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2. New York City Tenant Organizations and
the Post-World War Housing Crisis

Joseph A. Spencer

Part 2

The origins of the postwar tenant movement are somewhat obscure. The first major precursor, however, was a January 1917 rent strike in the Crotona Park section of the Bronx. This was a predominantly lower-class neighborhood with a heavy concentration of Russian Jewish families that had emigrated from the Lower East Side in search of improved living conditions. In the best of times these families had trouble paying their rent.[7] They became even more burdened, and restive, in the face of repeated rent increases and the failure of their landlords to provide heat and hot water. In late December 1916, five hundred to one thousand tenants in twenty-five buildings owned by two major real estate firms were organized by the Socialist Women's Consumers League of the Bronx. At the urging of Theresa Malkiel a Socialist Party State Committee member, the tenants rejected a rent increase demanded for January 1, 1917, and refused to pay any rent until heat and hot water were restored. They formed the Bronx Tenants League, collected a small strike fund, and organized a picket force of the "huskiest women." Leon Malakiel, a Socialist lawyer, agreed to represent the strikers and immediately filed complaints of code violations with the Health Department and the Tenement House Department.[8]

Within a week the landlords responded with a flood of eviction notices. The back of the strike was broken when the first cases came to court. Municipal court judge Michael Scanlon ruled that 296 tenants had no recourse at law because they had no written leases; they had to pay their rent or vacate.[9] Most had no choice but to give in. As one local paper commented, "It is to be presumed that if the five hundred tenants are ejected from their present quarters, that they will not be able to obtain flats elsewhere in the Bronx.[10]

The leaders of the Bronx Tenants League vowed to continue their efforts on behalf of tenants, despite the disintegration of the strike. On January 17 they held a meeting and, formally establishing their organization, enrolled 150 charter members. They also announced plans to form affiliates in all of the city's boroughs to fight for lower rents, better building maintenance, code enforcement, and legal aid for indigent tenants.[11] Despite their excellent intentions, however, a widespread following failed to develop, and. there is no evidence of organized tenant activity for the rest of 1917.

Landlord-tenant bitterness resurfaced one year later, however. The early months of 1918 were unusually harsh, with temperatures hovering around the zero mark for over a month. To make matters worse, the city faced a wartime coal shortage and many landlords failed to supply heat and hot water. By the end of January the Bronx alone had 450 heatless buildings.[12] Residents of the other boroughs endured similar hardship. A-social worker serving the East Harlem and Yorkville areas noted: "Conditions are beyond description. Gas is frozen, homes are dark, no water in the toilets, sanitary conditions unspeakable, faces blue and pinched from the bitter cold and ever so many kiddies down with pneumonia."[13]

In response to these conditions, thousands of families throughout the city refused to pay their full rent. Many had purchased their own heaters or fuel and demanded reimbursement in the form of rent reductions. Landlords reacted not only by denying their immediate responsibility, but also by asserting that the payment of rent did not entitle one to heat and hot water.[14] When they sought to evict non-paying families, however, some municipal court judges disagreed and allowed 10 percent reductions to offset tenant fuel expenditures. Yet for several reasons, appeal to the courts was not an adequate tenant remedy. Justices with sympathy for strikers usually granted reductions only to those with written leases -- a small minority in that period. Furthermore, since the laws governing such cases were vague, decisions varied from one judge to another. Thus building owners could bring a family into court month after month until the case came up before a pro-landlord judge.[15]

Sensing their vulnerability, tenants sought strength in numbers. The Bronx Tenants League emerged from a year of dormancy to capitalize on tenant discontent. Again in cooperation with the Women's Consumers League, it mounted a No Heat, No Rent campaign and organized several large rent strikes in the East Tremont, Morrisania, and Mott Haven sections. A key to the group's success was the legal assistance it offered distressed tenants. Attorneys Morris Gisnet and Alexander Kahn won temporary reductions for hundreds of families in January, February, and March 1918.[16] Socialist assemblyman Samuel Orr, who had been elected from the Fourth Assembly District the previous November, also took an active part in the league's work; at the height of the crisis he introduced several bills in the legislature which would have required landlords to maintain a minimum temperature of 68 degrees at all times and allowed rent reductions if this were not done.[17] Although these bills were throttled in the assembly, they attracted attention to the league and enhanced its reputation among tenants.

