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

Mark Naison

The Citywide Tenants Council

Very early in their association's history, Knickerbocker Village tenant leaders displayed interest in broadening their base of operations. In 1935, with the co-sponsorship of the Lower East Side Public Housing Conference, they formed a City-Wide Housing Conference, only to see it disintegrate. "Letterheads were printed, and about a dozen affiliates obtained," one activist recalled, "but the movement . . . failed to catch on." In March of 1936, Knickerbocker Village leaders made another attempt at citywide organization, this time with a more activist orientation. Inspired by the support displayed by tenants for striking building service workers (which at Knickerbocker Village and other middle-income developments took the form of picket lines, fund-raising, and harassment of strikebreakers), KV leaders decided that "the time had come to set up a permanent tenant group in defense of tenant rights." Gaining the support of the Consolidated Tenants League, the only other tenant organization in the city with a secure popular base, KV leaders invited representatives of eighteen other tenant associations (most from individual buildings) to a meeting at the Mecca Temple to rally support for the building service strikers and create a new tenant organization. Featuring speeches by Congressman Vito Marcantonio, Building Service Union leader James Bambrick, and Newspaper Guild leader Heywood Broun (all of whom advised tenants to employ labor union tactics), the meeting attracted two thousand participants, five hundred of whom signed cards displaying interest in a citywide organization. Several weeks later, the organizing committee, dominated by Knickerbocker Village representatives, held its first meeting at an office donated by a sympathetic businessman. The group constituted itself as a direct membership organization -- the City-Wide Tenants League, and elected Heinz Norden, an editor and translator from Knickerbocker Village, as its first chairman.[47]

Norden, who served as City-Wide's major leader for the first four years of its existence, represented the quintessential "Popular Front personality." A skilled writer, administrator, and speaker, Norden viewed the Communist party as the major inspirational force on the Left and was willing to defer to its judgment on matters of national and international policy so long as it did not compromise his sense of professionalism or interfere with his day-to-day activities. He sought the help of Party organizations in building City-Wide, while carefully avoiding direct Party control. But at the same time, he never encouraged any policy or relationship that might offend Party activists, whose skills and labor the movement needed. Norden felt most comfortable in a coalition of liberals and radicals, and he helped endow City-Wide with an "ecumenical" air that allowed it to thrive at a time when Communists had discarded much of their revolutionary bravado and some of their sectarian arrogance in the interests of fighting fascism.

For the first five months of its existence, the new organization had rough sledding. First, the predominantly middle-class tenants who helped found the organization drifted away once the building trades strike ended. With the exception of the Knickerbocker Village Tenants Association, none of the building organizations activated during the strike displayed any long-term stability. Second, Consolidated Tenants League leaders, who represented the largest tenant association in the city, resented the direct membership structure of City-Wide. Dependent on membership dues for their employment, they did not want City-Wide to compete with them for individual members. These problems might have been insurmountable had not City-Wide's hard-pressed leadership discovered two new constituencies: working-class tenants seeking help with individual housing complaints and left wing unions and civic groups seeking advice on housing policy. As Norden described it:[48]

Word about the Tenants League had got into the newspapers and a procession of tenants from the slums began to appear at its ... office with immediate, concrete problems -- rent rises, dispossess proceedings, landlord-tenant disputes. Somehow, the League always managed to have a volunteer lawyer in court, an organizer in the house, and slowly but surely it began to chalk up its first victories in the form of settlements and court decisions. It also embarked on the activity which proved to advance its fortunes more than any other. It sent speakers to address union, civic, fraternal and political groups -- anyone who would listen.

