[Previous Section] [Table of Contents] [Notes] [Next Section]

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

Joseph A. Spencer

Part 3

While certainly disturbed by the continued growth of the tenant movement, municipal officials were equally alarmed by the large number of cases for which neither the leagues nor the Mayor's Committee could find a settlement. As landlords attempted to squeeze more rent from their tenants or to evict them to bring in a new family at a higher figure, the courts became clogged. A total of 96,623 families faced eviction proceedings in 1919, with the majority of these cases coming before the bench in the fall months. Many judges were hearing several hundred cases per day, and evening sessions had to be introduced. Under these circumstances, some freely admitted their inability to deal with each tenant fairly. Usually a tenant would be allowed to pay his old rent for another month and then vacate.[47] As a result, the October 1, 1919, "moving day" was described as the most congested in the city's history; over seventy-five thousand families in just the Bronx and Manhattan changed apartments. One city paper noted that "Usually on New York's moving day a trend in a definite direction may be noticed, but this is an unusual year. At one time most of the population was flocking to the Bronx, at others they chose new homes on Washington or Morningside Heights or in the suburbs. This year they count themselves among the elect if they have any place to which to go."[48] The market for apartments was so brisk that the real estate section of the Tribune headlined, "Goldmines No More Profitable Than Realty These Days."[49] One Bronx judge charged that the wholesale use of dispossess proceedings by many landlords was causing serious distress, which made tenants "easy prey for agitators who are Bolsheviks and other forms of radicals."[50]

The recurring fear of a radicalized tenantry is explicable by the degree to which the period of rent striking coincided with the postwar Red Scare. The nativist anti-radicalism that the Wilson administration had fostered during the war remained virulent throughout 1919. Early in the year large mobs, often led by veterans in uniform, attacked meetings and parades organized by immigrant and left-wing political groups. In July a major anti-black riot occurred in St. Louis. Labor unrest, at a high level throughout the year, peaked in the fall with major conflicts in the steel, coal, and railroad industries. The federal Justice Department, under A. Mitchell Palmer, attributed the increase in labor strife to radicals and responded with a series of raids in November 1919 and January 1920 in which thousands of alleged subversives were arrested. The hysteria engendered by the Red Scare did not subside for several months, after Palmer's prediction of a nationwide revolt for May 1 proved groundless.[51]

In New York City the tenant movement had experienced red-baiting well before the Red Scare. Landlords had long sought to label organizers as "Bolsheviks" or to claim that their buildings were being seized by tenant "Soviets."[52] But the fall of 1919 saw the start of a concerted campaign against the tenant leagues because of their radical potential. In the municipal courts, some judges began to single out league members and treat them more harshly. One East Side justice bragged that he had "stamped out the Tenant's League." Another judge, in Harlem, found three women strikers guilty of assault, then offered to release them if they revealed information concerning the organizers of their group.[53]

In early October, at the request of Nathan Hirsch, Mayor Hylan instructed Manhattan district attorney Anthony Swann to begin grand jury investigation of "certain east side organizations" that had led a "score or more" rent strikes. Hirsch claimed, "We have records of cases where in effect the tenants undertook to set up Soviet government, and we know of others where the actions of these leaders have been little less than anarchistic. Many of those who join these societies are foreign born, and they have no idea that their actions have been in direct violation of the law."[54]

Throughout October, Hirsch, Swann, and their allies issued a series of statements to the city's newspapers, which nourished fears of the tenant movement. They thoroughly detailed the links between the leagues and the Socialist party and claimed that tenant leaders encouraged the willful destruction of apartments. One judge warned, "I know that if this poisonous virus is not removed these people [league organizers] will lead this great mob of people into anarchy, riot and revolution."[55] Taking the estimates of the most unrealistic tenant leaders at face value, they charged that the Socialists would soon convince 250,000 families to withhold rent -- a force that even the police and the National Guard could not evict.[56] Furthermore, the Socialists were accused of using supposed anti-rent rallies to promote the party's candidates and of diverting strike funds into its campaign coffers.[57]

