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4. Tenant Power in the Liberal City 1943-1971
Rent Wars, 1943-1955
For five years, New York City's tenant unions had been at the center of the struggle for rent control, but by 1943 they had slipped to the edge of the great civic crusade that suddenly made controls a reality. The U.S. Office of Price Administration (OPA) imposed controls on the city largely because of general anxieties well orchestrated by the Fiorello H. La Guardia administration. When the mayor led a broad coalition of liberal and civic groups clamoring for restraints on rising rents, organized tenants found themselves just one among many interests appealing for an emergency measure whose time had come. But the realities of total war that had taken the primacy of rent control away from tenant lobbyists had also changed the structure and priorities of their movement. The struggle to maintain wartime morale brought new membership and new influence to the leagues in the public projects. The new Soviet-American friendship in the aftermath of the Teheran Conference encouraged radicals to bury old tenant grievances and forge genial relations with liberal Democrats, even if they were landlords. At the same time, the OPA rent system quickly overshadowed the rent bargaining that had been the central function of tenant unions for a generation.
The war on the home front had forced organized tenants to set aside many of the housing issues that had matured during the depression. A few weeks after Pearl Harbor, the City-Wide Tenants Council virtually ended its five-year role as the advocate for renters in private apartment houses. In February 1942 an emergency convention adopted the name United Tenants League of Greater New York (UTL), but the hurried new committee assignments made clear that UTL energies would go to the struggle to bolster community morale for the "People's War." By December the UTL even dropped its half-hearted agitation for OPA controls. The issue had never been relevant to tenants in the limited dividends and public projects, who enjoyed subsidized low rents. The project leagues now had more immediate worries, as the federal government curtailed new housing construction except around defense plants, gave occupancy preference to defense workers and military personnel, and pressed the New York City Housing Authority to evict families whose incomes exceeded a maximum ceiling. As war wages increased during 1942, the Queensbridge Tenants League (QTL), the largest of the public project councils, became the most insistent voice behind the UTL's call for a moratorium on public housing evictions and an increase in the income ceiling to three thousand dollars.
During 1943 the UTL, spearheaded by the Queensbridge contingent skillfully reached beyond the Housing Authority to sympathetic liberals in Washington. It managed to arrange a joint meeting at New York's Town Hall with the prestigious National Public Housing Conference, which called attention to the plight of excess-income tenants. In the wake of a war production crisis in Long Island City aircraft plants, the UTL warned the U.S. War Manpower Commission that Housing Authority income ceilings were keeping two thousand skilled Queensbridge women off the labor market and provoked nervous Washington inquiries about whether the Housing Authority was "impeding" the war effort. The UTL's persistence, backed by a barrage of telegrams from Queensbridge, Fort Greene, and Williamsburg, forced the Housing Authority to raise the maximum in June 1943 to three thousand dollars with an added rent surcharge. At Queensbridge this qualification touched off stormy protests, which the QTL barely contained. When hotheads threatened to withhold rent, the Queensbridge manager marveled at how the QTL leader "sat on them saying this is no time for rent strikes." This "popular feeling," the manager reported, "was only checked and controlled by the experienced members of the QTL who proposed that we first work out an organized system of collective bargaining for the adjustment." Having wrung a satisfactory modus vivendi from the Housing Authority, the project leagues maintained a genial advisory posture for the duration.
The concentration of the tenant movement in the public projects, along with the Communist Left's emphasis on wartime unity, shaped the UTL's complacence toward the 1943 issue of urban redevelopment. Within weeks after the state legislature passed the Mitchell-Hampton Redevelopment Companies Law in spring 1943, the La Guardia administration and the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company unveiled plans for Stuyvesant Town, a middle-income project that would sprawl across the Lower East Side -- and displace some thirty-eight hundred site families. Liberals who questioned the project's massive, bull-dozer character were outraged when Metropolitan Life divulged its intent to limit occupancy to whites. At Board of Estimate hearings, liberals from the City-Wide Citizens Committee on Harlem, the United Neighborhood Houses, and the Citizens Housing Council bitterly attacked this "walled," "Jim Crow" city. Radical response, however, was generally muted. Only the United Tenants League and Queensbridge Tenants League sent denunciations. Communist councilman Peter V. Cacchione voiced perfunctory skepticism, while the American Labor party speaker simply urged "some provision" for site tenants.