During the fall of 1936, City-Wide leaders began to develop a new organizing strategy. First, they decided to change City-Wide's structure from a membership organization to a federation of self-governing neighborhood tenant associations. The function of the central office would be to develop legal and legislative strategy, coordinate fund-raising and public relations, and conduct an educational program on housing issues for organized tenants and the entire "progressive" community. Second, they decided to promote the formation of tenant associations in slum neighborhoods. The first experiment with this policy took place on the Lower East Side. City-Wide organizers enlisted the support of settlement house leaders and social workers (themselves deluged with housing complaints) in the creation of a Joint Committee for Tenants Organizing. After several months of canvassing houses, holding public meetings, and handling individual complaints, the committee felt it had sufficient support to create a permanent organization which it called the East Side Tenants Union. In November of 1936, the new group, along with City-Wide itself, moved into donated headquarters in the Church of All Nations and began soliciting membership and organizing tenants. Within a month, the group had several hundred members and three dynamic leaders -- Wilma Saunders, Sophie Black, and Marcia Moore.[49]

In December of 1936, two crises erupted in low-income neighborhoods which dramatized the salience of City-Wide's new strategy and helped put the organization on the map. The first took place among six hundred families living in tenements that had been condemned by the city to make way for the South Bronx approach to the Triborough Bridge. To hasten their departure, officials responsible for the bridge construction (headed by Robert Moses) stopped providing services in the tenements and announced the start of demolition just two weeks before Christmas. When tenants and local businessmen protested these policies, City-Wide leaders offered help in publicizing their grievances. Under their direction, neighborhood residents began picketing city hall, sending delegations to relief officials and sympathetic legislators, and holding mass meetings in the community to which the press was invited. The campaign embarrassed city officials and won major concessions, including a stay of demolition, the restoration of building services, the granting of emergency food, clothing, and medical care, and the payment of moving expenses by the Emergency Relief Bureau. City-Wide emerged from the campaign with considerable credibility in the neighborhood (a South Bronx Tenants League later formed nearby) and with a strategy to insure fair treatment of tenants displaced by government construction projects.[50]

Less than a week after this crisis broke, a group of savings banks owning property on the Lower East Side decided to board up tenements under their control rather than comply with the fire retarding and sanitary requirements of the Multiple Dwellings Law, whose deadline for compliance was January 1, 1937. Over seven hundred families on the Lower East Side (and an unknown number of others in other poor neighborhoods) received eviction notices that gave them less than a month to find new quarters in the dead of winter. Worse yet, this action came when, according to the New York Times, New York was "on the verge of a shortage of low rent housing that many observers fear may be as grave as that of 1921." More than forty thousand apartments had been removed from the low-rent market since 1933 (through demolition, abandonment, and transfer to nonresidential use), and evictees faced grave difficulty finding quarters at comparable rents. The East Side Tenants Union, less than a month old, leaping into the fray, threw up picket lines around the banks in question and sent delegations to the tenement house commissioner and the mayor demanding that the evictions be postponed and that tenants be assured of full services until they could find other quarters at comparable rents. In response to these complaints, and the equally vociferous protests of settlement house leaders, the mayor directed the New York City Housing Authority to hold hearings to help find a solution to the problem.[51]

The hearings, held during the last two weeks of December 1936, provided an excellent opportunity for City-Wide to publicize its work and recruit new affiliates. City-Wide leaders used the occasion to present a Tenants Housing Program that offered solutions to the immediate crisis and suggested long-term remedies for low-income tenants. For the bank evictions, City-Wide offered a solution based on the Triborough Bridge settlement: stays of eviction, intervention by the city to assure proper services to tenants, and payment by the Emergency Relief Bureau of the moving expenses of tenants forced to leave. It categorically rejected postponing enforcement of the Multiple Dwelling Law, preferring to see tenements closed or repairs charged to landlords rather than the persistence of dangerous conditions. As long-term solutions, City-Wide proposed a moratorium on evictions, the passage of laws prohibiting rent increases in buildings containing violations, the passage of a "prior lien" law allowing the city to make repairs in tenements and charge them to landlords, the large-scale construction of low-rent public housing, and the passage of laws prohibiting racial discrimination in the renting of apartments or the fixing of rent levels. This program, presented in a low-key, professional manner, affirmed City-Wide's ties with liberal housing advocates, but it also helped City-Wide recruit a grass roots tenant advocacy group, based in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, called Brooklyn Rent-payers. Rent-payers representatives at the hearings (who had the same "progressive" political views as City-Wide leaders) immediately endorsed the Tenants Housing Program and expressed interest in affiliating. Their recruitment gave City-Wide the critical mass of local affiliates it needed to complete the transition to a tenants federation. In late December of 1936, at a meeting in Harlem, the organization changed its name to the City-Wide Tenants Council and elected Donelan Phillips of Consolidated as its chairman and Heinz Norden as its executive secretary. The council's charter members included three neighborhood tenants associations -- the Consolidated Tenants League, the Brooklyn Rent-payers, and the East Side Tenants Union -- along with the Knickerbocker Village Tenants Association and the Lower East Side Public Housing Conference. With this composition, the council could legitimately claim to represent the interest of slum tenants, even though much of the leadership at its central office was middle class.[52]