The Socialists denied that they had misled tenants, yet freely admitted that they hoped to gain votes as a result of their pro-tenant activities. Abe Beckerman observed, "If we can handle the rent situation it is only natural that the people we helped would vote for us. We don't only take Socialists into our tenant leagues. We take anybody and we don't expect all the Democrats and Republicans to vote for us because we bring their rents down, but gratitude ought to give us enough of their votes to win the election."[58]

Indeed, the Socialists realized that they had a potent issue and put it to good use. In the 1919 campaign the party's candidates attacked Republican and Democratic incumbents for their failure to resolve the housing crisis and for their lack of sympathy for tenants. They promised, if elected, to seek a standard one-year lease and restrictions on rent increases and the right of eviction.[59] As an off-year election, the contest was not well covered by the press, but it appears that housing was a key issue. Several years later, an aide to Assemblyman George Jesse, a Republican from Washington Heights, recalled that "The rent question had become more acute and I heard Mr. Jesse make many speeches and I do not think that he ever made a speech during the campaign of [1919] in which he did not state that he was in favor of some law to protect tenants of the City of New York."[60]

The election resulted in a limited victory for the Socialists. Faced with fusion in many races, the party increased its share of the vote by several percentage points in most districts and succeeded in electing five assemblymen (two from the Bronx and one each from East Harlem, the Lower East Side, and Brownsville) and four aldermen. The head of the ticket, candidate for president of the Board of Aldermen James O'Neal, received 121,000 votes -- just 20,000 short of Morris Hillquit's mayoral tally in 1917. These results are even more significant since many tenants who might have voted Socialist -- those evicted in October and early November -- were disenfranchised due to their change of residence.[61]

Socialist satisfaction was short-lived, however. When the assembly convened on January 7, 1920, one of the most noteworthy Red Scare episodes began. After being duly sworn in with their colleagues, the five Socialists were summoned to the front of the chamber by Speaker Thaddeus Sweet and denounced for having been elected on a platform "inimical" to the best interests of the United States and the state of New York. By a vote of 140 to 6 they were suspended until their fitness to serve could be considered.[62] A bitter three-month battle ensued, with the right of the Socialists to serve debated in the press as well as in the assembly chamber. But ultimately Sweet's control of a solid bloc of upstate Republicans proved decisive, and the five were expelled on March 31, 1920.[63]

Meanwhile, as the Red Scare was focusing attention on the Socialists and their allies in the tenants movement, new and more conservative forces were becoming involved in the housing crisis. First were the Community Councils of National Defense. Over sixty of these neighborhood-oriented bodies had been formed during the final months of the war to aid in civil defense, the re-employment of veterans, and the reporting of all types of profiteering. By late 1919 about a dozen councils remained active in a number of programs -- Americanization, the improvement of neighborhood health and transportation facilities, and campaigns against rising food prices. As the housing crisis continued to grow in severity, several councils in upper Manhattan and the Bronx established committees to aid tenants.[64] In early 1920 they were joined by two new tenant groups. The Washington Heights Tenants Association, led by Harry Allen Ely, was an outgrowth of the Audubon Community Council. By far the most influential, however, was the Fair Play Rent Association of the north-central Bronx. Initially founded at the end of January, the organization grew rapidly and had over thirty-five hundred members in more than two hundred buildings by mid-March.[65]

Although good data concerning the makeup of most of the community councils and conservative tenant associations is lacking, it can be established that they differed from the Socialist-led tenant leagues in several very important respects. The latter represented a predominantly Jewish, and to a lesser extent Italian, working-class constituency, had a Jewish leadership, and maintained alliances with the Socialist party, the consumers leagues, and the labor unions of the United Hebrew Trades. The community councils and conservative tenant associations present a different picture. Their membership, which was open to landlords as well as tenants, appears to have been considerably more middle class and was concentrated in areas of better housing. The leadership was largely Irish-American, with some Germans and old-stock Americans.[66] They had close political ties to local Democratic and Republican organizations. For example, Fair Play's president, George Donnelly, had once been secretary to the Bronx borough president.[67] Their allies were the municipal unions (police, firemen, teachers) and various patriotic groups such as the American Legion and the Sons of the Revolution.[68]

