passage of housing legislation to provide minimum standards of safety, health, and decency for tenement dwellers." Spurred by a rash of fire deaths in old law tenements, the committee lobbied for four bills reforming the state Multiple Dwellings Law: one requiring the fire retarding of halls and stairs within two years, another requiring a toilet for every family within two years, the third prohibiting the use of rooms without windows after January 1, 1939, and the fourth conferring on the Tenement House Department broader powers to order the demolition of abandoned buildings that constituted a nuisance. The bills, passed during the 1934 session of the legislature, gave the Tenement House Department significant weapons to press for the upgrading, or eventual demolition, of tenements that did not meet minimum standards of health and safety.
Another important asset of the housing reform movement was the support it received from Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and his tenement housing commissioner, Langdon Post. Post and La Guardia used their offices to lobby for the construction of public housing, and Post proved singularly effective in using his authority to force the abandonment and demolition of hazardous slum properties. A forceful advocate of political mobilization by slum tenants, Post, during his first three years in office, forced the abandonment of over fifteen hundred tenements and pressed the owners of thousands more to upgrade their properties. Beginning his efforts at a time when there was a high vacancy rate in slum neighborhoods (due to evictions and doubling up of families), Post's policies, combined with massive slum clearance by New Deal agencies and an improvement in the economic climate, contributed to a significant tightening of the housing market by the end of 1936. Convinced that government-sponsored housing was the only permanent solution to the housing needs of the poor, Post announced he was "going to create a housing shortage because that is the only way we will get decent housing." The actual pace of public housing construction fell short of Post's hopes (as of the fall of 1936, only one low-income project, First Houses, had been erected in New York City, with two more under construction), but his definition of reform priorities coincided with that of liberal housing advocates and a new wave of tenant organizers that emerged in the mid-depression.
The rebirth of activism
During the summer and fall of 1934, two rent strike movements erupted that were to have a lasting impact on organized tenant activity in New York. The first of these, launched among middle-class blacks in Harlem's Sugar Hill, led to the formation of the Consolidated Tenants League; the second, among tenants of Knickerbocker Village, a large limited-dividend housing development on the Lower East Side, produced the Knickerbocker Village Tenants Association. Both strikes achieved success employing sophisticated legal and public relations strategies disdained by early-depression Communists and openly welcomed the help of housing reformers inside and outside of government. Each movement generated tenant organizations of great permanence and strength, the leadership of which played key roles in the rebirth of a citywide tenant movement.
The Harlem rent strike of 1934 erupted in a neighborhood undergoing rapid ethnic change and among a population that had become highly politicized during the depression. The first building to go on strike, 281 Edgecombe Avenue, was a large, modern elevator building that was changing from white to black tenancy; many of its first black residents were lawyers, doctors, and entertainers. But the black residents of the building soon discovered that the status of moving to a Sugar Hill address came at the price of rents nearly double that charged former white residents, of elevators that seldom worked, and of poor building maintenance. This kind of profiteering at the expense of black tenants had occurred throughout Harlem's emergence as a black community, and in another time, the tenants might have gritted their teeth and accepted the situation. But in 1934, Harlemites increasingly turned to the boycott and the picket line to solve their problems. The community was the scene of a boycott of store owners on 125th Street to force them to hire black clerks; of sit-ins and protests to force nondiscriminatory relief policies; and of marches and rallies to free the Scottsboro Boys. The tenants of 281 Edgecombe, having seen the effectiveness of such tactics (the 125th Street boycott and the relief campaigns achieved major victories), decided to apply them to their own situation; they called a rent strike and began picketing the building to demand lower rents and better building conditions. At the same time, they retained two skilled attorneys, Julius Archibald and Vernal Williams, to represent their interests in municipal court.
The Edgecome strike, the Amsterdam News asserted, "fired the minds ... of Harlemites who have long suffered under the burden of exorbitant rents." Tenants in several other buildings launched strikes for lower rents, and the buildings involved formed a United Tenants League to coordinate their demands. By mid-September of 1934, the movement, helped by near-unanimous tenant support and intimidating mass picketing (which the La Guardia-appointed corporation counsel did not try to stop), won victories in all the buildings it had organized; owners agreed to reductions of three to ten dollars a month plus repairs.
News of the strike's success brought dozens of requests for aid from tenants throughout Harlem and inspired strike leaders to form a permanent organization. In October of 1934, they joined with leaders of a group that had organized rent strikes on 150th Street -- the New York Tenants League -- into a Consolidated Tenants League and began offering negotiation services and legal representation to Harlem tenants willing to pay the organization's dues (two dollars initiation, two dollars per year). From the time of Consolidated's founding, its major leaders, chairman Donellan Phillips and attorney Vernal Williams, perceived it as a professional service organization capable of supporting a full-time staff. Committed participants in Harlem's struggle for racial justice (Consolidated took part in numerous campaigns against racial discrimination in housing and employment), they also observed that Harlem's unique housing conditions enabled people with legal and organizational skills to pursue tenant advocacy as a career. Harlem's landlords, their rents inflated by discrimination, could afford to make substantial concessions without sacrificing "reasonable" profit; organizers with the talents to extract such concessions could find a large market for their services, especially among middle-class blacks. Harlem Communists, who had worked within Consolidated from the beginning, did not know what to make of this approach; in 1934, they attacked Consolidated leaders for their "opportunism"; two years later, they courted their support. But the strategy worked. By 1938 Consolidated claimed over five thousand dues-paying members and supported a full-time staff of organizers and lawyers.
Consolidated's great contribution, Heinz Norden of the City-Wide Tenants Council claimed, was its development of an effective "legal defense of tenants brought to court by landlord's actions." Consolidated's lead attorney, Vernal Williams (who had earlier won notoriety for his defense of Marcus Garvey), proved to be expert in using every available statute, along with judicial delays and appeals to common sense, to persuade judges to postpone evictions and serve as mediators between landlords and tenants. Sometimes using section 1436(a) of the Civil Practice Act to win six-month postponements of rent increases (giving landlords a strong incentive to make a deal), sometimes claiming that landlords had violated "proper consideration" in failing to provide promised services, sometimes claiming that multiple violations provided grounds for six-month stays of eviction, Williams developed an extraordinary track record in winning reversals of rent increases and agreements to improve building service. "It is not too much to say that an entire new body of tenant law was created in Harlem," Heinz Norden asserted. "For the first time, tenants began to get a break in the courts." Williams's success, in striking contrast to that of Communist lawyers in the early 1930s, derived from his deference to the judges and the reasonableness of his claims as well as his legal expertise. Consolidated's lawyers always proclaimed their willingness to negotiate and their respect for the profit margins of landlords, and judges in Harlem's municipal court (who saw Williams and other Consolidated attorneys literally hundreds of times) learned to regard a Consolidated case, almost by definition, as well prepared and reasonable. Some of this experience did not easily translate to the rest of the city (the magnitude of the rent discrimination faced by Harlemites, including black public officials, contributed to a pro-tenant atmosphere in the Harlem municipal court). But Consolidated's courtroom success provided encouragement to tenant activists elsewhere seeking a balance between mass action and legal representation.
