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

Mark Naison

The Wartime Tenants Movement and the Struggle for Rent Control:
Organizational Diffusion and Political Success

The coming of World War II had an unsettling effect on the organized tenant movement in New York City, particularly on the City-Wide Tenants Council. The core group of volunteer activists who kept the organization going, most of them sympathetic to the Communist party, followed Party priorities in allocating their energies and defining City-Wide's political stance. From the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact to Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union, they imparted a strong anti-war tone to City-Wide's work by accusing the president and Congress of taking needed funds away from the federal low-rent housing program to subsidize war preparations. Once the Soviet Union and the United States entered the war, this group made a complete about-face and urged City-Wide affiliates to "Assist the Work of Civil Defense" and participate in "Help Win the War Activities." Key male leaders of the organization, such as Heinz Norden and Donald Schoolman, along with scores of lawyers and local organizers, caught up in the Left-approved spirit of patriotism, volunteered for the armed forces. Talented women leaders replaced them, notably Grace Aviles and Catherine Masters, but their advocacy of tenant issues, given their political perspective, inevitably became fused with the task of mobilizing the civilian population to provide support for the armed forces (blood and clothing drives) and to serve as monitors against "profiteering" in the consumer economy. As a result, the more organizationally fragile locals of City-Wide gradually disintegrated or fused with the left wing consumers movement. By 1943 City-Wide, renamed the United Tenants League in deference to the "Win the War" spirit, had become a much smaller organization, with its primary base in city housing projects and limited-dividend developments such as Knickerbocker Village rather than in neighborhood tenant leagues.[65]

However, the gradual decline of the City-Wide Tenants Council did not mean that tenant activism ceased or that the interests of low-income tenants lost all weight in the political arena. Rather, techniques of tenant protest and advocacy, in the courtroom, the city bureaucracy, and the legislative arena, spread to a wide range of progressive organizations -- American Labor party clubs, civil rights organizations, neighborhood consumer councils, and CIO unions. Possessing far greater resources than City-Wide, these organizations, employing methods City-Wide activists pioneered, facilitated their own organizational growth. Concentrating on two main issues, rent levels and evictions, they helped engineer one of the most far-reaching victories in the history of the New York tenant movement: the imposition by the Office of Price Administration of a system of wartime rent controls covering all of New York City.[66]

The federal government's experiment in the setting of rent levels came as a result of a nationwide decline in housing construction, exacerbated by a migration to cities of workers seeking employment in defense industries. In many urban areas, a rapid tightening of the housing market occurred, marked by overcrowding and rapid rent increases. The federal government responded to the housing shortage (and the shortage of other consumer commodities) by passing the Emergency Price Control Act of 1942 and establishing an Office of Price Administration with the power to freeze rents and prices in designated localities. Shortly after the act was passed, the United Tenants League, the Citizens Housing Council, and consumer organizations began to press Mayor La Guardia to have the OPA immediately freeze rents in New York City. La Guardia made such a request, but the OPA, claiming the city's vacancy rate (7.5 percent in 1940) was too high for mandatory controls, initially refused to take action. It did declare the city a "defense rental area," but instead called for a voluntary limit on rent increases, monitored by the mayor's office.[67]

The failure of the OPA to impose rent controls became the rallying point for a coalition of civil rights organizations and left wing political groups. In Harlem, where the housing market was particularly tight, city councilman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., mobilized the People's Committee that had engineered his election to collect one hundred thousand signatures on a petition to have Harlem declared a "war emergency area" subject to immediate controls. The Consolidated Tenants League, handling scores of cases of buildings facing rent increases, supported the campaign; the league claimed that Harlem landlords consistently violated voluntary restraints. And Communist party clubs, left wing unions, and the National Negro Congress joined the drive by collecting petitions among their followers and even organizing rent strikes in individual buildings.[68]

In other parts of the city, the "progressive" wing of the American Labor party (which had split into pro-Communist and anti-Communist factions after the Nazi-Soviet Pact) made the struggle for rent control a major political priority. Congressman Vito Marcantonio, an advocate of rent control and public housing who employed "tenant clinics" as part of his service operation, pressed the issue on a federal level, but ALP candidates throughout the city also made rent control an issue in their campaigns for the assembly and the city council. Michael Quill, head of the Transport Workers Union and a power in the CIO industrial union council, campaigned on the rent control issue in seeking (successfully) a council seat from the Bronx, as did CP-ALP candidates Benjamin Davis, Jr. (from Harlem), and Peter Cacchione (from Brooklyn). At a time when the Communist Left generally eschewed confrontation tactics, consumer issues emerged as a "respectable" form of militancy, with the struggle for price stability assuming the character of a patriotic crusade. All over the city, ALP clubs (following the Marcantonio model) began setting up in their offices tenant clinics that served as advocates in landlord-tenant disputes, and occasionally they employed rent strikes. Staffed largely by women, some of whom had worked with City-Wide in its heyday, these organizations became heirs of a tradition of neighborhood tenant activism at a time when City-Wide lost the power to sustain it."[69]

The struggle for rent control, supported by the mayor, the city's Left, liberal housing groups, and a neighborhood consumer movement, assumed added urgency as a result of the riot that broke out in Harlem on August 1, 1943. The looting, window smashing, and battles with police that erupted that night provoked a nervous OPA to open a branch office on 135th Street and begin monitoring Harlem rents and prices. The Consolidated Tenants League, Powell's People's Committee, and left wing unions and neighborhood groups began flooding the office with complaints. At the same time, the city's CIO unions, especially Mike Quill's Transport Workers Union and the left-led National Maritime Union, began warning the mayor and the OPA that when lease renewals came up on October 1, 1943, landlords would violate voluntary restraints and institute massive rent increases. The mayor, hardly insensitive to the combined political influence of the ALP, the Harlem community and the CIO unions, escalated his pressure on the OPA as well. On November 1, 1943, the OPA finally relented and declared New York City a War Rental Area with mandatory ceilings retroactive to the levels of March 1, 1943. From this point on, tenant associations, ALP clubs, and unions focused their attention on the OPA as the major point of reference for tenant complaints and began serving as de facto vigilance committees to insure enforcement of the edict.[70]

The imposition of controls, and the manner in which they were imposed, proved to be a watershed in housing policy in New York City. Long a part of the agenda of the organized tenant movement, rent control came not because that movement had accumulated new organization strength, but because tenant work and tenant issues had been adopted by civil rights groups, trade unions, consumer organizations, and left wing political clubs. Having fought for controls so long and so hard (OPA controls came with much less of a struggle in other cities), and having defined the issue as central to their identity (and sometimes their political power), these organizations developed a powerful stake in rent control's survival. After the war, even in very different economic settings, controls would prove difficult to reverse. Tenant activism, expressing itself through numerous forms, had emerged as a permanent force in the political life of the city.

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