During 1937 the council experienced substantial growth; it added more than ten new affiliates and emerged as the recognized voice of tenants' interests in the municipal courts, the city housing bureaucracy, and the city council and state legislature. Drawing upon ties with settlement houses, left wing trade unions, and unemployed organizations, council organizers helped form local tenant leagues in the South and East Bronx, Williamsburg Flushing, midtown Manhattan, Greenwich Village, Chelsea, Yorkville, Coney Island, and downtown Brooklyn. At the same time, the council recruited a volunteer "staff" of more than one hundred lawyers (through the left wing National Lawyers Guild); developed a housing research component (with the help of the left wing Federation of Architects, Engineers, Chemists, and Technicians); and developed a lobbying operation in concert with three key organizations involved in housing reform -- the Charity Organization Society, the Housing Committee of the United Neighborhood Houses, and the Housing Section of the Welfare Council.[53]

The City-Wide Tenants Council's growth, accomplished entirely with volunteer labor (it had eight to ten unpaid organizers on staff), reflected the genuine need for tenant advocacy in the city's poor neighborhoods, where housing conditions had become unsettled. Rapidly declining vacancy rates, the impact of slum clearance projects and public works, and the abandonment and upgrading of tenements as a result of code enforcement left many poor tenants vulnerable to arbitrary evictions and rent increases. As City-Wide gained publicity for defending low-income tenants, its organizers found themselves deluged with individual requests for help. Recognizing that they lacked the resources to help all complainants on a one-to-one basis, they tried to encourage tenants to create self-sufficient building organizations that enlisted the support of activist organizations in their neighborhood for picketing and publicity. In neighborhoods where a critical mass of buildings organized themselves, City-Wide organizers fostered the creation of neighborhood tenant leagues that had the capacity to handle complaints themselves.[54]

The style of organizing City-Wide employed, both from its central office and its neighborhood leagues, represented a shrewd combination of mass protest tactics and legal representation. Unlike tenant organizers in the early 1930s, City-Wide organizers employed mass picketing and rent withholding only after other strategies failed and only when they had strong assurances that tenants would not be penalized for their use. Convinced that the tenant movement would be built by practical victories, City-Wide organizers encouraged tenants to meticulously build their case by recording violations, getting inspectors to buildings, and initiating negotiations with landlords. "If the landlord refuses to negotiate," Heinz Norden wrote, "if there are violations of the law or patent unfairness on the part of the landlord; and if there is sufficient support and sentiment on the part of the tenants, picketing may be resorted to and as a last resort, a rent strike declared. The Council, however, realizes that the rent strike is to be invoked only if all other methods fail, and then only if there is a good chance of success." When conducting a strike, council organizers insisted that strict financial controls be employed (with money deposited in a trustees account and possibly with the court) and that picketing be conducted with precision and care. "The Council ... stays strictly within the law," Norden boasted. "In only one instance was a City-Wide organizer ever arrested and none was convicted of any offense."[55]

Despite Norden's strictures, City-Wide affiliates, if pressed, could play rough. In October of 1937, two leaders of Brooklyn Rent-payers chained themselves to the door of a Brownsville building to prevent the eviction of two families on rent strike. Rent-payer pickets at the building engaged in a shoving match with the police when they tried to unlock the protesters. But unlike their early 1930s counterparts, Rent-payer organizers did not define the police as the enemy. Indeed, they accepted the offer of a local precinct captain to mediate the dispute and agreed to the settlement he worked out. The incident dramatized two key features of City-Wide strategy: a willingness to submit disputes to third-party mediation (or arbitration) and the use of the strike as a precise instrument to win concessions, rather than a generalized instrument of neighborhood rebellion.[56]