The Knickerbocker Village rent strike, employing appeals to public officials and the media more than courtroom advocacy, provided an equally innovative model of tenant organization. The setting of this conflict was a sixteen-hundred-unit complex located in a deteriorated neighborhood just north of the Brooklyn Bridge (Manhattan side), which had been financed with a loan from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation that limited its developers to a 6 percent profit and rents of no more than $12.50 per room. Designed as a model project for middle-class New Yorkers, Knickerbocker Village attracted a tenant population of young, college-educated professionals -- professors, architects, social workers, teachers, lawyers, civil servants, and businessmen. Arriving on moving day with high expectations, they found the buildings unfinished and the management poorly prepared for their arrival. Elevators did not work; apartments lacked finished floors, bathroom and kitchen fixtures, and painted walls; "model" features of the development -- laundry rooms, radio hookups, children's playrooms -- proved inoperable or poorly equipped. Worse yet, management representatives, failing to take tenant complaints seriously, offered insolent responses or avoided contact altogether. 
Knickerbocker Village residents, who had developed an instant camaraderie during the move-in fiasco (and who were not accustomed to this treatment in their professional lives), swiftly mobilized to ease their predicament. Less than three weeks after moving day (October 1, 1934), over six hundred Villagers came to a meeting at a local public school and voted to withhold their next month's rent unless management agreed to a long list of demands, including repairs of apartments, elevators, and public areas, and reimbursement of tenants for moving expenses. The strategy tenants pursued demonstrated a shrewd understanding of politics, public relations, and the weight conferred by their own professional status (the strike committee had forty-four lawyers and seventeen journalists among its supporters). Within one week, the strike committee had set up meetings with the mayor, the State Housing Board, and the Village management (the Fred M. French Company), and had managed to secure four full-length articles in the New York Times. In addition, the strikers formed a legal defense committee, a newsletter, and a social activities committee to help firm up their support with the rest of the tenants. By mid-November the Knickerbocker Village management, reeling under the force of this organizational blitzkrieg, agreed to negotiate; a compromise was reached that resulted in repairs of unfinished apartments and nearly $25,000 in reimbursements to aggrieved tenants.
The successful strike generated tremendous esprit de corps among politically active tenants. One week after the French Company settled tenant claims, strike leaders announced that they were forming a permanent Knickerbocker Village Tenants Association to undertake a program of cultural and educational activities within the housing complex. The tenant leaders, ranging politically from New Dealers to Communists, approached the association as an opportunity to create a social and cultural environment that reflected the "activist" currents of the time, but they ran up against the grim opposition of the French Company, which saw the association as a threat to its control of the project. The company refused to grant meeting space to the association, set up a rival tenant group, funded an anti-association newsletter, and finally, in the summer of 1935, informed seventeen association leaders that their leases would not be renewed because of their "evident unhappiness" with conditions in the project.
The effort to evict association leaders, even more than the strike, radicalized many residents of the project. Although the association lost an eleven-month court battle to force renewal of the leases, it used the issue of arbitrary management tactics to expand its following among the tenants and create strong ties with public officials, journalists, and civic organizations concerned with housing reform. To the French Company's dismay, a whole new group of association leaders emerged who expanded its cultural and political activities, kept its newsletter alive, and expanded association membership to over a thousand tenants, thus swamping its management-sponsored rival. "Knickerbocker Village became a beehive of activity," one tenants leader recalled, "one of the most interesting places in New York to live in." For the new tenant leadership, the recalcitrance of the French Company became a metaphor for the problems all tenants faced in winning recognition of their rights to free association and collective bargaining, and they became evangelists for tenant activism in their Lower East Side neighborhood and the city as a whole.
The Knickerbocker Village leaders possessed some unique assets in their efforts to serve as the catalysts for a citywide tenant movement. First, they possessed professional skills, and they projected a cosmopolitan style that no militant tenant activists had previously commanded. College educated and "Americanized" (no foreign accents here, even among the "ethnics"), they combined a romantic faith in mass action with a hardheaded knowledge of the law, public relations, and the legislative process. Second, their radicalism, although sincere, lacked the rough edges displayed by immigrant Socialists and Communists. Recent converts to the Left, they affected a nonpartisan aura that never compromised their professional expertise or jeopardized smooth social relations with liberals. Third, they had the backing of a strong, stable tenant association that provided both a model and a source of financial and political support for their activities. At a time when housing reform had become a major issue in city politics, Knickerbocker Village activities were uniquely situated to bring together a grass roots tenant movement that sought links with liberal reformers in the settlement houses and the city government.
The Citywide Tenants Council
Very early in their association's history, Knickerbocker Village tenant leaders displayed interest in broadening their base of operations. In 1935, with the co-sponsorship of the Lower East Side Public Housing Conference, they formed a City-Wide Housing Conference, only to see it disintegrate. "Letterheads were printed, and about a dozen affiliates obtained," one activist recalled, "but the movement . . . failed to catch on." In March of 1936, Knickerbocker Village leaders made another attempt at citywide organization, this time with a more activist orientation. Inspired by the support displayed by tenants for striking building service workers (which at Knickerbocker Village and other middle-income developments took the form of picket lines, fund-raising, and harassment of strikebreakers), KV leaders decided that "the time had come to set up a permanent tenant group in defense of tenant rights." Gaining the support of the Consolidated Tenants League, the only other tenant organization in the city with a secure popular base, KV leaders invited representatives of eighteen other tenant associations (most from individual buildings) to a meeting at the Mecca Temple to rally support for the building service strikers and create a new tenant organization. Featuring speeches by Congressman Vito Marcantonio, Building Service Union leader James Bambrick, and Newspaper Guild leader Heywood Broun (all of whom advised tenants to employ labor union tactics), the meeting attracted two thousand participants, five hundred of whom signed cards displaying interest in a citywide organization. Several weeks later, the organizing committee, dominated by Knickerbocker Village representatives, held its first meeting at an office donated by a sympathetic businessman. The group constituted itself as a direct membership organization -- the City-Wide Tenants League, and elected Heinz Norden, an editor and translator from Knickerbocker Village, as its first chairman.