As the respective political allegiances of the two forces would suggest, the greatest differences between the Socialist groups and the conservative tenant organizations concerned ideology and tactics. Leaders of the community councils and newer tenant associations were both strongly anti-Socialist and unalterably opposed to rent striking. This attitude is best illustrated by the founding of the Fair Play Rent Association (FPRA). Faced with a rent increase they did not wish to pay, the residents at 2789 Valentine Avenue felt legally bound to do so. Their frustration led to the formation of the association -- dedicated to the election of pro-tenant legislators and the use of "moral force" to effect legal remedies. From its inception, the FPRA was careful to note that it did not interfere in individual cases and that it bore no ill feelings toward most landlords. Under the motto "Fair play to the landlord and tenant, and jail to the profiteer," the organization invited the cooperation of building owners.[69]

While the leadership of the tenant associations and community councils certainly possessed sympathy for families pressed by rising rents, evaluation of their broader motives is difficult. Their close ties to local Democratic and Republican leaders suggest that their efforts may have represented a covert attempt to blunt the political impact of the Socialist tenant movement, but this cannot be demonstrated. It does seem certain, however, that one of their key goals was to direct tenant discontent into legitimate channels, namely the legislative process and the courts. In this sense the conservative groups functioned much as the Mayor's Committee.

At the same time that the conservative tenant associations were being founded, the organized labor establishment was also growing restive. The various unions of the 350,000-member Central Federated Union (CFU) had negotiated contracts in 1919 on the basis of assurances from President Woodrow Wilson that postwar inflation was at an end. Such had not been the case, however, and CFU president Edward Hannah, who was also a member of the Mayor's Committee, came under increasing pressure from rank and file. Union labor, he reported, felt that it was receiving fair dollar wages but that the increased cost of living, with rents a major factor, was lowering real income.[70]

In early February 1920 a delegation from the CFU, headed by Hannah and Ernest Bohm, met with Mayor Hylan to demand legislative curbs on rent increases. Bohm reportedly told the mayor: "We mean business. We do not intend to permit action to be put off indefinitely. Our membership has been hard hit by rent profiteering and they are in no mood to be put off by kind words."[71]

One month later CFU delegates met to consider further action. In an incident typical of early 1920, the Times and the World erroneously reported that the delegates had endorsed a general strike and had instructed membership not to pay exorbitant rents. Although the Times corrected itself the next day and admitted that the idea of a general strike had been rejected by the CFU, the impact remained.[72]

Indeed, the very hint of such action by its labor supporters spurred the Hylan administration to cooperate. The mayor threatened to increase the property assessments of landlords who raised rents. He called a conference of real estate men and building trade union leaders to explore possible means of stimulating building, after which the CFU and the Mayor's Committee jointly proposed a $20 million city bond issue for public housing. Most important, however, was the city administration's endorsement of a CFU proposal that municipal judges be given the discretionary power to determine the reasonableness of rent increases.[73]

For Socialist tenant leaders, the early months of 1920 represented a period of great uncertainty. New participants were entering the housing struggle, while league members faced discrimination in the municipal courts, and the Socialist party's elected representatives, expected to advance pro-tenant legislation, had been suspended. The maintenance of the movement appeared in jeopardy unless the proper tactics could be utilized. Most of the leagues responded by adhering to the fundamental, building-level activities that had contributed to their early growth. While avoiding the courts as much as possible, tenant leaders continued to lead rent strikes and negotiate settlements with landlords. The Harlem Tenants League alone signed over four hundred leases in the period from October 1919 to March 1920.[74]

Some individuals within the movement demanded the use of more extreme tactics, however. In early March the Brownsville Tenants League, under the leadership of Leo Gitlin, began to organize a general rent strike for May 1. Members of the Brownsville group had advocated such a step in 1918 and 1919, but had met with opposition from the other leagues. Now Gitlin began to mobilize and predict success. His bulletins reported a steadily increasing following: 2,000 on March 5; 10,000 two weeks later; by March 22, 500 organized buildings with 29,000 tenants ready to withhold rent.[75]

In retrospect, it is clear that Gitlin represented only a small minority in the tenant movement and that he greatly exaggerated the extent of his following.[76] But the significance of the general-rent-strike threat rested not in its actual strength but rather in the fact that it was widely accepted as bona fide. There were several reasons for that acceptance. First was the widespread realization that thousands of tenants were indeed angry and desperate. Another round of increases on May 1, the city's heaviest moving day, might have been the last straw.[77] Second, until Gitlin was denounced by other Socialist tenant leaders in mid-April, the Call accepted his statements as accurate and added to their impact by incorrectly linking all rent strikes to the "general strike movement in Brownsville and other sections of the city."[78] Last, and most important, was the fact that Gitlin's campaign was a prophesy fulfilled. Caught up in the Red Scare hysteria, Hirsch, District Attorney Swann, and others had warned of Socialist attempts to organize hundreds of thousands of tenants. Thus they were predisposed to accept the general-rent-strike threat as genuine, regardless of its substance.

