Submitted by wojtek on February 11, 2013

Ronald Lawson

This account of tenant activism in New York is the first history of an urban social movement studied through the entire length of the twentieth century in a particular setting. As such it allows us to examine the dynamics of a movement over time: the relationship between changing threats and opportunities for the movement constituency and levels of mobilization; continuities and discontinuities in leadership and organization; the evolution of strategies and their short- and long-term impact. It offers new insights into the continuities and dividing points in the history of American radicalism and between working-class and student protest and into the emergence of different ethnic constituencies for radical activity and the role of women in protest.

At the heart of this study lies the tenant-landlord relationship, where the distribution of power is normally sharply unequal. An individual tenant is much more dependent upon his landlord than the latter is upon him: on the one hand, shelter is a basic necessity of life and source of personal identity and moving is costly, both economically and socially; on the other hand, the rent received from a single tenant is likely to amount to only a small portion of a landlord's income. Moreover, the interests of the two parties frequently conflict: a tenant desires security of tenure in well-maintained housing with reliable services and inexpensive rents, while his landlord, wishing to maximize his profits, wants the highest possible rents while often economizing on maintenance and services and retaining freedom to shuffle tenants to his greatest advantage. The low-income housing market, in particular, has tended to attract hustlers and speculators, often recent immigrants who, not much wealthier than their tenants, are willing to engage in a high-risk, high-tension enterprise. Under conditions where the market economy is unregulated (such as prevailed in the United States during the second half of the nineteenth century and continued to do so in most rental markets throughout the twentieth century), and especially when rental housing is in short supply (an all too common situation in most American cities), the asymmetry of the tenant-landlord relationship becomes very pronounced: rents may be raised at the whim of the landlord, and complaints concerning maintenance or services in his building, no matter how justified, render the tenant liable to summary eviction. The result has been frequent reason for confrontation and conflict.

Thus, the key players in this study are tenants and landlords and the tenant and real estate organizations formed to represent their interests. Other prominent participants include legislators who can enact laws that alter the tenant-landlord relationship, government administrators who enforce such laws, and judges and other court officials who settle tenant-landlord disputes. All of the latter groups have tended to be instinctually pro-landlord because of their respect for property. Tenant interests have usually been expressed defensively -- against the threats of sharp rent increases, the removal of services such as heat in winter, the decay of housing, and various forms of displacement. Unless such threats are chronic, they tend to be intermittent, and therefore to spawn transitory organizations. However, with the passage of time and the gaining of experience, the tenant movement espoused goals that approached these issues assertively, such as the limitation of rent increases through the enactment of rent regulations or the gaining control of housing. Organizations pursuing such goals have tended to be longer lived: the Metropolitan Council on Housing (Met Council) has now existed for twenty-five years and the New York State Tenant and Neighborhood Coalition (NYSTNC) for eleven years.

This book reveals a breadth of protest that scholars have vastly underestimated and that enlarges our understanding of neighborhood life in the periods covered. The protest includes rent strikes that have amounted to major communal revolts, tenant lobbying campaigns that have shaped legislative agendas for rental housing, and impressive experiments in tenant management and ownership in a period of market collapse. Although the record here is replete with failures as well as successes, it indicates that tenant activism has been a major force in shaping the New York City housing market. Tenant organizations have so far been much less stable than labor unions, which also represent people in a sharply asymmetrical relationship that is essential to another of life's fundamental necessities and sources of personal identity, and which many tenant leaders have spoken of emulating. Nevertheless, tenants have demonstrated a remarkable capacity to mobilize during recurring crises and to force concessions from landlords and responses from the political system.

Although the largest, most militant and effective rent strikes took place after World War I and during the Great Depression, the tenant movement has, in general, grown in power and sophistication over the past forty years. Whereas much early tenant protest was exclusively reactive and defensive, ever since the late 1930s the city has seen tenant organizations that have sought to shape housing policy as a whole -- offering legislative programs, new court practices, even engaging in construction, tenant ownership, and the fostering of public housing. These organizations have become highly sophisticated at manipulating and using government to protect tenant interests and to enter the housing market as a builder and manager as well as a regulator. To do so they have had to build organizations focusing on multiple levels (building, neighborhood, city, state, and finally national). In sophistication, if not in wealth, the tenant movement came to match, and sometimes surpass, the real estate lobby.

Meanwhile, the rent strike, the strategy with which the tenant movement has been most closely identified, has been transformed. Whereas the initial strikes early in the century were large (with hundreds of buildings involved concurrently), short (culminating in court in a few days), and infrequent (concerted waves of activity years apart), recent strikes have become localized (normally limited to conflict over a single building), much longer (typically lasting several months), and frequent (many actions overlapping one another, but not in a concerted manner). These changes paralleled the growing legitimacy of the strike. Although during the early decades large strikes did, on occasion, achieve some legitimacy in the courtroom, it was not until the late 1960s and early 1970s that the strategy achieved full legitimacy and safety within the law. This was an important watershed, for it made the strategy "risk free" from a legal standpoint if proper procedures were followed -- that is, it virtually eliminated the risk of eviction. Consequently, what was once invoked only when there was safety in numbers is now used by tenants in individual buildings to gain bargaining chips with their landlord.

