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

Mark Naison

Housing Reform and the Roots of the City-Wide Tenants Council

The decline of Communist-led rent strikes left something of a vacuum in grass roots tenant activism. Rent strikes and militant tenant associations did not reappear on a significant scale until the summer and fall of 1934 and they were launched under different auspices and among very different constituencies.

Nevertheless, the years 1933 and 1934 saw the emergence of a powerful housing reform coalition in New York City, rooted in settlement houses and philanthropic organizations, but with a significant base in the administration of a newly elected mayor, Fiorello La Guardia. Concerned with deteriorating conditions among the city's two million inhabitants of old law tenements, reformers lobbied for the construction of low-rent public housing and the improvement of health and living conditions in the city's slums. By the time a grass roots tenant movement did reemerge, the reformers represented a formidable ally, offering tenant leaders office space, funds, and help with lobbying on issues of common concern.

One important component of the reform coalition was the Lower East Side Public Housing Conference. Organized in a neighborhood with the largest concentration of old law tenements in the city (and the highest rates of foreclosure and tax delinquency), the conference brought together settlement houses, mothers clubs, and religious organizations to lobby for housing reforms that could not be won on a neighborhood level. Led by professional social workers, it organized delegations of slum dwellers to Washington and Albany, published a journal, took legislators on tours of the slums, and sponsored a Better Housing Week to raise public awareness of the need for government-funded low-income housing. A brilliant advocate for slum dwellers, it avoided organizing individual buildings or engaging in confrontations with landlords; its forte was legitimizing once-controversial legislative proposals.[36]

The Emergency Committee on Tenement Safety represented a group of comparable origins and purposes, organized by the city's settlement houses to "obtain passage of housing legislation to provide minimum standards of safety, health, and decency for tenement dwellers." Spurred by a rash of fire deaths in old law tenements, the committee lobbied for four bills reforming the state Multiple Dwellings Law: one requiring the fire retarding of halls and stairs within two years, another requiring a toilet for every family within two years, the third prohibiting the use of rooms without windows after January 1, 1939, and the fourth conferring on the Tenement House Department broader powers to order the demolition of abandoned buildings that constituted a nuisance. The bills, passed during the 1934 session of the legislature, gave the Tenement House Department significant weapons to press for the upgrading, or eventual demolition, of tenements that did not meet minimum standards of health and safety.[37]

Another important asset of the housing reform movement was the support it received from Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and his tenement housing commissioner, Langdon Post. Post and La Guardia used their offices to lobby for the construction of public housing, and Post proved singularly effective in using his authority to force the abandonment and demolition of hazardous slum properties. A forceful advocate of political mobilization by slum tenants, Post, during his first three years in office, forced the abandonment of over fifteen hundred tenements and pressed the owners of thousands more to upgrade their properties. Beginning his efforts at a time when there was a high vacancy rate in slum neighborhoods (due to evictions and doubling up of families), Post's policies, combined with massive slum clearance by New Deal agencies and an improvement in the economic climate, contributed to a significant tightening of the housing market by the end of 1936. Convinced that government-sponsored housing was the only permanent solution to the housing needs of the poor, Post announced he was "going to create a housing shortage because that is the only way we will get decent housing." The actual pace of public housing construction fell short of Post's hopes (as of the fall of 1936, only one low-income project, First Houses, had been erected in New York City, with two more under construction), but his definition of reform priorities coincided with that of liberal housing advocates and a new wave of tenant organizers that emerged in the mid-depression.[38]

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