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2. New York City Tenant Organizations and
the Post-World War Housing Crisis
Joseph A. Spencer
The events and processes that both led to and followed enactment of the Emergency Rent Laws warrant study, for they provide excellent insights into the development of tenant organization tactics and strategies, the dynamics of movement building, the ways in which change is effected, and the problems associated with maintaining and adding to tenant protections once achieved.
The Socialist tenant leagues were clearly the organizational catalysts of the postwar movement. Despite limited resources, they greatly improved upon the building- and neighborhood-level rent strike. Picketing, demonstrating at the place of business if the owner was a local merchant, threatening prospective replacement tenants, and exerting pressure within local religious congregations made it extremely difficult for landlords to achieve large rent increases or evict families who resisted. While rent striking has gained legal legitimacy and hence greater efficacy in the past twenty years, the actual organization and implementation of a building-level rent strike has probably not changed significantly since its maturation in 1919 and 1920.
Successful organizing and rent striking resulted in major accomplishments on two fronts. The most basic, and most often overlooked, were the individual victories won against local landlords. Direct action, coupled with effective use of the courts and even the competing Mayor's Committee, enabled thousands of families to resist exorbitant rent increases. avoid eviction, and win improved building conditions.
The leagues' most important achievement, albeit indirectly, was the legislation passed to deal with the housing crisis. The Emergency Rent Laws were revolutionary in that the right of a property owner to charge what the market would bear was subordinated to the larger public good. Of course, the precedent was somewhat limited by their administration since an established profit level was the key criterion for determining whether a requested increase was reasonable; thus the right to a profit was not entirely secondary to the needs of poor families. One can also argue that the tax exemption program of the 1920s was also a major milestone, given the amount of construction that was subsidized.
It must also be recognized, however, that the laws passed in 1920 only represented a limited victory. Indeed, it is significant that the Socialist leagues failed to develop support for more far-reaching goals such as public housing, among non-Socialists ensnared in the crisis. This partly reflects how difficult it is to maintain a family's participation in a local tenant organization once its immediate problem has been successfully dealt with. More important, however, the failure of the Socialists to build a larger agenda resulted from the particular chain of events during the postwar period.
The achievement of a major policy or programmatic change requires four major steps. The issue must be raised and recognized; it must be introduced into the decision-making arena; it must pass through the decision-making process; and, lastly, it must be fully implemented.
In this case, such change took place only in response to an extremely widespread crisis and only through the complementary efforts of a variety of groups -- the tenant leagues and the more conservative associations, as well as third parties -- some of whom did not view each other as allies.
The issue initially gained legitimacy because of two interrelated factors. First, the impact of the post-World War I housing crisis, unlike the situations in 1904 and 1908, was so widespread and serious that it could not be ignored. Second, the Socialists proved capable of mobilizing desperate tenants and capitalizing politically on the inability of the city and state to respond effectively. Had the crisis not developed such broad and multifaceted implications, significant change would not have resulted.
While the Socialists advocated controls on rents and public housing, they only achieved mass support for direct, local activities such as rent strikes. Government officials responded by ignoring the calls for far-reaching (and politically costly) solutions and by undercutting the appeal of the tenant leagues. Creation of the Mayor's Committee was a clear attempt to blunt the appeal of the Socialists while directing discontent into legitimate channels.
Given the situation by late 1919 -- rents rising throughout the city, widespread striking, thousands of evictions, and Socialist victories in November -- it is not surprising that the Red Scare hysteria had a great effect on the movement. Officials and established party leaders, whether genuinely or calculatedly, linked the real anger and desperation of tenants to paranoid images of a larger left wing threat. Meanwhile, the conservative tenant associations emerged -- or perhaps were created -- to replace the Socialists as the designated "proper" representatives of tenants just at the time when the crisis was most threatening and it was obvious that substantive legislative action was needed.
Thus with the Socialist assemblymen, two of whom were actually tenant leaders, excluded from their seats, a coalition of the conservative tenant associations, the Central Federated Union, the municipal court judges, and Democratic and Republican leaders combined to treat the needs of the city's apartment dwellers. After cursory consideration of public housing, they pushed through the April Laws and then, five months later, the Emergency Rent Laws. In effect, they had coopted the momentum and pressure built by the Socialists and yielded as little as possible during a skillful retreat.
With the fading of the Socialist leagues after September 1920, conservative tenant leaders had a freer hand. Ironically, it is their failure to expand the tenant agenda and gain additional benefits that is most tragic. They had a good relationship with state and local officials, legitimacy in the broader sense, and a sizeable and still quite desperate constituency, yet they made no attempt to use these advantages pro-actively. This was partly due to ideology; most felt a larger government role in housing was inappropriate. Others may not have wanted to risk their influence by seeming militant. Whatever the motives, from the outset they demonstrated a willingness to work within the existing legal and economic framework. As a result, the organizations that survived into the 1920s adopted a "service agency" perspective, with tenants often viewed as clients, and avoided confrontation with realtors or government leaders.
Initially this posture exerted a positive influence: the leaders of such organizations received the cooperation and support of government officials and eventually assumed a quasi-governmental role as fact finders and facilitators of rent law administration. Yet they also made themselves "prisoners" of the laws by stressing their continued belief in legitimacy and the justification of rent control as an "emergency" measure.
Seen from this perspective, subsequent developments during the decade are understandable. During the early 1920s, at the height of the housing shortage, there was little difficulty in maintaining rent control; in fact, the laws were slightly broadened in 1922 and 1923. But during this period, tenant leaders mounted no pressure for major new advantages -- a broader, permanent rent control program, effective code enforcement, public housing. In viewing themselves as partners in the state's housing program, they allowed government officials to define the parameters of organized tenant activity.
The very seeds of the movement's destruction were sown when the leaders accepted the premise that tenant rights would expand and contract in direct proportion to the scope of the housing shortage. Once started in 1926, the process of gradual decontrol was irreversible. By 1928, when the State Board of Housing recommended that the Emergency Rent Laws be allowed to lapse, only 193,000 families -- about 10 to 12 percent of the city's population -- were covered by rent control. Tenant leaders had allowed their following to be stripped away step by step, until those that remained were not strong enough to resist the final defeat. Over a ten-year period they had let rent control and the potential for even larger gains slip through their fingers.
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