Conservative tenant leaders and city officials responded to the threat of a tenant uprising by increasing pressure on the legislature. Edward Murphy of the Inwood Community Council told an assembly committee: "We are playing with fire. If you had the sentiments expressed by sober-minded, law abiding citizens in my district, you would know that action must be taken now. They have been driven into a condition that is no good for any country."[79] State senator Loring Black, Jr., of Brooklyn warned of a "social revolution beyond description on May 1." Fiorello La Guardia, recently elected president of the Board of Aldermen, predicting that tenants would refuse to pay rent if not aided, noted, "You can't dispossess every tenant in the city." Municipal court judge Joseph Callahan insisted that landlords would have to trust the courts -- "Somebody must stand between them [landlords] and the Bolsheviki of this state."[80] Lastly, Judge Harry Robitzek told a legislative committee, "if you do not give us legislation I have no hesitancy in telling you that you cannot prevent the socialist voting population in the Bronx from increasing from 30,000 in the last election to one hundred and fifty thousand."[81]

In a 1962 article Stanley Coben argued that the Red Scare represented an attempt to deal with "a number of severe social and economic dislocations," such as inflation, disillusionment over the war, labor strife, and scattered acts of terrorism, "which threatened the national equilibrium." Many Americans responded by reaffirming their own national values -- through the 100 percent Americanism movement -- and by attributing responsibility for the nation's problems to foreign influences.[82] Statements made by public officials and representatives of the conservative tenant groups indicate that a similar process shaped attitudes about the housing crisis -- indeed that such attitudes epitomized the Red Scare mentality.

Thus the profiteering landlord became stereotyped as a "Bolsheviki Russian Jew landlord." A letter to Governor Smith from an "American Jew" demonstrates the virulence of such views: "I hope that you will pass those rent bills to kill those Bolsheviki profiteering Russia Jew landlords.... The Russian Jews pass a remark that they will make the American people kiss their hands and feet. If you will let me carry a gun and look out for me, I will kill these Russian dogs in a few hours."[83]

Such unrestrained bigots were not alone in promoting this stereotype, however. At a meeting of the Board of Aldermen in March, Republican Fred Smith of Brooklyn asserted that "Most of the rent profiteers are Hebrews." While testifying at a hearing in Albany, La Guardia responded to a heckling landlord by shouting, "Yes, hiss, my friends. You people who emigrated from the pales of Russia but a short time ago." Not surprisingly, the legislature also received numerous requests to restrict the rights of aliens or those who did not speak English to lease or own property.[84]

The rent-striking tenant was often portrayed in an identical fashion -- as an alien ignorant of American law and norms of behavior. Unable to pay the high rents demanded by profiteers, he turned in desperation to the organizers of the Socialist tenant leagues who sought political advantage in his plight by organizing illegal rent strikes and anti-landlord vandalism and cheated him through fraudulent demands for strike funds.

The solution to the crisis, conservative spokespersons argued, was to be found in compromise legislation. They repeatedly expressed the belief that most tenants and landlords (implicitly American tenants and landlords) could cooperate with a well-informed legislature to develop the proper remedies. As a representative of the Fair Play Rent Association told the Lockwood committee:

Now, I am through but I have got just this to say. I am an American woman. The American form of government has never failed us since it was established and it will not fail us now, and you men will help us now that you realize and understand the situation down there. You are going to pass laws. You are going to protect landlords. They have got rights under the constitution. And you are going to help the rest of us, because I tell you, gentlemen, that between the Bolshevism of the poor, helpless, ignorant, illiterate alien, that came here believing that this was the golden land and finds out it is not the land of plenty and between the Bolshevism of the people that will squeeze every last dollar out of their fellow men and women and then in the name of patriotism put it in Liberty Bonds, I am going to tell you that between the Bolshevism below and the Bolshevism up above, it is a case of God help the rest of us in the middle.[85]