Norden, who served as City-Wide's major leader for the first four years of its existence, represented the quintessential "Popular Front personality." A skilled writer, administrator, and speaker, Norden viewed the Communist party as the major inspirational force on the Left and was willing to defer to its judgment on matters of national and international policy so long as it did not compromise his sense of professionalism or interfere with his day-to-day activities. He sought the help of Party organizations in building City-Wide, while carefully avoiding direct Party control. But at the same time, he never encouraged any policy or relationship that might offend Party activists, whose skills and labor the movement needed. Norden felt most comfortable in a coalition of liberals and radicals, and he helped endow City-Wide with an "ecumenical" air that allowed it to thrive at a time when Communists had discarded much of their revolutionary bravado and some of their sectarian arrogance in the interests of fighting fascism.
For the first five months of its existence, the new organization had rough sledding. First, the predominantly middle-class tenants who helped found the organization drifted away once the building trades strike ended. With the exception of the Knickerbocker Village Tenants Association, none of the building organizations activated during the strike displayed any long-term stability. Second, Consolidated Tenants League leaders, who represented the largest tenant association in the city, resented the direct membership structure of City-Wide. Dependent on membership dues for their employment, they did not want City-Wide to compete with them for individual members. These problems might have been insurmountable had not City-Wide's hard-pressed leadership discovered two new constituencies: working-class tenants seeking help with individual housing complaints and left wing unions and civic groups seeking advice on housing policy. As Norden described it:
Word about the Tenants League had got into the newspapers and a procession of tenants from the slums began to appear at its ... office with immediate, concrete problems -- rent rises, dispossess proceedings, landlord-tenant disputes. Somehow, the League always managed to have a volunteer lawyer in court, an organizer in the house, and slowly but surely it began to chalk up its first victories in the form of settlements and court decisions. It also embarked on the activity which proved to advance its fortunes more than any other. It sent speakers to address union, civic, fraternal and political groups -- anyone who would listen.
During the fall of 1936, City-Wide leaders began to develop a new organizing strategy. First, they decided to change City-Wide's structure from a membership organization to a federation of self-governing neighborhood tenant associations. The function of the central office would be to develop legal and legislative strategy, coordinate fund-raising and public relations, and conduct an educational program on housing issues for organized tenants and the entire "progressive" community. Second, they decided to promote the formation of tenant associations in slum neighborhoods. The first experiment with this policy took place on the Lower East Side. City-Wide organizers enlisted the support of settlement house leaders and social workers (themselves deluged with housing complaints) in the creation of a Joint Committee for Tenants Organizing. After several months of canvassing houses, holding public meetings, and handling individual complaints, the committee felt it had sufficient support to create a permanent organization which it called the East Side Tenants Union. In November of 1936, the new group, along with City-Wide itself, moved into donated headquarters in the Church of All Nations and began soliciting membership and organizing tenants. Within a month, the group had several hundred members and three dynamic leaders -- Wilma Saunders, Sophie Black, and Marcia Moore.
In December of 1936, two crises erupted in low-income neighborhoods which dramatized the salience of City-Wide's new strategy and helped put the organization on the map. The first took place among six hundred families living in tenements that had been condemned by the city to make way for the South Bronx approach to the Triborough Bridge. To hasten their departure, officials responsible for the bridge construction (headed by Robert Moses) stopped providing services in the tenements and announced the start of demolition just two weeks before Christmas. When tenants and local businessmen protested these policies, City-Wide leaders offered help in publicizing their grievances. Under their direction, neighborhood residents began picketing city hall, sending delegations to relief officials and sympathetic legislators, and holding mass meetings in the community to which the press was invited. The campaign embarrassed city officials and won major concessions, including a stay of demolition, the restoration of building services, the granting of emergency food, clothing, and medical care, and the payment of moving expenses by the Emergency Relief Bureau. City-Wide emerged from the campaign with considerable credibility in the neighborhood (a South Bronx Tenants League later formed nearby) and with a strategy to insure fair treatment of tenants displaced by government construction projects.
Less than a week after this crisis broke, a group of savings banks owning property on the Lower East Side decided to board up tenements under their control rather than comply with the fire retarding and sanitary requirements of the Multiple Dwellings Law, whose deadline for compliance was January 1, 1937. Over seven hundred families on the Lower East Side (and an unknown number of others in other poor neighborhoods) received eviction notices that gave them less than a month to find new quarters in the dead of winter. Worse yet, this action came when, according to the New York Times, New York was "on the verge of a shortage of low rent housing that many observers fear may be as grave as that of 1921." More than forty thousand apartments had been removed from the low-rent market since 1933 (through demolition, abandonment, and transfer to nonresidential use), and evictees faced grave difficulty finding quarters at comparable rents. The East Side Tenants Union, less than a month old, leaping into the fray, threw up picket lines around the banks in question and sent delegations to the tenement house commissioner and the mayor demanding that the evictions be postponed and that tenants be assured of full services until they could find other quarters at comparable rents. In response to these complaints, and the equally vociferous protests of settlement house leaders, the mayor directed the New York City Housing Authority to hold hearings to help find a solution to the problem.
The hearings, held during the last two weeks of December 1936, provided an excellent opportunity for City-Wide to publicize its work and recruit new affiliates. City-Wide leaders used the occasion to present a Tenants Housing Program that offered solutions to the immediate crisis and suggested long-term remedies for low-income tenants. For the bank evictions, City-Wide offered a solution based on the Triborough Bridge settlement: stays of eviction, intervention by the city to assure proper services to tenants, and payment by the Emergency Relief Bureau of the moving expenses of tenants forced to leave. It categorically rejected postponing enforcement of the Multiple Dwelling Law, preferring to see tenements closed or repairs charged to landlords rather than the persistence of dangerous conditions. As long-term solutions, City-Wide proposed a moratorium on evictions, the passage of laws prohibiting rent increases in buildings containing violations, the passage of a "prior lien" law allowing the city to make repairs in tenements and charge them to landlords, the large-scale construction of low-rent public housing, and the passage of laws prohibiting racial discrimination in the renting of apartments or the fixing of rent levels. This program, presented in a low-key, professional manner, affirmed City-Wide's ties with liberal housing advocates, but it also helped City-Wide recruit a grass roots tenant advocacy group, based in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, called Brooklyn Rent-payers. Rent-payers representatives at the hearings (who had the same "progressive" political views as City-Wide leaders) immediately endorsed the Tenants Housing Program and expressed interest in affiliating. Their recruitment gave City-Wide the critical mass of local affiliates it needed to complete the transition to a tenants federation. In late December of 1936, at a meeting in Harlem, the organization changed its name to the City-Wide Tenants Council and elected Donelan Phillips of Consolidated as its chairman and Heinz Norden as its executive secretary. The council's charter members included three neighborhood tenants associations -- the Consolidated Tenants League, the Brooklyn Rent-payers, and the East Side Tenants Union -- along with the Knickerbocker Village Tenants Association and the Lower East Side Public Housing Conference. With this composition, the council could legitimately claim to represent the interest of slum tenants, even though much of the leadership at its central office was middle class.
