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2. New York City Tenant Organizations and
the Post-World War Housing Crisis
Joseph A. Spencer
The decade following World War I is one of the most significant periods in the history of New York City tenant activity due to the extent that renters organized against landlords as well as the gains achieved through such mobilization.
Lack of construction, increased demand for apartments, and rampant speculation in New York's tenement neighborhoods led to increasing landlord-tenant bitterness during the last years of the war. In the face of repeated rent increases, many families organized to resist. Relying on help from the Socialist party and its allied labor unions, tenants built effective building- and neighborhood-level organizations in several working-class communities of the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan and forced hundreds of landlords to rescind rent increases or improve building conditions. Tenant leaders were much less successful, however, in achieving broader goals such as legislative limits on rent increases and stronger code enforcement provisions. Furthermore, they failed in efforts to build a larger citywide organization and translate renter support into Socialist victories at the polls.
Nevertheless, government officials could not treat the situation lightly. By early 1919, eviction cases clogged the municipal courts, and thousands of families suffered eviction each month. Approximately twenty-five thousand apartment dwellers had affiliated with a tenant league, and the crisis was spreading into more and more of the city's neighborhoods. Many felt that unless something were done, the Socialists would eventually reap major political benefits from their advocacy of the tenants' cause.
In the spring of 1919, elected representatives responded by appointing committees to deal with the housing shortage. The most important was the Mayor's Committee on Rent Profiteering, which competed with the leagues by arbitrating landlord-tenant disputes and providing legal aid to renters through local Democratic clubhouses. Although the committee helped thousands of families, the cycle of rent increases, strikes, and evictions grew worse. By the end of 1919, tenant leagues existed in a dozen neighborhoods, and the Socialists had won several key victories in the November elections.
At this time, however, several factors combined to change significantly the context in which the postwar housing struggle was fought. The first was the rise of the Red Scare -- the wave of rampant anti-radicalism and nativism that swept the country in late 1919 and early 1920. The tenant movement became the target of widespread red-baiting, with league organizers and members harassed in the courts and on the picket line. The five Socialist members of the state assembly were suspended and eventually expelled from the legislature, a development that symbolized the general exclusion of the tenant leagues from the negotiation process over legislative remedies to deal with the crisis.
Meanwhile, several new tenant organizations emerged in certain sections of the Bronx and Manhattan. Generally led by persons with ties to local Democratic and Republican organizations, these groups opposed rent striking. Not surprisingly, they were quickly recognized by government officials as the "legitimate" representatives of tenant interests. With the support of such groups and labor unions associated with the established parties, the legislature in April 1920 passed a series of laws that gave tenants limited rights to challenge large rent increases and protected the tenure of some apartment dwellers.
While these "April Laws" led to a noticeable decrease in the number of rent strikes, it soon became clear that they were not really a solution. Tenants still had no real legal defense against most rent increases, and loopholes in the law actually sparked a tremendous increase in eviction proceedings. In response to pleas from the municipal court judges and the conservative tenant associations, the legislature met in special session in September 1920 and passed the Emergency Rent Laws, a series of statutes that granted tenants much more substantial protections against arbitrary rent increases and unjust eviction.
Following passage of the Emergency Rent Laws, the tenant movement experienced major changes. The Socialist tenant leagues faded from the scene, victims of both the court-based remedies passed in September and the ideological warfare that split the party during 1920. Several of the conservative associations in the Bronx and Manhattan, on the other hand, matured into stable organizations with memberships in the thousands. Throughout the early and middle 1920s they provided a range of legal and social services to desperate families. They also served as allies of state and local housing officials; it was their cooperative "pressure" and vacancy-rent surveys that justified the periodic extension of the laws throughout much of the decade.
Yet the orientation and tactics of tenant leaders after 1920 failed to serve the broader and longer-term interests of tenants. Concerned with legitimacy and their own relationships with government officials, they limited their goals almost exclusively to the administration and maintenance of the rent laws and failed to press for more basic advances such as public housing or tougher code enforcement.
Eventually this reactive strategy produced failure. During the decade, New York's residential housing supply expanded rapidly, fueled by large tax incentives for new construction. The resulting high vacancy rate made it increasingly difficult to justify the continuation of "emergency" limits on rents. Thus, starting in 1926, the legislature began to exempt increasing numbers of apartments -- based on rent per room -- from renewals of the Emergency Rent Laws. For the tenant associations, this spelled the start of a cycle of decline: each reduction in the number of tenants covered by the rent laws decreased the constituency available to resist further cuts. By 1928 the movement was so weak that it could put up only token resistance, and the rent laws were phased out over the next two years.
American involvement in World War I produced chaos in New York City's housing market. Defense industries received top priority in the allocation of manpower and materials, thus inflating the cost of construction at a time when war-oriented investment opportunities drew off needed capital. As a result, tenement construction, already on the decline since 1911, came to a standstill. Only 1,481 apartments were completed in 1919 -- a 94 percent decrease from 1915.
The decline in residential construction came at a time when wartime prosperity, fueled by defense jobs, was attracting thousands of families to New York City. Under such pressure the vacancy rate fell precipitously, from 5.6 percent in 1916 to just 0.36 percent in April 1920. Many families, faced with rising rents and the decreasing availability of suitable apartments, were forced to move into smaller or more deteriorated quarters. This reversed a trend in which thousands of substandard units had been abandoned during the previous decade. Thirty-six thousand "old law" (i.e., pre-1901) apartments, vacant in 1916, had been reoccupied by 1920.
This downward movement occurred at a time when the city government lacked a commitment to protect the well-being of tenement dwellers. Under the cost-conscious Mayor John Hylan, the Tenement House Department budget was continuously slashed. While the number of inspectors was set by law at 206 for 103,000 buildings, Commissioner Frank Mann economized by not replacing other departmental personnel who resigned or entered the armed forces. He ordered his staff not to report any "trivial or unnecessary violations" and even deferred action on structural shortcomings. Consequently, buildings that had been grossly inadequate for decades suffered further decay. By the summer of 1919 Mann was forced to admit that even the city's low vacancy rate was misleading since most of the empty apartments were uninhabitable.
Although factors of increased demand and limited building were in themselves capable of producing a housing shortage of crisis proportions, the situation was further exacerbated by intense speculation in tenement housing. A speculator would purchase a building, immediately raise rents, and then resell at a profit, based on its increased rental income. Thousands of properties changed hands in this fashion, with some houses in the Bronx and Brooklyn sold several times in one month.
Another major grievance was the lessee system, through which landlords with more buildings than they could personally manage would lease certain properties to individuals for a fixed yearly fee. The lessee, usually a local small businessman without sufficient capital to purchase a building of his own, made his profit by increasing rents and curtailing services. In areas where the system was prevalent, especially the Jewish communities of the Lower East Side, Williamsburg, and Brownsville, the lessee was hated -- perceived as a traitor seeking profit from the exploitation of his fellow countrymen.
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