Because housing markets, like labor markets, are often anarchic and unstable, the trend throughout the century, learned through bitter experience, has been to subject them to government regulation and intervention in order to try to assure some degree of public peace and justice. The private housing market has, at several points, produced disastrous conditions for tenants (such as the rent hikes before and after World War I, the massive evictions during the depression, and the abandonment cycle beginning in the late 1960s). Sometimes government policy has itself been disruptive (such as post-World War II urban renewal and the introduction of vacancy decontrol in 1971.) At such moments the tenant movement could generate overwhelming demand for government intervention to ease the crisis. Tenant leaders knew that tenant organizations lacked the stability to regulate the market through their own force and that, although the legal system from time to time demonstrated some flexibility to place tenant needs above property rights, such judicial intervention proved unstable and unpredictable without laws providing a structure of rights for tenants. Hence, government intervention became the goal, and in New York, as time passed, this was, with increasing frequency, achieved.

The history of the tenant movement is also very much a story of the interaction of radicals and mainstream political leaders. In normal times, real estate interest groups are often far more powerful than tenant organizations in shaping public policy. Through campaign contributions and direct political involvement they acquire direct access to political leaders. Moreover, left political organizations have usually conceived of the tenant movement as secondary to labor union concerns or, later, "civil rights work," and have frequently joined in tenant activity only when they have realized that emergencies have created unusual opportunities for popular mobilization based on tenant issues. Much of the organizing activity at such times has been carried on by persons tied to left political groups: initially the Socialist party in the first two decades of the century, then the Communist and American Labor parties from the 1930s to the 1950s and beyond. Civil rights organizations conducted rent strikes in ghetto neighborhoods during the 1960s. And in the early 1970s New Left activists, who had been disappointed when participants in such mass actions as the March on Washington disappeared into the woodwork on returning home, began to organize tenants as a means of creating a movement where the participants could not get lost by going home after the action. These New Left activists worked along side of, or often competed with, the long-term activists with "Old Left" ties. Frequently -- after World War I, from the late 1930s through the late 1940s, and from the early 1970s until the present -- radical organizations mobilized tenants with such effect that they forced mainstream and machine politicians to become aggressive tenant activists. Although tenant mobilization has never produced mass radicalization (it has, at best, marginally expanded the Left's constituency), it has demonstrated considerable political impact. To compete with the Left, mainstream political clubs suddenly became impassioned advocates of tenant interests, and elected officials began to intervene to assure some stability for housing markets.

Although radicals were the most important facilitators of grass roots activism, they were by no means the only ones who successfully organized tenants or represented their interests. Religious groups (especially once the civil rights movement had raised their consciousness and shown them what was possible) and apolitical community leaders were also important in some instances. The volatility and size of the tenant vote has also been a force operating on political leaders. The whole picture suggests that grass roots activism has been a far more important part of policy-making than commentators have realized.

This is not to overlook the limits and constraints placed on tenant action. The poor have very limited resources and are difficult to organize because of their multiple problems and low expectations resulting from previous experience with the political system. Both the political and the legal systems are biased toward property owners, to the point where red scares have been invoked to intimidate movement leaders. Moreover, the impact of movement strategies can easily be undercut by coopting the movement by, for example, funding certain activities at the expense of others or offering salaries to its leaders.

The data on the tenant movement both support and challenge the conclusions of Frances F. Piven and Richard A. Cloward who, in Poor People's Movements, argue that mass defiance rather than formal organizational structures make movements successful and that the structures actually blunt militancy and therefore lessen movement impact.1 On the one hand, there are examples of the use of disruption by tenants to change policy, such as when the widespread rent strikes following World War I resulted in the introduction of rent regulations. On the other hand, however, stable organizations, such as NYSTNC (1973- ), which use research and lobbying, were able to have considerable input into legislation and to effect the "daily life" of landlord-tenant relations to a significant degree. Indeed, the more sophisticated and well organized tenant organizations were, the more they were able to influence policy. An optimum situation is one that combines stable organization with mass protest, usually, in this instance because of the structure of the tenant movement that evolved, with different organizations using different strategies.