By late March, Socialist tenant leaders were also looking toward the legislature for assistance. Although rebuffed in the past, they agreed to join a coalition to pressure Albany. The driving force behind this effort was the United Hebrew Trades (UHT), which called a mass meeting for March 29. Six hundred and forty-eight delegates from several hundred organizations, such as Jewish labor unions, consumer societies, synagogues, fraternal orders, Socialist party locals, and ten tenant leagues, gathered at Beethoven Hall on Fifth Street and formed the United Tenants Organization (UTO). Although some representatives advocated the use of a general rent strike as the ultimate tactic, the UTO's sixty-member executive committee adopted a milder approach. The new organization decided to seek favorable court decisions, work for the designation of housing as a public utility, and petition the legislature for legislation similar to that sought by the CFU, namely laws giving judges discretion to set fair rents.[86]

The United Hebrew Trades (UHT) had entered the tenant struggle for several reasons. Of great importance was leadership's desire to aid union members who were directly affected by rising rents and deplorable housing conditions. Many also wished to support their allies in the Socialist-led tenant leagues. But the major impetus was the fear of growing anti-Semitism. As noted above, the central position of Jews on both sides of the controversy, combined with the irrational passions of the Red Scare, were contributing to an increasing number of anti-Semitic attacks. In seeking compromise solutions to the housing crisis, the leaders of the UHT and other Jewish organizations hoped to defuse the situation.[87]

Ironically, this last ditch attempt by the UHT, the Socialist tenant leagues, and their supporters to seek compromise was totally misunderstood. The New York Times, pro-landlord and alarmist from the outset, headlined its page-one story "Organize Revolt against Rents" and reported that "The delegates were exhorted to combine, not as they had been doing, in houses, but in entire blocks and in sections of &e city, and to withhold all rents they deem oppressive."[88] The next day, Arthur Hilly, who had succeeded Nathan Hirsch as chairman of the Mayor's Committee, charged the United Tenants Organization with fomenting a general rent strike and condemned such action as a "planned display of Red flagged disorder."[89]

By this time, however, the shape of the legislature's response had been largely determined. In mid-March state senate and assembly leaders had conferred with Charles Lockwood and members of the Bill Drafting Department. They produced a package of bills that reflected the key aspects of the proposals offered by conservative tenant leaders and by the CFU and UHT.[90] After a series of hearings in late March, the bills were slightly modified, with concessions made to all parties. This compromise slate was passed overwhelmingly on March 31 and signed by the governor on the following day. Ironically, the assembly had voted to expel its Socialist members just hours before passing the housing bills.

The April Rent Laws, as these statutes came to be known, included several major provisions: [91]

Chapter 137 granted to municipal court judges power to grant stays of eviction lasting up to one year when convinced that the tenant was unable to find similar quarters at a rate equal to that which he had been paying.

Chapter 136 allowed a tenant to defend against eviction for nonpayment on the grounds that the rent demanded was "unjust, unreasonable and oppressive." On increases of 25 percent or less the burden of proof was on the tenant. Larger increases had to be justified by the landlord.

Chapter 130 extended until October 1 following occupancy all written leases that did not specify the duration of tenancy.

Chapter 133 required landlords to establish "to the satisfaction of the court" that a tenant was "objectionable" when such charges were made as the grounds for a summary eviction. Previously, a landlord had only to swear that he was acting in "good faith."

The housing situation remained tense for several weeks following passage of the rent laws. Arthur Hilly continued to predict a large-scale tenant uprising for May Day, with a thousand buildings "organized into a kind of a soviet" and widespread sabotage,[92] but Socialist tenant leaders dismissed such charges. On April 21 representatives of the United Tenants Organization and its component groups condemned Leo Gitlin, the leader of the alleged general rent strike, as irresponsible. Harry Rich of the Brooklyn Tenants Union told the Call, "If there is any rent strike being planned in Brooklyn or Brownsville by any such large bodies of tenants, I have never heard of it." He insisted that since April 1 his members had been "satisfied in nearly all cases with the decisions of the Brownsville justices under the laws."[93] When May Day arrived, Hilly's fears were, in fact, proved groundless as only 392 tenants were reported on strike.[94]