With this mixture of militancy and caution, City-Wide affiliates seem to have accumulated a good track record in winning gains for tenants they represented (in November of 1937, City-Wide claimed it had won settlements for tenants in twenty-six buildings around the city). Their success ratio -- much higher than that of early 1930s groups -- stemmed from a number of sources. First, City-Wide organizers simply did not defend tenants unless they had solid grievances and did a great deal of the work in organizing their building and negotiating with the landlord. Second, City-Wide had energetic and talented young lawyers at its disposal who shared information about how to handle tenant grievances (for example, City-Wide lawyers discovered that most "notices of rent increases were not in the form required by law" and could be easily challenged on a technicality). Third, the legal climate facing organized tenants had changed for the better from the early 1930s. By 1939, as a result of a series of landmark cases (and a political climate more conducive to collective protest), most municipal judges recognized the right of tenants to picket in rent disputes. Rent strikes proved to be a more questionable proposition, but judges generally declined to evict if tenants paid their back rent on demand. Finally, City-Wide affiliates could draw upon the Communist party network to staff picket lines should rent disputes enter the "militant" stage. Almost every City-Wide neighborhood affiliate had a working relationship with a local unit of the Workers Alliance -- the Communist-led organization of the unemployed -- and many had close ties with American Labor party clubs. These two organizations could be counted on to supply pickets, speakers for street rallies, and members for delegations to landlords or the municipal courts, which gave tenant leagues added political muscle in local disputes.[57]

The effectiveness of City-Wide's tactics in handling individual building disputes, despite the hopes of its organizers, did not result in the development of stable membership organizations "on the trade union model." Most tenants, City-Wide leaders recall, lost interest in the organization once their individual grievances were settled, and individual building organizations, except in large developments, generally disintegrated quickly. Even the neighborhood tenant leagues, some of which lasted for years, generally depended upon the enthusiasm of a handful of volunteer lawyers and organizers rather than a stable dues-paying membership (Consolidated was the one exception). Depression-idled professionals, rather than slum tenants, proved to be the glue that held City-Wide together. Solving the problems of slum tenants simultaneously appealed to their idealism and enabled them to hone skills and make connections that might be useful to their careers. Lawyers, architects, writers, and public relations experts gravitated to City-Wide in sufficient numbers to keep the organization going despite the absence of sufficient funds to hire a full-time staff. By 1940 City-Wide claimed more than twenty affiliates in city neighborhoods and government sponsored housing developments and had helped publicize effective methods of tenant advocacy to scores of left wing trade unions and neighborhood organizations Not a mass movement by any stretch of the imagination, it had helped bring important legal, "ethnical, and organizational resources into the lives of slum tenants and had helped some stave off rent increases and improve conditions in their buildings.[58]

City-Wide also played an important role in the political arena: it contributed a "tenant perspective" to public deliberations on issues like the construction of low-income housing, code enforcement, rent control, and strategies of urban redevelopment. It mobilized tenant delegations to meetings of the city council, state legislature, and U.S. Congress; issued annual Tenants Housing Programs with specific legislative recommendations; and represented tenant interests through its seats on the board of the Citizens Housing Council, a high-powered housing reform organization founded in 1937. Skilled in mobilizing slum tenants for demonstrations and lobbying, City-Wide organizers also helped bring left wing unions and American Labor party clubs into the housing reform coalition, which added to its political influence on a statewide level. Sympathetic to the Communist party, City-Wide organizers, Heinz Norden observed, "influenced ... the Socialists and the Communists far more than vice versa.... before the tenants movement got under way, the radicals seem to have paid very little attention to housing."[59]

