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3. From Eviction Resistance to Rent Control
Tenant Activism in the Great Depression

Mark Naison

Communists in the Lead: Early Depression Eviction Protests and Rent Strikes

The protest meetings of the Harlem Tenants League and the legislative efforts of Harlem's elected officials represented efforts to remedy the special problems of blacks within a steadily loosening housing market. But the depression, which hit the city and the nation with shocking rapidity, changed the context in which all discussion of housing issues took place and the basic texture of landlord-tenant relations. First, the rapid spread of unemployment undermined the capacity of most tenants to pay pre-depression rents, and some tenants to pay any rent at all. Second, the loss of rental income made it difficult for many landlords, especially marginal operators, to meet their mortgage bills, insurance payments, and utility costs and caused some to relinquish their properties and others to reduce routine maintenance. Third, the private construction industry, which had boomed during the 1920s, became instantly unprofitable, even for luxury buildings.[8]

Landlord-tenant relations became suffused with desperation. Facing tenants who could not pay, landlords improvised. Some, hoping that better times would bring them repayment, allowed tenants to stay on rent free. Others accepted labor exchanges in return for rent. Others lowered rents to more acceptable levels. But a good many responded to the crisis in "rational" economic terms and tried to force non-paying tenants to leave. During 1932, the municipal courts of the city issued dispossess notices at two and three times pre-depression levels.[9]

Tenants scrambled desperately to retain or find apartments. Some made arrangements with landlords along the lines mentioned above. Others went to their local political club (or church or synagogue) to get help in "softening" their landlord's stance or to get a donation of a month's rent. Some did not pay rent, saved their money, moved out, and gave a down-payment to another desperate landlord, and moved once again when the dispossess arrived. But a good many simply left when the landlord asked, moved in with friends and relatives, or waited until the marshal put their furniture on the street. Although actual evictions -- complete with marshals and police -- were relatively few (less than 5 percent of dispossesses resulted in evictions), hundreds of thousands of people left their apartments for smaller ones, fell into the status of lodgers, or became part of the army of homeless that slept on streets, lived in Hoovervilles, or rode the rails. During the first three years of the depression, the city's vacancy rate rose precipitously, to over 9 percent in the Bronx and sections of Brooklyn and to over 15 percent in some low-income neighborhoods.[10]

City officials, though sympathetic to the problems of impoverished tenants, were overwhelmed by the misery facing them. The mayor's office, the police, and the municipal courts all tried to avoid massive displacement of tenants. The Mayor's Committee on Unemployment, set up by Mayor Jimmy Walker (and funded by private donations), asked to investigate cases of impending eviction to see if aid could be provided to avoid that contingency. Municipal court judges tried to encourage negotiations between landlords and tenants to achieve settlements short of eviction. And city police and marshals demonstrated a visible reluctance to evict destitute tenants; indeed, landlords in the Bronx actually sued one marshal to force him to carry out eviction orders that were issued by the courts. But such individual humane gestures could not fully blunt the force of the law or the inexorable logic of a private housing system that required the payment of rents to function. In the absence of government programs that put rent money in the hands of the unemployed, the dispossession and relocation of tenants proceeded on a massive scale and at considerable human cost.[11]

None of the tenant organizations that had been active in the 1920s, whether of Socialist or "conservative" origin, developed a strategy to organize tenants in this crisis. It fell upon the Communist party, an organization that had been marginal to the housing campaigns of the 1920s, to spearhead tenant activism, and it did so in a manner that provoked a great deal of hysteria and more than a little disorder.

At the time the depression struck, the Communist party in New York City was hardly a household word. Composed largely of Eastern European Jewish immigrants living in self-contained neighborhoods, it possessed a messianic air of certainty about its revolutionary ideals, which derived more from faith in the Soviet Union than knowledge of American conditions. But despite its sectarianism and insularity, the Party had two great advantages in dealing with the depression -- a cadre that was experienced in collective struggle (both in American trade unions and European revolutionary movements) and a willingness to act outside the law and the established rules of political discourse to make its demands heard. While other groups on the Left tried to understand the crisis before organizing mass protest, Communists literally leaped onto the barricades as soon as the depression struck and demanded that federal, state, and city governments provide direct aid to the unemployed; Communists organized marches, rallies, and disruptions of government agencies to reinforce its demands.[12]

By the fall of 1930, Communist-led Unemployed Councils had begun to experiment with two tactics that had a direct impact on the housing market -- eviction resistance and rent strikes. The first of these, eviction resistance, proved to be one of the most effective weapons in the Party's arsenal. Coming upon instances where tenants had been forcibly evicted, Communist organizers would move the furniture back from the street to the apartment, while appealing to neighbors and passersby to resist marshals and police if the eviction were repeated. Since many marshals and police were reluctant to evict (and since landlords had to pay marshals for evictions), such actions often bought time for beleaguered tenants and gave Communists a new-found respect. Through the fall of 1930 and the spring and summer of 1931, Communists employed this tactic in almost every city neighborhood where they were active, although the bulk seem to have occurred in poor communities where the depression hit early and hard -- Harlem, the Lower East Side, Hell's Kitchen, the South Bronx, Brownsville, and Coney Island. In some of these neighborhoods the Party was relatively weak (the Lower East Side and Brownsville were the only ones where the Party had a mass membership), but eviction resistance did not require active support from the population or even the political sympathy of the victim Given the overextended schedules of marshals and police, a handful of Party cadre could move the furniture back, provided the rest of the neighborhood was sympathetic or indifferent. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of such incidents occurred during the early depression years; some of them led to confrontations with police in which hundreds of people participated, but most of them led to some peaceful resolution, be it retention of the apartment by the tenants or a delay in their departure. "The practice of moving evicted families back into their homes has become frequent of late on the Lower East Side," declared the New York Times in describing the arrest of a group of eviction protesters, "but this was the first time that the police had arrived in time to seize any of the participants in such demonstrations."[13]

Rent strikes proved to be more difficult to organize. In the winter of 1931, Unemployed Councils tried to organize tenant leagues in buildings in their neighborhoods to force reductions in rent commensurate with tenant losses in income. Apparently, the tactic did not spread very rapidly; between March of 1931 and January of 1932, only seven rent strikes are mentioned in the Daily Worker (none in the New York Times), and four of those took place in the Lower East Side, a Party stronghold. Unlike eviction resistance, rent strikes required organizational experience and a willingness to take risks on the part of tenants as well as Unemployed Council organizers; tenants had to form committees, develop demands, negotiate with landlords, and keep their ranks firm with a subtle combination of persuasion and intimidation. Such a prospect was not appealing to people who lacked experience in collective protest or a strong belief in the "moral legitimacy" of the strike as an economic weapon. But Communist-led rent strikes posed a deadly threat to depression-era landlords. By demanding that building owners sharply reduce rents in response to mass unemployment, Communists were insisting that landlords "carry" their tenants, irrespective of its effect on their profit margins or their ability to hold onto their investment. A tactic forged in mass desperation, devoid of any respect for the landlord's economic problems, it posed an implicit threat to private ownership of housing. Predictably, landlords responded to such strikes with the vehemence of hungry people about to have the bread snatched out of their mouths.[14]

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