Although sporadic rent striking occurred throughout upper Manhattan, the only successful attempt to organize tenants beyond the building level took place in Washington Heights. In late February 1918, representatives of twenty-seven buildings, led by William Herman, an executive with the State Industrial Commission, met and formed the Washington Heights Tenants League. Within several weeks they claimed a membership of over three hundred and had achieved half a dozen victories, both in court and through negotiation with landlords. Their success was largely attributable to the fact that most members, many of whom were professionals, had written leases that were recognized in court and gave them leverage in bargaining with building owners.[18]

Brooklyn landlords and tenants were also involved in a series of struggles. In the Williamsburg section a young Socialist lawyer, Joseph Klein, won a succession of rent cases in the municipal courts and then, in early March, began to organize buildings and negotiate directly with the owners. By April he had established the Williamsburg Tenants League and was threatening to lead a widespread rent strike against all profiteering landlords.[19]

Tenants were also coalescing in Brownsville. The local consumers league had backed several large strikes in the early months of 1918, but the major confrontation did not occur until late April. Landlord demands for a May 1 increase of from three to five dollars per month found tenants in a mood to resist -- the neighborhood already being in the throes of labor strikes by bakers, shoemakers, and barbers. On the eve of May Day the Socialist party daily, the New York Call, reported that "entire blocks are being organized" and that one thousand families were withholding rent. The ensuing struggle was bitter and long lasting. The courts were filled with eviction cases; in some instances landlords emptied entire buildings. Although many families were forced to retreat back to the cheaper, more deteriorated apartments of the Lower East Side, many more remained and fought. Evicted families moved in with neighbors and picketed struck buildings, often threatening prospective tenants. Groups of strikers and guards hired by landlords battled outside of buildings.[20]

The tenant activity of early 1918 led to an escalation of the landlord-tenant struggle and contributed to a hardening of attitudes on both sides. This was certainly true of building owners, who argued that they had suffered several lean years prior to the war when over-building in the Bronx and Brooklyn had depressed rents. Now when wages and prices were rising steadily, they felt entitled to share in the general prosperity.[21] The refusal of their tenants to pay rent, and especially the actions of judges and politicians in support of strikers, shocked and angered many realtors. One Bronx owner with a flair for hyperbole captured the mood of his colleagues: "Tenants control our property, move in and out of it as they please, pay rent or withhold it as they please and treat with the landlords or ignore them as they please. Politicians seeking votes are now organizing disgruntled tenants to oppose the rights of landlords."[22]

To counteract the effect of the "professional agitators" they blamed for tenant unrest, many landlords formed local organizations to augment the older, established real estate lobbying groups. The Bronx Federation of Real Estate Owners, the Bronx Landlords Protective Association, and the Brownsville Taxpayers and Real Estate Owners Association battled tenants by appealing court decisions that granted rent reductions, evicting tenant "ringleaders," developing a standard lease that waived a tenant's right to heat, and coordinating requests for rent increases.[23]

Tenants had also achieved a new level of solidarity and strength. Unlike other previous rent strike episodes, the winter 1918 agitation did not disintegrate with the arrival of warmer weather. Rather, during the rest of the year the better-organized groups -- the Bronx Tenants League, the Williamsburg Tenants League, and the Brownsville Consumers League -- continued to add members, and new leagues were formed in East Harlem and the Borough Park section of Brooklyn.[24]

All of these successful organizations were marked by a supportive relationship with the Socialist party. That is not to say that membership in the leagues was restricted to party members. But the link between the two was close. The leagues flourished in areas of Socialist electoral strength and held meetings in Socialist halls. Socialist lawyers and officials played key leadership roles, while women of the consumers leagues allied with the party did much of the organizing. In addition, the New York Call gave the leagues their best press coverage. This relationship gave the tenant organizations access to a wide variety of resources that they would otherwise have had to develop on their own.

Thus when landlords in a number of neighborhoods sought yet another round of increases for October 1, 1918, thousands of households were prepared to resist. Many had no choice: there were no other apartments available, and they were being asked to pay twenty-five to thirty dollars per month for quarters that had cost twelve to fifteen dollars a year before.