During 1937 the council experienced substantial growth; it added more than ten new affiliates and emerged as the recognized voice of tenants' interests in the municipal courts, the city housing bureaucracy, and the city council and state legislature. Drawing upon ties with settlement houses, left wing trade unions, and unemployed organizations, council organizers helped form local tenant leagues in the South and East Bronx, Williamsburg Flushing, midtown Manhattan, Greenwich Village, Chelsea, Yorkville, Coney Island, and downtown Brooklyn. At the same time, the council recruited a volunteer "staff" of more than one hundred lawyers (through the left wing National Lawyers Guild); developed a housing research component (with the help of the left wing Federation of Architects, Engineers, Chemists, and Technicians); and developed a lobbying operation in concert with three key organizations involved in housing reform -- the Charity Organization Society, the Housing Committee of the United Neighborhood Houses, and the Housing Section of the Welfare Council.
The City-Wide Tenants Council's growth, accomplished entirely with volunteer labor (it had eight to ten unpaid organizers on staff), reflected the genuine need for tenant advocacy in the city's poor neighborhoods, where housing conditions had become unsettled. Rapidly declining vacancy rates, the impact of slum clearance projects and public works, and the abandonment and upgrading of tenements as a result of code enforcement left many poor tenants vulnerable to arbitrary evictions and rent increases. As City-Wide gained publicity for defending low-income tenants, its organizers found themselves deluged with individual requests for help. Recognizing that they lacked the resources to help all complainants on a one-to-one basis, they tried to encourage tenants to create self-sufficient building organizations that enlisted the support of activist organizations in their neighborhood for picketing and publicity. In neighborhoods where a critical mass of buildings organized themselves, City-Wide organizers fostered the creation of neighborhood tenant leagues that had the capacity to handle complaints themselves.
The style of organizing City-Wide employed, both from its central office and its neighborhood leagues, represented a shrewd combination of mass protest tactics and legal representation. Unlike tenant organizers in the early 1930s, City-Wide organizers employed mass picketing and rent withholding only after other strategies failed and only when they had strong assurances that tenants would not be penalized for their use. Convinced that the tenant movement would be built by practical victories, City-Wide organizers encouraged tenants to meticulously build their case by recording violations, getting inspectors to buildings, and initiating negotiations with landlords. "If the landlord refuses to negotiate," Heinz Norden wrote, "if there are violations of the law or patent unfairness on the part of the landlord; and if there is sufficient support and sentiment on the part of the tenants, picketing may be resorted to and as a last resort, a rent strike declared. The Council, however, realizes that the rent strike is to be invoked only if all other methods fail, and then only if there is a good chance of success." When conducting a strike, council organizers insisted that strict financial controls be employed (with money deposited in a trustees account and possibly with the court) and that picketing be conducted with precision and care. "The Council ... stays strictly within the law," Norden boasted. "In only one instance was a City-Wide organizer ever arrested and none was convicted of any offense."
Despite Norden's strictures, City-Wide affiliates, if pressed, could play rough. In October of 1937, two leaders of Brooklyn Rent-payers chained themselves to the door of a Brownsville building to prevent the eviction of two families on rent strike. Rent-payer pickets at the building engaged in a shoving match with the police when they tried to unlock the protesters. But unlike their early 1930s counterparts, Rent-payer organizers did not define the police as the enemy. Indeed, they accepted the offer of a local precinct captain to mediate the dispute and agreed to the settlement he worked out. The incident dramatized two key features of City-Wide strategy: a willingness to submit disputes to third-party mediation (or arbitration) and the use of the strike as a precise instrument to win concessions, rather than a generalized instrument of neighborhood rebellion.
With this mixture of militancy and caution, City-Wide affiliates seem to have accumulated a good track record in winning gains for tenants they represented (in November of 1937, City-Wide claimed it had won settlements for tenants in twenty-six buildings around the city). Their success ratio -- much higher than that of early 1930s groups -- stemmed from a number of sources. First, City-Wide organizers simply did not defend tenants unless they had solid grievances and did a great deal of the work in organizing their building and negotiating with the landlord. Second, City-Wide had energetic and talented young lawyers at its disposal who shared information about how to handle tenant grievances (for example, City-Wide lawyers discovered that most "notices of rent increases were not in the form required by law" and could be easily challenged on a technicality). Third, the legal climate facing organized tenants had changed for the better from the early 1930s. By 1939, as a result of a series of landmark cases (and a political climate more conducive to collective protest), most municipal judges recognized the right of tenants to picket in rent disputes. Rent strikes proved to be a more questionable proposition, but judges generally declined to evict if tenants paid their back rent on demand. Finally, City-Wide affiliates could draw upon the Communist party network to staff picket lines should rent disputes enter the "militant" stage. Almost every City-Wide neighborhood affiliate had a working relationship with a local unit of the Workers Alliance -- the Communist-led organization of the unemployed -- and many had close ties with American Labor party clubs. These two organizations could be counted on to supply pickets, speakers for street rallies, and members for delegations to landlords or the municipal courts, which gave tenant leagues added political muscle in local disputes.
The effectiveness of City-Wide's tactics in handling individual building disputes, despite the hopes of its organizers, did not result in the development of stable membership organizations "on the trade union model." Most tenants, City-Wide leaders recall, lost interest in the organization once their individual grievances were settled, and individual building organizations, except in large developments, generally disintegrated quickly. Even the neighborhood tenant leagues, some of which lasted for years, generally depended upon the enthusiasm of a handful of volunteer lawyers and organizers rather than a stable dues-paying membership (Consolidated was the one exception). Depression-idled professionals, rather than slum tenants, proved to be the glue that held City-Wide together. Solving the problems of slum tenants simultaneously appealed to their idealism and enabled them to hone skills and make connections that might be useful to their careers. Lawyers, architects, writers, and public relations experts gravitated to City-Wide in sufficient numbers to keep the organization going despite the absence of sufficient funds to hire a full-time staff. By 1940 City-Wide claimed more than twenty affiliates in city neighborhoods and government sponsored housing developments and had helped publicize effective methods of tenant advocacy to scores of left wing trade unions and neighborhood organizations Not a mass movement by any stretch of the imagination, it had helped bring important legal, "ethnical, and organizational resources into the lives of slum tenants and had helped some stave off rent increases and improve conditions in their buildings.
City-Wide also played an important role in the political arena: it contributed a "tenant perspective" to public deliberations on issues like the construction of low-income housing, code enforcement, rent control, and strategies of urban redevelopment. It mobilized tenant delegations to meetings of the city council, state legislature, and U.S. Congress; issued annual Tenants Housing Programs with specific legislative recommendations; and represented tenant interests through its seats on the board of the Citizens Housing Council, a high-powered housing reform organization founded in 1937. Skilled in mobilizing slum tenants for demonstrations and lobbying, City-Wide organizers also helped bring left wing unions and American Labor party clubs into the housing reform coalition, which added to its political influence on a statewide level. Sympathetic to the Communist party, City-Wide organizers, Heinz Norden observed, "influenced ... the Socialists and the Communists far more than vice versa.... before the tenants movement got under way, the radicals seem to have paid very little attention to housing."
