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

Mark Naison

The Rebirth of Activism

During the summer and fall of 1934, two rent strike movements erupted that were to have a lasting impact on organized tenant activity in New York. The first of these, launched among middle-class blacks in Harlem's Sugar Hill, led to the formation of the Consolidated Tenants League; the second, among tenants of Knickerbocker Village, a large limited-dividend housing development on the Lower East Side, produced the Knickerbocker Village Tenants Association. Both strikes achieved success employing sophisticated legal and public relations strategies disdained by early-depression Communists and openly welcomed the help of housing reformers inside and outside of government. Each movement generated tenant organizations of great permanence and strength, the leadership of which played key roles in the rebirth of a citywide tenant movement.

The Harlem rent strike of 1934 erupted in a neighborhood undergoing rapid ethnic change and among a population that had become highly politicized during the depression. The first building to go on strike, 281 Edgecombe Avenue, was a large, modern elevator building that was changing from white to black tenancy; many of its first black residents were lawyers, doctors, and entertainers. But the black residents of the building soon discovered that the status of moving to a Sugar Hill address came at the price of rents nearly double that charged former white residents, of elevators that seldom worked, and of poor building maintenance. This kind of profiteering at the expense of black tenants had occurred throughout Harlem's emergence as a black community, and in another time, the tenants might have gritted their teeth and accepted the situation. But in 1934, Harlemites increasingly turned to the boycott and the picket line to solve their problems. The community was the scene of a boycott of store owners on 125th Street to force them to hire black clerks; of sit-ins and protests to force nondiscriminatory relief policies; and of marches and rallies to free the Scottsboro Boys. The tenants of 281 Edgecombe, having seen the effectiveness of such tactics (the 125th Street boycott and the relief campaigns achieved major victories), decided to apply them to their own situation; they called a rent strike and began picketing the building to demand lower rents and better building conditions. At the same time, they retained two skilled attorneys, Julius Archibald and Vernal Williams, to represent their interests in municipal court.[39]

The Edgecome strike, the Amsterdam News asserted, "fired the minds ... of Harlemites who have long suffered under the burden of exorbitant rents." Tenants in several other buildings launched strikes for lower rents, and the buildings involved formed a United Tenants League to coordinate their demands. By mid-September of 1934, the movement, helped by near-unanimous tenant support and intimidating mass picketing (which the La Guardia-appointed corporation counsel did not try to stop), won victories in all the buildings it had organized; owners agreed to reductions of three to ten dollars a month plus repairs.[40]

News of the strike's success brought dozens of requests for aid from tenants throughout Harlem and inspired strike leaders to form a permanent organization. In October of 1934, they joined with leaders of a group that had organized rent strikes on 150th Street -- the New York Tenants League -- into a Consolidated Tenants League and began offering negotiation services and legal representation to Harlem tenants willing to pay the organization's dues (two dollars initiation, two dollars per year). From the time of Consolidated's founding, its major leaders, chairman Donellan Phillips and attorney Vernal Williams, perceived it as a professional service organization capable of supporting a full-time staff. Committed participants in Harlem's struggle for racial justice (Consolidated took part in numerous campaigns against racial discrimination in housing and employment), they also observed that Harlem's unique housing conditions enabled people with legal and organizational skills to pursue tenant advocacy as a career. Harlem's landlords, their rents inflated by discrimination, could afford to make substantial concessions without sacrificing "reasonable" profit; organizers with the talents to extract such concessions could find a large market for their services, especially among middle-class blacks. Harlem Communists, who had worked within Consolidated from the beginning, did not know what to make of this approach; in 1934, they attacked Consolidated leaders for their "opportunism"; two years later, they courted their support. But the strategy worked. By 1938 Consolidated claimed over five thousand dues-paying members and supported a full-time staff of organizers and lawyers.[41]

Consolidated's great contribution, Heinz Norden of the City-Wide Tenants Council claimed, was its development of an effective "legal defense of tenants brought to court by landlord's actions." Consolidated's lead attorney, Vernal Williams (who had earlier won notoriety for his defense of Marcus Garvey), proved to be expert in using every available statute, along with judicial delays and appeals to common sense, to persuade judges to postpone evictions and serve as mediators between landlords and tenants. Sometimes using section 1436(a) of the Civil Practice Act to win six-month postponements of rent increases (giving landlords a strong incentive to make a deal), sometimes claiming that landlords had violated "proper consideration" in failing to provide promised services, sometimes claiming that multiple violations provided grounds for six-month stays of eviction, Williams developed an extraordinary track record in winning reversals of rent increases and agreements to improve building service. "It is not too much to say that an entire new body of tenant law was created in Harlem," Heinz Norden asserted. "For the first time, tenants began to get a break in the courts." Williams's success, in striking contrast to that of Communist lawyers in the early 1930s, derived from his deference to the judges and the reasonableness of his claims as well as his legal expertise. Consolidated's lawyers always proclaimed their willingness to negotiate and their respect for the profit margins of landlords, and judges in Harlem's municipal court (who saw Williams and other Consolidated attorneys literally hundreds of times) learned to regard a Consolidated case, almost by definition, as well prepared and reasonable. Some of this experience did not easily translate to the rest of the city (the magnitude of the rent discrimination faced by Harlemites, including black public officials, contributed to a pro-tenant atmosphere in the Harlem municipal court). But Consolidated's courtroom success provided encouragement to tenant activists elsewhere seeking a balance between mass action and legal representation.[42]

