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3. From Eviction Resistance to Rent Control
Tenant Activism in the Great Depression
The Harlem Tenants League
The first harbinger of the new tenant activism came nearly a year before the Great Depression struck. In February of 1928, a black Communist named Richard Moore, recognized for his knowledge of black history and his oratorical gifts, turned a quiet meeting of the Washington Heights Tenants League at the Harlem Public Library into an impassioned protest against the expiration of the city's Emergency Rent Laws. Pointing out that blacks were penned in their neighborhoods by rigid segregation and lacked bargaining power with their landlords, he warned that the expiration of controls on apartments renting for fifteen dollars per month (in December of 1928), and on those renting for ten dollars per month (in June of 1929) would provoke a wave of rent increases in Harlem. Upon his suggestion, tenants present formed a Harlem Tenants League, elected him president, and began holding protest meetings in the community and sending delegations to meetings of the Board of Aldermen, where the rent law was being discussed.
In April of 1929, two months before the expiration of the ten-dollar-a-room controls, the league captured Harlem's attention with a campaign to resist impending rent increases and an attack on Harlem's politicians, editors, ministers, and landlords. Spurred by a series in the Daily Worker documenting the hardship of Harlem tenants, the league claimed that Harlem churches and real estate concerns that owned or managed Harlem property profited from segregation's toll on the black working class. "The capitalist caste system," Richard Moore wrote, "which segregates Negro workers into Jim Crow districts makes these doubly exploited black workers the special prey of rent gougers. Black and white landlords and real estate agents take advantage of this segregation to squeeze the last nickel out of the Negro working class who are penned in the black ghetto. Rents in Negro Harlem are already often double and sometimes triple those in other sections of the city." The league held meetings at the Harlem public library, sponsored marches through the streets of Harlem, and organized individual buildings to resist rent increases. Many of the buildings the league organized were owned by black churches and landlords.
The league's attack on the black middle class, it soon became clear, owed more to the Communist party's sectarian enthusiasm (partly inspired by a recent Comintern edict), than to an accurate assessment of the behavior of local leadership. On June 6, 1929, the Republican and Democratic district leaders of Harlem sponsored a meeting at Abyssinian Baptist Church to demonstrate community support for the preservation of rent control and to urge tenants to bring their housing problems to their local political clubs. Every important Harlem politician, and both Harlem newspapers, lobbying for the preservation of rent controls, pointing out that blacks of all classes faced unfair rents because of segregation in housing. When the city's Board of Aldermen, in June of 1929, passed an ordinance preserving rent controls for apartments renting under fifteen dollars per room, it was partially in response to the pressure of black elected officials (the Socialist party and remnants of the 1920s tenant leagues also made their voices heard). Nevertheless, a certain cynicism characterized this gesture, as the ordinance was soon declared unconstitutional on the grounds that the city had intruded on matters of state concern.
The Harlem Tenants League and Harlem's political leadership both took action once the city's rent control ordinance was struck down. For the Tenants League, the preferred tactic was a "Harlem wide rent strike." During the summer and fall of 1929, the league solicited complaints from individual tenants, held meetings in buildings scheduled to receive rent increases, and tried to persuade tenants to strike when negotiations failed. Such tactics proved of limited effectiveness; the league claimed that strikes took place on an intermittent basis and that non-Communist sources displayed no evidence to support even those limited claims. At this stage in Harlem's history, Communists lacked the cadre (they had less than twenty black members in the neighborhood), the reputation, and perhaps the right issue to arouse militant, risk-taking action on the part of Harlem tenants. Some Harlemites would attend Party protest meetings, march in Communist parades, and bring their complaints to Party tenant organizers, but the tactic of the strike was still unfamiliar and was frought with risk because of the tight housing market blacks faced in a segregated city (blacks evicted could take little comfort from the city's 7.5 percent vacancy rate because they were barred from most apartments). Nevertheless, the Tenants League agitation represented an important step in implanting a culture of collective protest among Harlem tenants, an effort that would bear greater fruit once the depression struck.
Simultaneously, Harlem political leaders used their influence in Albany to propose legislative remedies for the special problems of black tenants. In 1930, Assemblymen Francis Rivers and Lamar Perkins proposed, and won, passage of legislation that expanded the bargaining power of tenants living in deteriorated buildings, or those who lacked alternative sources of housing than the premises on which they resided (which in 1930 meant largely blacks). Rivers's bill, which became section 1446(a) of the Civil Practice Act, provided that if a tenant could offer proof of a serious enough violation of the Multiple Dwellings Law or Health Department Code such as to "constructively evict" that tenant from the premises, the court might stay summary proceedings for nonpayment of rent, provided the tenant deposited all rent owed with the clerk of the court. The Perkins bill, which became section 1436(a) of the Civil Practice Act, provided that if tenants were served with an increase of rent, they might apply to a judge for a stay of eviction of up to six months if the tenant could not find equivalent shelter at comparable rentals. Subject to interpretation by the municipal courts, which were vulnerable to community pressure and political influence, these bills gave some additional leverage to black tenants fighting "rent gouging" in a segregated market and a potential weapon to all tenants living in "old law" tenements (which included over two million people). Their passage demonstrated the growing importance of black political leaders in the struggle for housing reform and the recognition by the political leadership of the state that black tenants faced special problems in their quest for safe, affordable housing.
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