The legislative activities of City-Wide resulted in some accomplishments and some disappointments. On the question of code enforcement, City-Wide found itself at odds with a new policy of the La Guardia administration to use market mechanisms to encourage repairs, rather than administrative action to force them. During the winter of 1937, the mayor, despite City-Wide's vociferous protests, supported a six-month moratorium on the fire retarding and upgrading of old law tenements. When City-Wide and its allies won the passage of a prior lien bill in the state legislature (allowing the city to repair violations in old law tenements and charge the repairs to landlords), the city council passed regulations crippling enforcement of the bill and appropriated limited funds to implement it. With a growing shortage of low-income housing (and in response to pressure from landlords and banks), La Guardia decided to give code enforcement lower priority. In 1938 he replaced Langdon Post with Alfred Rhenstein, "a builder with close ties to banking and realty groups," and instituted a policy aimed at offering positive incentives (tax incentives and rehabilitation loans) to tenement owners seeking to upgrade their properties. As a result, the boarding up of tenements slowed considerably in the late 1930s, and what rehabilitation did occur often resulted in increased rents.
On the issue of government construction of public housing, City-Wide registered slightly greater success. Along with other public housing advocates, it lobbied successfully for the passage of the federal Housing Act of 1937, which made subsidies and loans available to states that wished to construct low-income housing. One year later, City-Wide lobbied for the passage of a public housing amendment to the New York State Constitution and supported the La Guardia administration's efforts to construct low-income projects with available funds. But the size of the public housing program in the city fell short of City-Wide's expectations. The federal government appropriated less than a billion dollars for public housing (much of it in loans, not direct subsidies) rather than the 10 billion City-Wide recommended. The state legislature failed to appropriate the $300 million for public housing that the constitutional amendment had authorized. Although the city government did accelerate its construction of low-income housing, all the projects together accommodated slightly more than ten thousand families at the beginning of World War II. This represented an important gain for low-income tenants, but not the systematic effort to rebuild the slums that City-Wide had hoped for.
City-Wide's agitation for rent control did not, in the late 1930s, result in a centrally administered system limiting rent increases and prohibiting evictions, but it did help pass the Minkoff Act of 1939, which prohibited rent increases in old law tenements that did not comply fully with the provisions of the Multiple Dwellings Act. Since over 90 percent of old law tenements contained major violations, this bill represented a form of rent control for low-income tenants. Introduced by an American Labor party assemblyman from the Bronx, supported by major housing reform groups and the city administration, the Minkoff Act reflected an alliance of liberals and the Left that would have been impossible five years before, a coalition that City-Wide did much to bring together.
City-Wide's lobbying with city bureaucracies, in some respects, exceeded its legislative work in importance and effectiveness. During 1937, City-Wide and the Workers Alliance conducted a successful campaign to force the Emergency Relief Bureau to scale rents to the type of housing clients occupied as well as to the size of their families, thereby protecting clients from displacement during the upgrading of tenement properties. City-Wide also placed steady pressure on the New York City Housing Authority to influence the location, eligibility requirements, and patterns of tenant recruitment in New York City housing projects. City-Wide instructed its neighborhood affiliates to lobby for housing projects in their communities and supply Housing Authority officials with names of eligible tenants. Once projects were constructed, City-Wide organized tenant associations in them. By 1941 tenant associations had become strong in several of the larger projects -- Red Hook, Vladek, Williamsburg, and Queensbridge -- and had won priority access to public facilities and informal recognition of their right to negotiate for individual tenants (especially on the sensitive issue of "income ceilings" for project residents).
The breadth of City-Wide's concerns, and the range of its organizational linkages, certainly surpassed those of any previous tenant organization in the city's history. City-Wide's shifting group of volunteer lawyers, organizers, and researchers accumulated expert knowledge of the legal representation of tenants, the economics and politics of housing, and the operation of city housing and relief bureaucracies. The sophistication of City-Wide's legislative proposals and public relations work equaled that of the real estate lobby and traditional housing reform organizations. But the organizational structure that sustained this effort proved fragile. Never did City-Wide's fund-raising produce over one thousand dollars per year. Only in 1939 did it acquire the funds to hire a full-time staff member, and it paid him the munificent sum of fifteen dollars per week. The slum tenants who benefited most from City-Wide's work lacked the resources to subsidize it, or the political skills and inclinations to build the kind of stable organizations that could give City-Wide real permanence. City-Wide survived on the politically motivated idealism and skills of under-employed professionals, both of which were vulnerable to shifts in the political climate and improvements in the economy.
The wartime tenants movement and the struggle for rent control: Organizational diffusion and political success
The coming of World War II had an unsettling effect on the organized tenant movement in New York City, particularly on the City-Wide Tenants Council. The core group of volunteer activists who kept the organization going, most of them sympathetic to the Communist party, followed Party priorities in allocating their energies and defining City-Wide's political stance. From the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact to Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union, they imparted a strong anti-war tone to City-Wide's work by accusing the president and Congress of taking needed funds away from the federal low-rent housing program to subsidize war preparations. Once the Soviet Union and the United States entered the war, this group made a complete about-face and urged City-Wide affiliates to "Assist the Work of Civil Defense" and participate in "Help Win the War Activities." Key male leaders of the organization, such as Heinz Norden and Donald Schoolman, along with scores of lawyers and local organizers, caught up in the Left-approved spirit of patriotism, volunteered for the armed forces. Talented women leaders replaced them, notably Grace Aviles and Catherine Masters, but their advocacy of tenant issues, given their political perspective, inevitably became fused with the task of mobilizing the civilian population to provide support for the armed forces (blood and clothing drives) and to serve as monitors against "profiteering" in the consumer economy. As a result, the more organizationally fragile locals of City-Wide gradually disintegrated or fused with the left wing consumers movement. By 1943 City-Wide, renamed the United Tenants League in deference to the "Win the War" spirit, had become a much smaller organization, with its primary base in city housing projects and limited-dividend developments such as Knickerbocker Village rather than in neighborhood tenant leagues.
However, the gradual decline of the City-Wide Tenants Council did not mean that tenant activism ceased or that the interests of low-income tenants lost all weight in the political arena. Rather, techniques of tenant protest and advocacy, in the courtroom, the city bureaucracy, and the legislative arena, spread to a wide range of progressive organizations -- American Labor party clubs, civil rights organizations, neighborhood consumer councils, and CIO unions. Possessing far greater resources than City-Wide, these organizations, employing methods City-Wide activists pioneered, facilitated their own organizational growth. Concentrating on two main issues, rent levels and evictions, they helped engineer one of the most far-reaching victories in the history of the New York tenant movement: the imposition by the Office of Price Administration of a system of wartime rent controls covering all of New York City.