The legislative activities of City-Wide resulted in some accomplishments and some disappointments. On the question of code enforcement, City-Wide found itself at odds with a new policy of the La Guardia administration to use market mechanisms to encourage repairs, rather than administrative action to force them. During the winter of 1937, the mayor, despite City-Wide's vociferous protests, supported a six-month moratorium on the fire retarding and upgrading of old law tenements. When City-Wide and its allies won the passage of a prior lien bill in the state legislature (allowing the city to repair violations in old law tenements and charge the repairs to landlords), the city council passed regulations crippling enforcement of the bill and appropriated limited funds to implement it. With a growing shortage of low-income housing (and in response to pressure from landlords and banks), La Guardia decided to give code enforcement lower priority. In 1938 he replaced Langdon Post with Alfred Rhenstein, "a builder with close ties to banking and realty groups," and instituted a policy aimed at offering positive incentives (tax incentives and rehabilitation loans) to tenement owners seeking to upgrade their properties. As a result, the boarding up of tenements slowed considerably in the late 1930s, and what rehabilitation did occur often resulted in increased rents.[60]

On the issue of government construction of public housing, City-Wide registered slightly greater success. Along with other public housing advocates, it lobbied successfully for the passage of the federal Housing Act of 1937, which made subsidies and loans available to states that wished to construct low-income housing. One year later, City-Wide lobbied for the passage of a public housing amendment to the New York State Constitution and supported the La Guardia administration's efforts to construct low-income projects with available funds. But the size of the public housing program in the city fell short of City-Wide's expectations. The federal government appropriated less than a billion dollars for public housing (much of it in loans, not direct subsidies) rather than the 10 billion City-Wide recommended. The state legislature failed to appropriate the $300 million for public housing that the constitutional amendment had authorized. Although the city government did accelerate its construction of low-income housing, all the projects together accommodated slightly more than ten thousand families at the beginning of World War II. This represented an important gain for low-income tenants, but not the systematic effort to rebuild the slums that City-Wide had hoped for.[61]

City-Wide's agitation for rent control did not, in the late 1930s, result in a centrally administered system limiting rent increases and prohibiting evictions, but it did help pass the Minkoff Act of 1939, which prohibited rent increases in old law tenements that did not comply fully with the provisions of the Multiple Dwellings Act. Since over 90 percent of old law tenements contained major violations, this bill represented a form of rent control for low-income tenants. Introduced by an American Labor party assemblyman from the Bronx, supported by major housing reform groups and the city administration, the Minkoff Act reflected an alliance of liberals and the Left that would have been impossible five years before, a coalition that City-Wide did much to bring together.[62]

City-Wide's lobbying with city bureaucracies, in some respects, exceeded its legislative work in importance and effectiveness. During 1937, City-Wide and the Workers Alliance conducted a successful campaign to force the Emergency Relief Bureau to scale rents to the type of housing clients occupied as well as to the size of their families, thereby protecting clients from displacement during the upgrading of tenement properties. City-Wide also placed steady pressure on the New York City Housing Authority to influence the location, eligibility requirements, and patterns of tenant recruitment in New York City housing projects. City-Wide instructed its neighborhood affiliates to lobby for housing projects in their communities and supply Housing Authority officials with names of eligible tenants. Once projects were constructed, City-Wide organized tenant associations in them. By 1941 tenant associations had become strong in several of the larger projects -- Red Hook, Vladek, Williamsburg, and Queensbridge -- and had won priority access to public facilities and informal recognition of their right to negotiate for individual tenants (especially on the sensitive issue of "income ceilings" for project residents).[63]

The breadth of City-Wide's concerns, and the range of its organizational linkages, certainly surpassed those of any previous tenant organization in the city's history. City-Wide's shifting group of volunteer lawyers, organizers, and researchers accumulated expert knowledge of the legal representation of tenants, the economics and politics of housing, and the operation of city housing and relief bureaucracies. The sophistication of City-Wide's legislative proposals and public relations work equaled that of the real estate lobby and traditional housing reform organizations. But the organizational structure that sustained this effort proved fragile. Never did City-Wide's fund-raising produce over one thousand dollars per year. Only in 1939 did it acquire the funds to hire a full-time staff member, and it paid him the munificent sum of fifteen dollars per week. The slum tenants who benefited most from City-Wide's work lacked the resources to subsidize it, or the political skills and inclinations to build the kind of stable organizations that could give City-Wide real permanence. City-Wide survived on the politically motivated idealism and skills of under-employed professionals, both of which were vulnerable to shifts in the political climate and improvements in the economy.[64]

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