The Knickerbocker Village rent strike, employing appeals to public officials and the media more than courtroom advocacy, provided an equally innovative model of tenant organization. The setting of this conflict was a sixteen-hundred-unit complex located in a deteriorated neighborhood just north of the Brooklyn Bridge (Manhattan side), which had been financed with a loan from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation that limited its developers to a 6 percent profit and rents of no more than $12.50 per room. Designed as a model project for middle-class New Yorkers, Knickerbocker Village attracted a tenant population of young, college-educated professionals -- professors, architects, social workers, teachers, lawyers, civil servants, and businessmen. Arriving on moving day with high expectations, they found the buildings unfinished and the management poorly prepared for their arrival. Elevators did not work; apartments lacked finished floors, bathroom and kitchen fixtures, and painted walls; "model" features of the development -- laundry rooms, radio hookups, children's playrooms -- proved inoperable or poorly equipped. Worse yet, management representatives, failing to take tenant complaints seriously, offered insolent responses or avoided contact altogether. [43]

Knickerbocker Village residents, who had developed an instant camaraderie during the move-in fiasco (and who were not accustomed to this treatment in their professional lives), swiftly mobilized to ease their predicament. Less than three weeks after moving day (October 1, 1934), over six hundred Villagers came to a meeting at a local public school and voted to withhold their next month's rent unless management agreed to a long list of demands, including repairs of apartments, elevators, and public areas, and reimbursement of tenants for moving expenses. The strategy tenants pursued demonstrated a shrewd understanding of politics, public relations, and the weight conferred by their own professional status (the strike committee had forty-four lawyers and seventeen journalists among its supporters). Within one week, the strike committee had set up meetings with the mayor, the State Housing Board, and the Village management (the Fred M. French Company), and had managed to secure four full-length articles in the New York Times. In addition, the strikers formed a legal defense committee, a newsletter, and a social activities committee to help firm up their support with the rest of the tenants. By mid-November the Knickerbocker Village management, reeling under the force of this organizational blitzkrieg, agreed to negotiate; a compromise was reached that resulted in repairs of unfinished apartments and nearly $25,000 in reimbursements to aggrieved tenants.[44]

The successful strike generated tremendous esprit de corps among politically active tenants. One week after the French Company settled tenant claims, strike leaders announced that they were forming a permanent Knickerbocker Village Tenants Association to undertake a program of cultural and educational activities within the housing complex. The tenant leaders, ranging politically from New Dealers to Communists, approached the association as an opportunity to create a social and cultural environment that reflected the "activist" currents of the time, but they ran up against the grim opposition of the French Company, which saw the association as a threat to its control of the project. The company refused to grant meeting space to the association, set up a rival tenant group, funded an anti-association newsletter, and finally, in the summer of 1935, informed seventeen association leaders that their leases would not be renewed because of their "evident unhappiness" with conditions in the project.[45]

The effort to evict association leaders, even more than the strike, radicalized many residents of the project. Although the association lost an eleven-month court battle to force renewal of the leases, it used the issue of arbitrary management tactics to expand its following among the tenants and create strong ties with public officials, journalists, and civic organizations concerned with housing reform. To the French Company's dismay, a whole new group of association leaders emerged who expanded its cultural and political activities, kept its newsletter alive, and expanded association membership to over a thousand tenants, thus swamping its management-sponsored rival. "Knickerbocker Village became a beehive of activity," one tenants leader recalled, "one of the most interesting places in New York to live in." For the new tenant leadership, the recalcitrance of the French Company became a metaphor for the problems all tenants faced in winning recognition of their rights to free association and collective bargaining, and they became evangelists for tenant activism in their Lower East Side neighborhood and the city as a whole.[46]

The Knickerbocker Village leaders possessed some unique assets in their efforts to serve as the catalysts for a citywide tenant movement. First, they possessed professional skills, and they projected a cosmopolitan style that no militant tenant activists had previously commanded. College educated and "Americanized" (no foreign accents here, even among the "ethnics"), they combined a romantic faith in mass action with a hardheaded knowledge of the law, public relations, and the legislative process. Second, their radicalism, although sincere, lacked the rough edges displayed by immigrant Socialists and Communists. Recent converts to the Left, they affected a nonpartisan aura that never compromised their professional expertise or jeopardized smooth social relations with liberals. Third, they had the backing of a strong, stable tenant association that provided both a model and a source of financial and political support for their activities. At a time when housing reform had become a major issue in city politics, Knickerbocker Village activities were uniquely situated to bring together a grass roots tenant movement that sought links with liberal reformers in the settlement houses and the city government.

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