The federal government's experiment in the setting of rent levels came as a result of a nationwide decline in housing construction, exacerbated by a migration to cities of workers seeking employment in defense industries. In many urban areas, a rapid tightening of the housing market occurred, marked by overcrowding and rapid rent increases. The federal government responded to the housing shortage (and the shortage of other consumer commodities) by passing the Emergency Price Control Act of 1942 and establishing an Office of Price Administration with the power to freeze rents and prices in designated localities. Shortly after the act was passed, the United Tenants League, the Citizens Housing Council, and consumer organizations began to press Mayor La Guardia to have the OPA immediately freeze rents in New York City. La Guardia made such a request, but the OPA, claiming the city's vacancy rate (7.5 percent in 1940) was too high for mandatory controls, initially refused to take action. It did declare the city a "defense rental area," but instead called for a voluntary limit on rent increases, monitored by the mayor's office.
The failure of the OPA to impose rent controls became the rallying point for a coalition of civil rights organizations and left wing political groups. In Harlem, where the housing market was particularly tight, city councilman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., mobilized the People's Committee that had engineered his election to collect one hundred thousand signatures on a petition to have Harlem declared a "war emergency area" subject to immediate controls. The Consolidated Tenants League, handling scores of cases of buildings facing rent increases, supported the campaign; the league claimed that Harlem landlords consistently violated voluntary restraints. And Communist party clubs, left wing unions, and the National Negro Congress joined the drive by collecting petitions among their followers and even organizing rent strikes in individual buildings.
In other parts of the city, the "progressive" wing of the American Labor party (which had split into pro-Communist and anti-Communist factions after the Nazi-Soviet Pact) made the struggle for rent control a major political priority. Congressman Vito Marcantonio, an advocate of rent control and public housing who employed "tenant clinics" as part of his service operation, pressed the issue on a federal level, but ALP candidates throughout the city also made rent control an issue in their campaigns for the assembly and the city council. Michael Quill, head of the Transport Workers Union and a power in the CIO industrial union council, campaigned on the rent control issue in seeking (successfully) a council seat from the Bronx, as did CP-ALP candidates Benjamin Davis, Jr. (from Harlem), and Peter Cacchione (from Brooklyn). At a time when the Communist Left generally eschewed confrontation tactics, consumer issues emerged as a "respectable" form of militancy, with the struggle for price stability assuming the character of a patriotic crusade. All over the city, ALP clubs (following the Marcantonio model) began setting up in their offices tenant clinics that served as advocates in landlord-tenant disputes, and occasionally they employed rent strikes. Staffed largely by women, some of whom had worked with City-Wide in its heyday, these organizations became heirs of a tradition of neighborhood tenant activism at a time when City-Wide lost the power to sustain it."
The struggle for rent control, supported by the mayor, the city's Left, liberal housing groups, and a neighborhood consumer movement, assumed added urgency as a result of the riot that broke out in Harlem on August 1, 1943. The looting, window smashing, and battles with police that erupted that night provoked a nervous OPA to open a branch office on 135th Street and begin monitoring Harlem rents and prices. The Consolidated Tenants League, Powell's People's Committee, and left wing unions and neighborhood groups began flooding the office with complaints. At the same time, the city's CIO unions, especially Mike Quill's Transport Workers Union and the left-led National Maritime Union, began warning the mayor and the OPA that when lease renewals came up on October 1, 1943, landlords would violate voluntary restraints and institute massive rent increases. The mayor, hardly insensitive to the combined political influence of the ALP, the Harlem community and the CIO unions, escalated his pressure on the OPA as well. On November 1, 1943, the OPA finally relented and declared New York City a War Rental Area with mandatory ceilings retroactive to the levels of March 1, 1943. From this point on, tenant associations, ALP clubs, and unions focused their attention on the OPA as the major point of reference for tenant complaints and began serving as de facto vigilance committees to insure enforcement of the edict.
The imposition of controls, and the manner in which they were imposed, proved to be a watershed in housing policy in New York City. Long a part of the agenda of the organized tenant movement, rent control came not because that movement had accumulated new organization strength, but because tenant work and tenant issues had been adopted by civil rights groups, trade unions, consumer organizations, and left wing political clubs. Having fought for controls so long and so hard (OPA controls came with much less of a struggle in other cities), and having defined the issue as central to their identity (and sometimes their political power), these organizations developed a powerful stake in rent control's survival. After the war, even in very different economic settings, controls would prove difficult to reverse. Tenant activism, expressing itself through numerous forms, had emerged as a permanent force in the political life of the city.
1. New York Times, July 3, 1936, Mar. 8, 1937.
2. The most useful works dealing with the Popular Front phase of American Communism are Joseph Starobin, American Communism in Crisis, 1943-1957 (Cambridge Mass., 1972), and Al Richmond, A Long View from the Left (Boston, 1973).
3. Interview with Richard B. Moore, Nov. 14, 1973, conducted by Mark Naison; New York Amsterdam News, fan. 9, 1930, Sept. 17, 1928.
4. Daily Worker, Apr. 8, 10, 13, 15, 16, 19, 25, 1929.
5. New York Amsterdam News, June 5, 1929; Daily Worker, June 8, 1929; William B. Rudell, "Concerted Rent Withholding on the New York City Housing Front: Who Gets What, Why, and How?" paper, Yale Law School, Spring 1965, pp. 36-37.
6. Daily Worker, June 12, 25, July 1, 2, 4 1929; Revolutionary Age, Nov. 1, 1929.
7. New York Times, Apr. 16, 1930; Rudell, "Concerted Rent Withholding," pp. 37-38.
8. Bronx Home News, Jan. 31, 1932; Real Estate News, Jan. 1931, p. 12.
9. Real Estate News, Jan. 1931, pp. 12-13 Bronx Home News, Apr. 27, 1932.
10. New York City Housing Authority, The Failure of Housing Regulation (New York, 1936), pp. 12-17; Roy Peel, The Political Clubs of New York (New York, 1935), pp. 210-212; New York Times, Feb. 26 1932, Jan. 15, 1933; "No Rent Where There Is No Work," New Leader, Dec. 17, 1932, p. 5.
11. Real Estate News, Jan. 1931, pp. 12-13; Apr. 1931, p. 126; New York Times, Feb. 14, 1932; Bronx Home News, Jan. 10, 13, 1932.
12. Daily Worker, Dec. 9, 30, 1929; Mark Naison, Communists in Harlem during the Depression (Urbana, Ill., 1983), pp. 24-26.