Despite their initial positive reception, however, it soon became apparent that the April Rent Laws were inadequate and, in the long run, capable of producing an even greater crisis than that which had prompted their passage. In effect, the laws had created three categories of tenant: Those with written leases were safe until their agreements expired. They were the only lucky ones. The second category included month-to-month tenants -- those without any written lease. Thousands received demands for 25 percent increases during the spring and summer. According to chapter 136 they could fight such demands in court as "unjust, unreasonable and oppressive," but this proved virtually impossible. Judge Robitzek noted that "I do not know of a single tenant who has been able to establish that the 25 percent was unreasonable. You see, the figures are all in the possession of the landlord and it is impossible."[95] Tenants who lost such cases were invariably given stays of from one month to a year. Robitzek alone claimed to have granted ten thousand between April 1 and the end of July. But eventually these stays would expire and thousands of families would be on the street.[96]

The third category of tenancy represented the greatest danger. Chapter 130 provided that written leases of unspecified duration would expire on October 1. Landlords were under no obligation to renew these leases, and therefore began notifying such tenants months in advance to move on September 30 -- since new tenants were not covered by the rent laws and could be charged much higher rents. The city faced the prospect of sixty thousand evictions from this provision alone.[97]

During the summer of 1920, as the implications of the April Laws became apparent, pressure for new legislation grew. But the roles of the major groups were markedly different from what they had been earlier in the year. For the Socialist tenant leagues, the spring and summer months represented a period of relative inactivity. The Call, generally eager to publicize any example of organized tenant protest, mentioned only one mass meeting and a handful of strikes during the entire period.[98] There were several reasons for this quiescence. As was noted previously, the level of rent striking was directly related to the extent of tenant discontent. During the spring, there was general satisfaction with the operation of the laws, based primarily on the wholesale granting of long-term stays by the courts. Most families remained calm so long as they did not face immediate ouster.[99]

Ironically, the limited activity of the tenant leagues was probably also the result of their close relationship with the Socialist party. Ordinarily this bond benefited tenants by providing trained leaders, meeting halls, a newspaper, and other resources that the leagues would otherwise have had to develop independently. After March 31, however, the Socialist party devoted itself almost entirely to the reelection of its expelled assemblymen in the fall campaign. In the case of those who held key positions in both the party and a tenant league, this may have led to neglect of housing problems.[100]

The conservative tenant associations, on the other hand, were quite active during the summer months. In late July a new organization, the University Heights Tenants Association, was formed in the Bronx. Early in the following month the Fair Play Rent Association established a second branch in the Mott Haven-Morrisania section. Most important, however, was Fair Play and the Washington Heights Tenants Association pressure for a special session of the legislature to pass additional rent laws. On August 10 a delegation estimated at two thousand tenants met with Governor Smith in Albany and presented him with a petition containing six thousand signatures; the delegates predicted riots unless the April Laws were strengthened. Three days later Smith issued a call for the special session.[101]

Despite the timing of these events, tenant associations were not the dominant influence on Smith or the legislature. For with the end of the Red Scare and a reduction in the level of rent striking, political leaders no longer viewed the housing crisis as the cutting edge of a social revolution, but rather as a specific, though grave, political-administrative problem. In fact, the most significant pressure came from the municipal court judges. They had been at the center of the storm from the outset. Several members of the bench had argued for greater discretionary powers as early as the spring of 1919, but government officials had opted for appointment of the Mayor's Committee and the Lockwood committee. The April 1920 laws had also represented a partial yet poorly conceived concession to judicial requests.