When used properly by tenant organizers, the rent strike became a most effective tactic. The building owner could usually obtain dispossess orders from the municipal court, but in order to carry out the evictions he had to hire movers, at a cost of ten to twelve dollars per family. In a well-organized building of fifteen to twenty units, this expense might well exceed the income from the proposed increases. If the landlord decided to evict regardless of the cost, however, his troubles were not over. The ousted tenants would move in with neighbors and picket his building, often threatening prospective tenants. Thus many owners, faced with the possibility of such spirited resistance, chose to negotiate a settlement with the tenants league. Generally a contract was drawn up that granted half of the requested increase in return for a one-year lease and the promise of repairs. The league would then hold all rent until the specified repairs were completed.[25]

While such tactics brought many local victories, movement leaders experienced considerable difficulty in achieving goals that went beyond the building level. In late May 1918, leaders from various leagues met and formed the Greater New York Tenants League (GNYTL). Working with the Socialist party, GNYTL representatives drafted a call for state legislation to limit rent increases, regulate lessees, raise the court fees for landlords instituting eviction proceedings, and provide legal aid for indigent tenants. Yet there was little response. Governor Charles Whitman spent a few minutes with a tenant delegation, but refused to call a special session of the legislature. Local officials, led by Mayor John Hylan, condemned rent profiteering but pleaded a lack of authority to deal with the problem.[26]

Even more disturbing was the failure of the Socialists to capitalize on the housing crisis in the November elections. The previous fall's campaign had been extremely successful for the Socialists. As the only party opposing the war, they had received nearly 22 percent of the vote for mayor in a four-way contest and had elected ten assemblymen and seven aldermen. Now, party leaders hoped to do even better, with the tenant leagues serving as a source of new supporters. Several candidates, such as Samuel Orr, A. I. Shiplacoff, and Joe Klein, had served as tenant leaders themselves The leagues, polling the contestants of all parties concerning their rent policies and eventually endorsing the Socialists at campaign rallies, asserted that only they could be trusted to pass pro-tenant legislation. The election produced major setbacks, however. The Socialist share of the vote declined slightly in most districts, and a fusion movement by Democrats and Republicans succeeded in unseating eight of the party's assemblymen. Only Charles Solomon of Brownsville and August Claessens of East Harlem survived.[27]

Other factors may have been largely responsible for these disappointing results, however. First, a large percentage of those who participated in rent strikes were already supporters of the Socialist party. Second, the armistice followed the election by less than a week, and with peace so near, the party undoubtedly lost many of the anti-war votes that had swelled its tally the previous November. Therefore, while many distressed tenants may have turned to the Socialists, the addition of their ballots may only have served to offset the loss of peace votes.

Nevertheless, the developments of late 1918 did reveal a deeper weakness in the growing movement. Tenants were willing to participate in rent strikes when they or their neighbors were threatened, yet they proved reticent to maintain long-term league participation or support programs that went beyond the local level. Thus, although its component groups had led scores of strikes in various areas, GNYTL could report only 1,321 dues-paying members by the end of 1918.[28]

Nevertheless, the defeat of most Socialist incumbents in November 1918 did not allow Democratic and Republican officeholders to ignore the housing crisis. The declining vacancy rate -- 2.18 percent in March 1919[29] -- and continually rising rents were producing potential tenant leaguers at a rapid pace. In the early months of 1919, therefore, many politicians began to take a more active interest in housing. In the forefront were those who had won fusionist victories in areas of Socialist strength. They feared that increasing numbers of tenants would soon come to echo the sentiments of one man who complained that "My family and myself have always been staunch Democrats but if we get no relief we will have to look to the Socialist party even though we despise their doctrines. They may give us a chance to live."[30]

Sensing similar discontent among many families in their districts, several Bronx and Brooklyn assemblymen warned that their constituents were being "driven toward socialism" by rent profiteering.[31] Similarly, the announcement of yet another round of rent increases for May 1 inspired a flood of protest letters to Mayor Hylan. One implored him to "Keep these Rent Profiteers on the run." A Brooklyn woman wrote of a situation so bad that her husband had attempted suicide by swallowing iodine. A third correspondent returned to a familiar anti-landlord theme; "If Bolshevism ever comes to this country, there is no one to blame but such types of persons as this organized band of thieves."[32] These letters reflected the seriousness of the housing crisis. Working-class families throughout the city were faced with rapidly escalating rents. Landlords were demanding as much as fifty and sixty dollars per month for four- and five-room apartments, far more than many families were able to pay. On one day in early April, a Bronx municipal court judge ordered the eviction of three hundred families and later remarked that he had never before seen the courts burdened with so many rent cases.[33]