13. New York Amsterdam News, Oct. 8, 1930. Real Estate News, Apr. 1931, pp. 126, 131; New York Times, June 3, 1931; Daily Worker, Oct. 6, Dec. 13, 1930, Jan. 5, Mar. 13, May 20, June 22, Aug. 19, 22, Sept. 17, 1931; Interview with Theodore Bassett, Dec. 14, 1973, conducted by Mark Naison.
14. Daily Worker, Mar. 18, 28, May 12, June 13, Aug. 6, 1931; Working Woman, Oct. 1931, p. 12.
15. Kim Chernin, In My Mother's House: A Daughter's Story (New York, 1983), pp. 100-101; Interview with Sophie Saroff, Oral History of the American Left Collection, Tamiment Library; "The Utopia We Knew: The Coops," Cultural Correspondence, Spring 1978, pp. 95-97; "The Political Significance of Rent Strikes," Party Organizer, Feb. 1932, pp. 23-24.
16. Bronx Home News, Jan. 10, 22, 1932; Daily Worker, Jan. 5, 8, 1932.
17. Bronx Home News, Jan. 23, 1932; New York Times, Jan. 23, 1932; Daily Worker, Jan. 23, 1932; Interview with Sara Plotkin, Jan. 23, 1976.
18. Bronx Home News, Jan. 28, 29, Feb. 2, 1932; New York Times, Jan. 30, Feb. 2, 4, 1932; Daily Worker, Jan. 26, Feb. 2, 1932.
19. Bronx Home News, Jan. 31, Feb. 3, 5, 7, 8, 1932; New York Times, Feb. 10, 1932.
20. Daily Worker, Jan. 9, 18, 23, 28, 1932, Real Estate News, Feb. 1932, pp. 54-55; Kenneth Alan Waltzer, "The American Labor Party: Third Party Politics in New Deal-Cold War New York, 1936-1954," Ph.D. dies., Harvard University, 1977, pp. 149, 153-154, 162; Irving Howe, A Margin of Hope: An Intellectual Autobiography (New York, 1983), pp. 1-2.
21. New York Times, Feb. 27, Mar. 13, 16, 1932; Real Estate News, Mar. 1932, p. 90; Bronx Home News, Feb. 12, Mar. 16, 1932; Daily Worker, Feb. 25, Mar. 1, 8, 1932.
22. "Political Significance of Rent Strikes," p. 23; Bronx Home News, June 8, 1932.
23. Bronx Home News, Mar. 10, 1932; New York Times, Mar. 25, 1932; Real Estate News, Apr. 1932, pp. 134-135.
24. Real Estate News, May 1932, p. 152; Bronx Home News, May 27, June 8, Sept. 4, 10, 1932; Daily Worker, May 21, 30, June 1, Sept. 10, 1932.
25. Real Estate News, Feb. 1933, p. 50.
26. Naison, Communists in Harlem during the Depression, pp. 76-78; Bronx Home News, Nov. 27, 1932; Hunger Fighter, Sept. 1932, pp. 1-4; Mar. 1933, pp. 1-4.
27. Daily Worker, Dec. 7, 22, 1932, Jan. 4, 6, 1933; Bronx Home News, Dec. 7, 1932, Jan. 5, 15, 1933; New York Times, Dec. 7, 21, 1932, Jan. 6, 17, 1933; Working Woman, Mar. 1933, p. 15; Chernin, In My Mother's House, pp. 96-97.
28. Working Woman, May 1933, p. 18; New York Times, Jan. 12, 17 28, 31, 1933; Daily Worker, Jan. 9, ii, 12, 14, 19, 1933.
29. Daily Worker, Jan. 9, 11, 20, 24, 28, 1933, Bronx Home News, Jan. 25, 1933.
30. On Irish-Jewish tension in New York see Ronald H. Bayor, Neighbors in Conftict: The Irish, Germans, Jews, and Italians of New York City, 1929-1941 (Baltimore, 1978), esp. pp. 87-108; Daily Worker, Jan. 31, Feb. 1, 4, 9, 11, 14, 15, 23 1933; Bronx Home News, Feb. 1, 1933.
31. Bronx Home News, Jan. 15, 18, 25, Feb. 15, Mar. 26, 1933; Real Estate News, Jan. 1933, pp. 12-13; Feb. 1933, pp. 50-51, 59; New York Times, Jan. 15, Feb. 1, Mar. 12, 1933.
32. Bronx Home News, Jan. 25, Feb. 21, 24, Mar. 9, 26, 1933; New York Times, Mar. 31, 1933; Real Estate News, Mar. 1933, p. 83; Brooklyn Eagle, Mar. 27, 1933.
33. Bronx Home News, Mar. 28, Apr. 11, June 1, 1933; New York Times, Mar. 28, June 1, 1933; Daily Worker, May 1, 11, 13, 18, 19, 31, June 3, 1933.
34. New York Times, June 8, 1933; Real Estate News, June 1933, pp. 164-165; Bronx Home News, June 8, 1933.
35. Interview with Sophie Saroff; Frances Fox Piven and Richard A Cloward, Poor People's Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (New York, 1977), pp. 76-82; Naison, Communists in Harlem during the Depression, pp. 257-259.
36. Woman Today, Aug. 1936, pp. 6-7; "The Citywide Tenants Council, A History," typescript in Heinz Norden Collection, Tamiment Library, pp. 7-8.
37. New York Times, Mar. 28, 30, Apr. 5, 1934.
38. New York City Housing Authority, Failure of Housing Regulation, pp. 2-17; Welfare Council of New York, Rent Control: Four Options (New York, 1937), pp. 2-4; New York Times, Sept. 23, 1936, Jan. 3, 1937.
39. New York Amsterdam News, Aug. 11, 18, Sept. 1, 1934; Negro Liberator, Aug. 18, 1934; on the atmosphere of protest in Harlem during the spring and summer of 1934, see Naison, Communists in Harlem curing the repression, pp. 115-124.
40. New York Amsterdam News, Sept. 1, 8, 1934; New York Age, Sept. 29, 1934; Negro Liberator, Sept. 1, 1934.
41. New York Amsterdam News, Oct. 6, 1934; New York Times, Mar. 21, Apr. 6, 1935; Negro Liberator, Sept. 8, 29, Oct. 13, 1934; Interview with Donnelan Phillips and Thomas Murray, Apr. 10, 1976; Norden, "Citywide Tenants Council," pp. 3-4.
42. Norden, "Citywide Tenants Council," pp. 3-4; Rudell, "Concerted Rent Withholding," p. 63; interview with Hope R. Stevens, Aug. 3, 1981, conducted by Joel Schwartz.
43. Norden, "Citywide Tenants Council," pp. 5-6; Heinz Norden, "Knickerbocker Village: Background Story," p. 1, and Aubrey Mallach, "Landlord Tenant Relationships in Government Sponsored Housing Projects," pp. 32-34, typescripts in Heinz Norden Collection.