By the summer of 1920 each day was offering further demonstration that the April Laws were inadequate. Now the judges spoke out even more forcefully. At legislative hearings held in July and August, judges testified to the gravity of the situation -- thousands of stays of eviction which would soon come due, thousands of tenants denied lease renewals, and ever-increasing court calendars. It was their pressure, more than that of any other group, that spurred the legislature to action.[102]

When the special session convened on September 20, there was little doubt that it would have to act quickly. Architect and housing reformer Clarence Stein captured the mood of the situation perfectly when he wrote in the September issue of the Survey, "In New York City this summer the housing situation is calm. It is the calmness that comes before the storm."[103]

The president of the Board of Municipal Court Judges was more specific when he warned:

the dispossess proceedings against tenants during the month of October will exceed in number the record for the whole year of 1919. If the hard-hit public is to be relieved, action must be taken within a period of ten days after the Legislature convenes, otherwise our new May Day, October first, will find us in a terrible condition. Our courts will be packed with frantic men and women. You will have to act quickly.[104]

Further encouraged by a strong message from the governor, the legislature on September 27 passed the Emergency Rent Laws, a series of statutes incorporating the recommendations of the judges.[105]

Chapter 944 reenacted all provisions of chapter 136 but eliminated the 25 percent clause, thus allowing the municipal court judges to determine the reasonableness of all increases and placing upon the landlord the burden of proof. To assist the judges in making their determinations, landlords seeking increases were required to submit a bill of particulars setting forth figures as to gross income and expenses.

Chapter 942 was directed at the threat of evictions for those whose leases expired on October 1. It severely restricted the rights of landlords to deny lease renewals to such tenants.

Enactment of the Emergency Rent Laws of 1920 marked a historic occasion -- save for a federal statute governing the District of Columbia passed several months before, it was the first rent control program passed in the nation.

Although the impact of the Emergency Rent Laws remained a subject of debate throughout the 1920s, several effects of the legislation were clear from the outset. Most notable were the designation of the municipal courts as legal arbiters with authority over disputed rents and a reduction in radical tenant activity.

As noted earlier, the level of rent striking during the summer of 1920 had been relatively low. The decrease in rent striking was even more dramatic following passage of the September laws. The only major strike noted in the news media was that of forty-five hundred tenants led by the Bronx Tenants League in the East Fordham section -- and that was for a 7 percent rent reduction demanded by garment workers who had received a 20 percent wage cut. On the whole, it would appear that the Socialist-led groups were satisfied with the Emergency Rent Laws. In early October several thousand members of the Workmens Consumer League of Brownsville held a victory parade in which they carried signs reading No More Moving and Victory Is Ours.[106]

As tenants rejoiced, the thousands of lease termination cases slated for October 1 worked their way into the municipal courts, where the crowding of court calendars surpassed even spring 1920 levels; indeed, the number of cases continued to increase during late 1920 and early 1921. Judge Robitzek of the Bronx municipal court reported that the backlog of cases would take several years to hear and complained that the Board of Estimate had "turned a deaf ear" to judicial requests for additional clerks and courtroom facilities.[107] Robitzek's prediction proved accurate: the courts remained clogged with rent cases as late as 1925. This is understandable since neither landlords nor tenants had much to lose by going to court. In contesting a rent increase, a tenant was assured of his apartment at the old rent pending hearing of the case, often after a delay of several years. If the tenant eventually lost the case, he was required to pay the increase retroactively, but many families moved quietly before their cases came to trial. Landlords were encouraged to sue because they were assured the old rent, collected arrears if victorious and if the tenant had not moved, and could even include legal costs in bills of particulars filed with the court.

Faced with a steadily mounting caseload, the municipal court justices sought to develop practical guidelines for the administration of the rent laws. After much confusion and several higher court reversals, a common approach evolved. Landlords were allowed to bring suit only in the court district in which the building was located, or that in which they lived. This prevented landlords from forcing tenants to appear in distant court districts in Staten Island or Queens. More important, the justices agreed that a "reasonable rent" would be that which gave the landlord an 8 percent profit on the market value of his property. While this system encouraged many "paper exchanges" of buildings to enhance their market value figure, it was used throughout the 1920s.[108]

Against this background, both major components of the tenant movement experienced a significant transformation. The Socialist-led wing of the movement went into decline shortly after passage of the September laws. It is most likely that the serious schism that split the Socialist party itself also weakened its dependent tenant organizations. The party's split over the Communist issue started in February 1919 with the organization of the Left Wing Section and was completed during the Chicago Emergency Convention in August of the same year. National dues-paying membership, which had peaked at 108,504 in 1919, declined to only 13,484 by 1921. Although the New York local remained the strongest of the remnants, it was obviously much weaker after the traumatic summer of 1919.[109] Another major factor inhibiting the activities of Socialist tenant leaders was the repression associated with the Red Scare. Whatever the exact reasons, there is no evidence of Socialist-led tenant activity after early 1921.