Forced to respond in some fashion, leaders on both the city and state level opted to appoint committees. On April 14, 1919, Mayor Hylan created the Mayor's Committee on Rent Profiteering, composed of safe Democratic supporters. The committee was chaired by Nathan Hirsch, a property lawyer, and included the Reverend A. Roy Petty of Judson Memorial Church, Edward Hannah, president of the Central Federated Union, Peter Brady, president of the Allied Printing Trades Council, and Harry Bloch, an attorney. Less than a month later, the legislature appointed its own Joint Legislative Committee on Housing under the leadership of Senator Charles Lockwood, a Republican from Brooklyn who had defeated Socialist incumbent A. I. Shiplacoff on a fusion ticket the previous November. The Lockwood committee immediately launched into a search for scapegoats: over the next nine months it conducted an exhaustive investigation of the building trades unions and building materials suppliers, both alleged to be engaged in restrictive practices that inflated the cost of construction.[34]

The Mayor's Committee, meanwhile, had mounted a more substantive program to aid desperate tenants. Churches and armories were turned into temporary shelters for evicted families and their possessions. With the cooperation of the Democratic party organizations in the boroughs, the committee recruited 150 volunteer lawyers to represent indigent tenants in the municipal courts. Its major accomplishment, however, was the establishment of a panel to arbitrate landlord-tenant disputes.[35] While these efforts provided more direct relief than the Lockwood committee's witch-hunt, neither body was willing to mount a politically costly attack on the source of rent profiteering.

This conservatism was demonstrated at the special session of the legislature held in June 1919. While Governor Alfred E. Smith had originally called the session to consider the women's suffrage amendment to the federal constitution, he granted the Mayor's Committee's request that the housing situation be added to the agenda and invited the chairman Nathan Hirsch to submit recommendations. In doing so, the committee ignored a strong call from the municipal court judges for a temporary rent freeze, mandatory one-year leases, and restrictions on an owner's right to evict. Instead it submitted a far weaker package of bills, which were quickly endorsed by the Lockwood committee and passed by the legislature. The resulting laws increased from ten to twenty days the period of notice required before an owner could dispossess a tenant without a written lease as well as the maximum stay of eviction that a judge could give to such a tenant. More fundamental questions of rent levels, unjustified eviction, and building deterioration were ignored.[36]

Yet it was such questions that were creating turmoil in the city's working-class neighborhoods. The case of Sophie Epstein serves as a good example. In the summer of 1919 Sophie Epstein lived with her husband, who was a dressmaker, and three children in a tenement on East 138th Street in the South Bronx. When the landlord sought to nearly double the rent in the Epsteins' building and four adjoining houses, Mr. Epstein and several other tenants decided that they could not pay the increase. Forty of the sixty threatened families joined together, selected a strike committee, raised a fund of ten dollars per family, and sought aid from the Bronx Tenants League.

When the landlord took them to court and sought evictions, a lawyer from the tenants league represented the strikers and scheduled a hearing for the following week. Meanwhile, with the men at work, the leadership of the strikers fell largely to Sophie Epstein. Although unaccustomed to such a leadership role, she did not shrink from it. Under her direction, the tenants picketed the local synagogue, of which the landlord was president, and placed Rent Strike signs in their windows. Then, when the tenants' lawyer was unable to appear at the eviction hearing, Sophie Epstein presented their case. "It really fell upon my shoulders," she recalled nearly sixty years later, "and I went through it heroically, so green, not knowing that I went through it." Her pleas were to no avail, however' and judge Harry Robitzek ordered twelve evictions.

Several days later a city marshall carried out the evictions of three families, including the Epsteins. That night the men guarded the furniture on the street while the women and children slept with neighbors. The next day the tenants committee went to city hall to see Captain Charles Goldsmith, head of the Mayor's Committee arbitration panel, who obtained an injunction delaying the remaining evictions. Sophie Epstein returned to 138th Street, triumphantly stopped the marshall from evicting the other families, and gave a rousing speech to the strikers.

Several days later Goldsmith brought the tenants and the landlord together and reached a settlement. The strikers received a one-year lease containing a promise of repairs in return for an increase of just one dollar per apartment per month. Tenants in two adjacent buildings who did not organize and strike were eventually forced to pay a larger increase.[37]

The case of the Epstein family and their neighbors indicates the intensity of building-level struggles throughout 1919. Tenants used every resource at their command -- the Socialist tenant leagues and the Mayor's Committee, social pressure within the neighborhood and religious congregations, and their combined economic power to withhold rent. More important, tenants like Sophie Epstein drew upon talents and reserves of courage that they had not previously exercised.