44. Norden, "Citywide Tenants Council," p. 6; Mallach, "Landlord Tenant Relationships," p. 40; New York Times, Oct. 23, 24, 25, 31, Nov. 12, Dec. 1, 1934.
45. New York Times, Dec. 10, 1934; Norden, "Citywide Tenants Council," pp. 6-7; Mallach, "Landlord Tenant Relationships," pp. 41-60.
46. Norden, "Knickerbocker Village," p. 1; Mallach, "Landlord Tenant Relationships," pp. 52-60.
47. Norden, "Citywide Tenants Council," pp. 8-9; Daily Worker, Mar. 9, 10, 12, 13, 17, 1936.
48. Norden, "Citywide Tenants Council," pp 9-11.
49. Ibid., pp. 11-12; Woman Today, Aug. 1936, pp. 7-8.
50. Norden, "Citywide Tenants Council," p. 60; Daily Worker, Dec. 2, 3, 4, 1936.
51. New York Times, Dec. 9, 16, 1936, Jan. 3, 1937; Daily Worker, Dec. 15, 16, 23, 1936.
52. Norden, "Citywide Tenants Council," pp. 12-13; New York Times Dec. 18, 19, 24, 1936; Daily Worker, Dec. 16, 19, 24, 29, 30, 31, 1936, Jan. 1, 1937.
53. City-Wide Tenants Council Minutes, Dec. 1, 1937, Norden Papers; The Tenant, vol. 1, nos. 1-3; vol. 2, no. 1; Norden "Citywide Tenants Council," pp. 21-22, 29-30, 41; New York Times, Feb. 2, July 22, 1937.
54. Norden, "Citywide Tenants Council," pp. 18-19; Interview with Donald Schoolman, Feb. 1, 1976, conducted by Joseph Spencer.
55. Norden, "Citywide Tenants Council," pp. 20-21.
56. New York Times, Oct. 26, 27, 1937; for City-Wide's position on arbitration, see Heinz Norden, "The Relationship between Landlords and Tenants in Low Rent Housing," report submitted to Citizens Housing Council, Feb. 17, 1938, Norden Papers.
57. "How Tenants Organization Keeps Down Rents and Improves Housing Conditions," Nov. 1937, typescript; City-Wide Tenants Council Minutes, Dec. 1, 1937, Norden Papers; The Tenant, vol. 2, no. 4; Norden, "Citywide Tenants Council," pp. 20-21, 45, 56; New York Times, May 7, 1937.
58. Interview with Donald Schoolman, Feb. 1, 1976; Daily Worker, Feb. 14, 1939; The Tenant, vol 2, no. 4; Mallach, "Landlord Tenant Relationships," p. 36.
59. Norden, "Citywide Tenants Council," pp. 25-29, 50-52, 60; "The Tenants Housing Program, 1937," "Legislative Program, 1940: Citywide Tenants Council," in Norden Papers; New York Times, Jan. 25, Feb. 17, 27, 1937.
60. New York Times, Jan. 19, Apr. 8, 23, 4, June 22, Sept. 25, 1938; Norden, "Citywide Tenants Council," pp. 30-31; Housing Newsletter, Mar. 4 and Apr. 16, 1940, in Norden Papers.
61. New York Times, July 17, 1937; Norden, "Citywide Tenants Council," pp. 25-27; City-Wide Tenants Council, "Suggested Program of Work for Summer," June 4, 1940, "Legislative Program, 1940," in Norden Papers; Daily Worker, Feb. 14, 1939.
62. Norden, "Citywide Tenants Council," pp. 27-29.
63. Ibid., p. 45; "Suggested Program of Work for Summer," June 4, 1940; The Tenant, vol. 2, no. 4; Heinz Norden to the editor, New York Times, July 19, 1938; Grace Aviles, Memorandum to New York City Housing Authority (1941); "Calling All Tenants," (published by Hillside Tenants Association), "Queensbridge News," (published by Queensbridge Tenants Association), in Norden Papers.
64. Interview with Donald Schoolman, Feb. 1, 1976; also see Housing Newsletter, issue running from Jan. 5 to May 6, 1940, Norden Papers.
65. City-Wide Tenants Council, "Resolution on Housing and Peace," June 20, 1940, and "Plan for Tenant League Activities to Augment and Assist the Work of Civilian Defense end 'Help Win the War' Activities," in Norden Papers; Interview with Donelan Phillips, July 11, 1972; City-Wide Tenants Council, "Resolution: Priorities -- Housing and National Defense," Oct. 20, 1941, in Fiorello H. La Guardia Papers, Municipal Archives and Records Center; Daily Worker, Feb. 22, Apr. 23, Aug. 31, 1942.
66. Interview with Mamie Jackson, Jan. 1975; New York Age, Apr. 26, 1941; Norden, "Citywide Tenants Council," pp. 56-57.
67. Davis R. B. Ross, Preparing for Ulysses: Politics and Veterans during World War II (New York, 1969). p. 238; Daniel D. Gage, "Wartime Experiment in Federal Rent Control," Journal of Land and Public Utility Economics 23 (1947): 52; Memorandum, Federal Price Administrator to Fiorello H. La Guardia, July 26, 1943, (Grace Aviles to Mayor La Guardia, Aug. 27, 1942, Aviles to Leon Henderson, August 27, 1942, in La Guardia Papers, Box 153.
68. New York Age, July 4, 1942, Aug. 1, 15, Sept. 19, 1942; New York Amsterdam News, Sept. 19, Oct. 17, 1942; Peoples Voice, Aug. 1, Sept. 21, Oct. 17, 31, 1942; Daily Worker, July 21, Sept. 20, 30, Oct. 1, 1942; Telegram, Ferdinand Smith to Mayor La Guardia, Oct. 7, 1942, La Guardia Papers, Box 2772.
69. Daily Worker, Sept. 24, Oct. 6, 14, 22, 23, 27, Dec. 22, 1942; Joseph Curran and Saul Mills to Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia, July 16, 1942, La Guardia Papers, Box 153; Lawrence Lader, Power on the Left: American Radical Movements since 1946 (New York, 1979), p. 13.
70. New York Times, Aug. 3, 7, 20, 1943; Interview with Donelan Phillips and Thomas Murray, Oct. 1, 1975; Dominic J. Capeci, Jr., The Harlem Race Riot of 1943 (Philadelphia, 1980), pp. 86, 159; Max Goldfrank to Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia, Aug. 6, 1942, Memorandum, Joseph Platzker to Hn. F. H. La Guardia, Sept. 21, 1942, Telegram, Michael J. Quill to Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia, Oct. 6, 1943, La Guardia Papers, Box 153; Daily Worker, Aug. 20, Sept. 10, 29, 30, Oct. 1, 3, 10, 14, Nov. 1, Dec. 27, 1943