The conservative tenant associations and community councils experienced a far different fate -- continued growth, an expanding role in landlord-tenant matters, and increased unity. The relative complexity of the Emergency Rent Laws accounted for this in large part, since most tenants needed assistance in using them properly. The tenant associations were well suited for this role. Their leaders had good ties with both city and state officials and had consistently advocated legal, legitimate alternatives to the rent strike. Above all, association leaders wished to retain the status and prestige gained during the 1920 crisis. Thus, while the Socialist tenant leagues ceased activity, the conservative tenant associations readily increased their efforts.

In doing so, they continued to concentrate their activities in the Bronx and the northwest section of Manhattan. Although there may have been some slight, independent activity in Brownsville, East New York, and Yorkville during the early part of the decade, the areas of previous Socialist tenant league strength were not really represented in the movement after 1920.

Of the conservative groups, several deserve special attention. The Washington Heights Tenants Association (WHTA) grew out of the Audobon Community Council in late 1919. Headquartered on Saint Nicholas Avenue, WHTA maintained a large membership -- consistently above seven thousand -- and was one of the most effective and vocal tenant organizations of the decade. This was due, in large part, to the organization's leader, Harry Allen Ely. A vigorous, seventy-one-year-old self-proclaimed "soldier of fortune," Ely led most of the movement's lobbying efforts and published a short-lived periodical The Tenant. He was an acerbic critic of landlords and city officials; indeed, he was found guilty of criminal libel for maligning a municipal court judge in 1925. He obviously had the allegiance of his members; following his conviction, a meeting of the WHTA raised $600 in bail money in only ten minutes.[110]

Another strong group from Manhattan was the Academy Tenants Association. Led by attorney Lucille Zeumer, Academy represented several thousand tenants on the West Side from 96th to 125th streets. Zeumer, who also represented other Manhattan tenant groups, kept Academy functioning from its founding in 1924 through the end of the decade and remained a major movement spokesperson after many other tenant leaders had passed from the scene.[111]

The best organized borough was the Bronx, with each of several territories served by a specific group. The South Bronx Tenant and Civic League recruited in the entire area south of 149th Street. The Melrose Tenant and Civil League was responsible for the section from 149th to 167th streets. The Tremont League handled tenants living north of 167th Street and east of the Grand Concourse. Its jurisdiction coincided slightly with that of the Fair Play Rent Association, which gave its boundaries as north of Tremont Avenue and west of the Grand Concourse and Third Avenue. In addition, several other organizations served smaller subsections of the borough. The University Heights League was active in the area bounded by Fordham Road, 180th Street, the Grand Concourse, and Sedgewick Avenue. The Bronx Protective Tenants Association organized the largely Italian East Fordham Road section.

Although each group was autonomous within its own territory, there was a good deal of cooperation among the various organizations. The Melrose, South Bronx, Tremont, and University leagues were united in an umbrella organization called the Bronx Council of Tenant Leagues. The council's chief attorney, Agnes Craig, handled most lobbying activities and was the borough's most prominent tenant representative during the decade. Many of the city's neighborhood tenant groups were also affiliated with the Federation of Tenant Associations (FTA). Founded in February 1921 by several Bronx organizations, including the Fair Play Rent Association and the Tremont League, the FTA was described as "made up for the most part of tenants of the so-called middle class" and "perhaps the strongest organization of its kind ever attempted." The federation's first president was Thomas Moore of the Tremont League, but Harry Allen Ely soon assumed leadership. The FTA's center of power seemed to shift also, with the Washington Heights and other Manhattan groups becoming its most active affiliates. Under Ely's aggressive leadership, the federation served as a key lobbying force into the late 1920s.[112]

[Previous Section] [Table of Contents] [Notes] [Next Section]


TenantNet Home | TenantNet Forum | New York Tenant Information
DHCR Information | DHCR Decisions | Housing Court Decisions | New York Rent Laws
Disclaimer | Privacy Policy | Contact Us

Subscribe to our Mailing List!
Your Email      Full Name