The basic organizational levels of the tenant movement are building and neighborhood organizations; the first federation was added in the mid-1930s. Because there were multiple levels to the movement's structure, each was able to specialize functionally and thus marshall the appropriate expertise: while building organizations were the basic organizing unit and neighborhood organizations provided them with organizing skills and focused on local issues, federations represented the interests of tenants to outside authorities. The existence of building organizations and neighborhood organizations, matching local concerns and identities, facilitated both the mobilization of the tenant constituency and the emergence and promotion of leaders. Many of those in leadership positions at the neighborhood and federation levels, especially women who became increasingly prominent as time passed, began their activity in the tenant movement by helping to organize their own buildings.2 Moreover, specialization at each level allowed the adoption of positions and strategies suiting particular situations. Thus, federations could afford to work within the system in their political strategies, while, concurrently, affiliated neighborhood organizations utilized unorthodox or extralegal strategies, such as organizing rent strikes or seizing control of buildings, in their combat with uncooperative landlords or encroaching abandonment. Similarly, strategic experimentation was eased by the existence of multiple levels and organizations. For example, some building organizations around 1970 were able to test the effectiveness of spending accumulated rent monies on services such as heating or on repairs, without committing the whole movement to the strategy until it had been shown both safe and successful. Once multiple federations emerged in the 1970s, they too could adopt different stances toward authorities, so, for example, the radical demands of tenants who sat in the offices of legislative leaders during the annual mass mobilizations of Met Council in Albany increased the credibility of the more reasoned demands of NYSTNC lobbyists who maintained an ongoing presence there during legislative sessions.

As rental housing has become increasingly important throughout the nation, and as rapid rent increases, condominium conversions and other forms of gentrification, and abandonment crises have hit other cities, the threat of anarchy in private housing markets has become a growing concern. The only weapon that tenants have had against these problems has been organization, and the structure that has been adopted has usually followed the New York pattern of multiple levels. The spreading movement has recently spawned a new level of organization, a superfederation aptly named the National Tenants Union. That is, tenant organizations are becoming increasingly significant, and tenant interests are likely to be expressed with a new sophistication, stability, and coherence.

Another theme that emerges from this recounting of the history of the tenant movement in New York concerns links to particular ethnic traditions of political protest and self-assertion. The lion's share of rent strikes in New York City up until the mid-1930s took place in the neighborhoods of Eastern European Jews, where the strike as a mode of economic bargaining had wide currency and a romantic flavor that it did not command in other neighborhoods. For example, Jews and Italians at the turn of the century lived in adjoining neighborhoods on the Lower East Side where both faced severe housing conditions and spiraling rents. However, while the Jews conducted the first rent strikes, the Italians suffered in silence. In the mid-1930s the tenant movement acquired some new ethnic arenas, notably in black ghettoes. But at the same time it also spread to a "cosmopolitan" professional class, which applied labor tactics to middle-class housing issues (in addition to working-class ones). This group, gradually disseminating techniques of tenant mobilization through a wide spectrum of liberal and left organizations, made tenants as a lobby more consistently influential than they had been previously. However, while the class base of the movement broadened, ethnically the leadership remained primarily Jewish and black as late as the early 1970s, after which time Puerto Ricans also became prominent.

The tenant movement has been, to a large degree, dominated by women activists. Women organized the first rent strikes, much of the daily activity of the movement has been undertaken by women, and they became increasingly prominent among higher-level leadership as time passed. The dominance of women in the movement partially accounts for its previous "invisibility." This book therefore helps uncover an unwritten history of female self-assertion within the intersections of the "domestic" and "civic" spheres. The dominance of women was true at all periods of the movement's history, and was especially notable during the first rent strikes, the strikes of the early 1930s, the World War II consumers" movement, the post-World War II campaign to preserve rent controls, and the Save Our Homes struggles against Robert Moses and urban renewal during the 1950s, which led to the founding of Met Council, which was, and is, also strongly dominated by women.

Indeed, one of the most remarkable tales of grass roots activism in this work is that of working-class Jewish women associated with the Communist party who kept landlords on the defensive for three generations. The line runs from the Crotona Park rent revolts in the early 1930s, via the consumers leagues, the American Labor party, and the Save Our Homes organizations, to Met Council, where some of them are still involved. These women, leaders and followers alike, helped establish a tradition of protest and activism, of organization and policy-making, which is unlikely to leave tenants unorganized again. They are the pioneers of modern tenant organization, much like the John L. Lewises, Mike Quills, and Sidney Hillmans of the labor movement.

This history of the tenant movement affirms popular insurgency even under difficult conditions. It confirms that elites do not always have their way, that ordinary people -- working class and poor, women, immigrants, minorities -- do help shape political agendas when they are organized and mobilized. It is not a story of revolutionary victory or the coming of a socialist republic. Its victories are usually defensive and often narrow, and they are sometimes swept away by larger change. But the record does show that ordinary people can fight to defend their interests against the most powerful forces.

  • 1Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, Poor People's Movements (New York, 1979).
  • 2See Ronald Lawson and Stephen E. Barton, "Sex Roles and Social Movements: A Case Study of the Tenant Movement in New York City," Signs, Winter 1980.