As noted above, the Mayor's Committee sought to provide desperate families like the Epsteins with an alternative to the Socialist-led leagues. Its hearing officers tried to negotiate settlements similar to those obtained by league organizers: compromises on rent increases, one-year leases, and repairs. In the early fall Hirsch attempted to expand the committee's role. The volunteer lawyers who served in the municipal courts interceded with the Judges to delay many eviction proceedings until arbitration could be given a chance. The arbitration hearings, which had been held in Manhattan, were extended to central locations in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. These hearings were often highly charged mixtures of farce and tragedy. A group of East Bronx tenants arrived at one in a motorcade headed by a jazz band playing "Homesick Blues." But at another meeting three thousand angry tenants stormed the building and jeered the landlords, while one frustrated man assaulted the chairman. Such physical attacks upon participants were commonplace. Chief arbiter Charles Goldsmith became a near folk hero and was regularly featured in newspaper accounts of the committee's work.[38]

By the end of 1919 Hirsch's staff had settled an impressive number of cases; the chairman claimed success in 95 percent of the thirty thousand disputes heard since April. Despite charges from the Socialists that it was a "landlords forum," the committee's negotiation sessions appear to have been conducted fairly; arbitrators generally attempted to elicit evidence of building conditions, expenses, and profit levels upon which to base their recommendations.[39] The real problem stemmed from a lack of authority to enforce agreements and protect those tenants who sought the committee's aid. Chairman Hirsch admitted that many landlords reneged and that some sought revenge against strike leaders and participants.[40] Such faults notwithstanding, the Mayor's Committee was successful in one of its primary tasks. It gave thousands of tenants the opportunity to reach agreement with their landlords without further clogging the courts or turning to the Socialists.

Tenant leaders were quick to ridicule the relief efforts of the Mayor's Committee and to point out the weaknesses of its arbitration machinery. For example, A. I. Shiplacoff told one league meeting, "What the suffering tenants of this city are asking for is not army cots in churches, fly filled tents and army barracks. They're asking for the right to live in their own homes."[41] And indeed, the success of the committee did not seem to slow the growth of the tenant movement. In late April a number of Brooklyn progressive organizations, led by the Socialists and the consumers league, established the Brownsville Tenants League. Pledging to resist further rent increases, the leadership originally planned a general rent strike. While this failed to develop, the organization did lead dozens of strikes during the following summer and fall.[42]

Meanwhile, Socialist assemblyman Charles Solomon and his supporters formed the Brooklyn Tenants Union (BTU) in the same area and quickly demanded 10 percent rent reductions. The building owners balked, however, with one owner's lawyer telling the BTU leaders, "We've got the money and it's money that counts." The BTU retaliated with a rent strike against the eight buildings owned by the president of the landlords association. Over the next ten weeks, tenant leaders were beaten, houses were picketed, prospective tenants threatened, and one building completely emptied. The tenants ultimately achieved victory, but not before 72 of 192 striking families were evicted.[43]

A large strike in the Williamsburg section that same summer showed that tenants could draw upon varying types of support to achieve victory. Four hundred and fifty families in seventeen jointly owned buildings struck on August 1, 1919, under the auspices of the Williamsburg Tenants League. In a rare example of cooperation with the Mayor's Committee, the tenants took the case to arbitration, but the landlord refused to accept an adverse ruling. On September 4 the owner obtained eviction notices for the strikers. Soon a city marshall, fifty policemen, and thirty union movers arrived to dispossess the tenants, but the moving men refused to do so when the striking women displayed their tenant league membership cards and insisted that they too were "union members." Despite the willingness of the landlord to expend the six thousand dollars required to evict the families, three additional attempts to recruit a work force were unsuccessful. In desperation, the owner offered to settle; he received one-third of the increase originally demanded in return for a nine-month lease and improvements in the buildings.[44]

In the late summer the Lower East Side was successfully organized. The absence of this strongly Socialist area from the ranks of the tenant movement during nearly three years of agitation is perhaps accounted for by the fact that its rents had remained relatively low. It had served as a "safety valve," with thousands of families from newer neighborhoods in upper Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn retreating back to its cold-water flats. In time, however, it again became crowded, rents began to rise, and residents became restive. In response, Socialist alderman Abe Beckerman established the East Side Tenants League at the party's headquarters on Avenue C and within several weeks was leading fifteen rent strikes and claiming at least one thousand members.[45]

Thus by late 1919 the tenant movement had achieved considerable stability, with effective local organizations in a dozen working-class neighborhoods in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn. While some Socialist claims of one hundred thousand members were clearly exaggerated, the more-often-stated figure of thirty-five thousand members among the various organizations is probably accurate, if the criterion used is participation in, or active support for, a rent strike rather than long-term dues-paying membership.[46]

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