Shocked site tenants already had a voice -- a UTL affiliate, the Stuyvesant Tenants League, which rallied the protests of local civic groups and churches. But Stuyvesant Tenants remained good neighborhood liberals, who, more than anything else, resented the insurance giant and expected fair play from the powers-that-be. They were quickly mollified by the Community Service Society's sympathetic study of their rehousing needs and, more decisively, by Metropolitan Life's "efficient" field services that were handled by the Tenant Relocating Bureau, Inc., organized by liberal realtor James Felt. The Community Service Society had to admire Tenant Relocating's professional solicitude, but applauded the special consideration that the Housing Authority gave evictees, including referrals to the Fort Greene Houses. Any lingering opposition was further undercut by cool heads on the UTL, who urged cooperation with Metropolitan Life for a painless relocation. Above all, Stuyvesant Tenants was advised not to break with the La Guardia administration. Without vehement opponents on the site, liberals' arguments against irresponsible corporate redevelopment faded.
In 1943 redevelopers, also setting their eyes on Harlem, conjured up plans that proved an effective solvent of tenant league resistance. In the weeks following the August 1 Harlem riot, James Felt hurriedly completed his idea for a nonprofit corporation to operate Harlem tenements with a paternalism modeled after England's Octavia Hill Association. Economies in the management of adjoining buildings, he argued, would cut maintenance costs without sacrificing operating standards. An interracial board of trustees would oversee an all-black staff of rent collectors and social workers. Felt solicited the interest of Donelan J. Phillips and Vernal J. Williams of Harlem's Consolidated Tenants League, who believed they were being offered a part in the management. But Felt had no such plans; he conceived it all along as an Urban League operation recruited from Harlem's social work establishment. But a far more serious intrusion on Harlem's tenant consciousness was Metropolitan Life's Riverton at 135th Street and Fifth Avenue, an "interracial" development that the insurance giant hoped would make amends for Stuyvesant Town. Affronted by the company's arrogance, Donelan Phillips nevertheless had to disagree with white liberals and welcome Riverton's much-needed 1,232 middle-income units. Trying to save lace, he boasted that his Consolidated Tenants League could steer the Metropolitan's housing direction. "Negroes have their own insurance policies," he said, "and can make demands" on the company. He was sadly mistaken. The league's strength had been its traditional services -- its opening of Jim Crow apartments, its rent bargaining, and its pressure against arbitrary landlords. All this would be rendered obsolete by Riverton's fixed rent schedule, its institutionalized waiting list, and its glib interracialism.
These corporate blueprints, filled with portents for the city's future, got only an uncritical glance from the United Tenants League, more concerned with progress of the People's War. UTL president Grace Aviles refused to join the liberals in their rebuke of Metropolitan Life's cynical gesture at Riverton. More important, amid the Stuyvesant Town debate, the UTL quietly dropped its traditional objections to private-sector redevelopment. The May 1944 UTL convention called federally aided redevelopment "essential to meet our postwar needs" and added that "we cannot justifiably oppose federal aid to urban redevelopment just because that aid is going to private industry." Within days after eviction rumors raced through East 14th Street, the UTL convention resolved that the New York City Housing Authority should finish its Jacob Riis and Lillian Wald projects to absorb refugees from the Stuyvesant Town site. With explicit praise for the Mitchell-Hampton Law, the United Tenants League statement reiterated, "As part of the overall housing program, encouragement should be given to private capital to invest in the field." "If private real estate owners and builders ignore this market, or fail to meet its demands, public housing can and must do the job." But, as the Daily Worker added in its coverage of the 1944 tenant convention, the UTL "is of the mind that private capital will be prepared for the challenge."
In the meantime, OPA rent regulation severely weakened many UTL affiliates that had made rent bargaining in the courts the heart of their community appeal. At first, the OPA's operations in Harlem proved a boon for the Consolidated Tenants League, which tried to acquaint Harlem with the new argot of "prevailing" rents, "comparable" services, and landlords' "hardship" increases. Becoming the OPA's self-appointed mediator and propagandist, the league never handled so many cases or enrolled so many new "units" -- twelve in December 1943, and twenty-one in January 1944, each with eight to ten tenants. But Harlemites quickly swamped the OPA's 135th Street office with desperate pleas about rents, hot water, painting, and repairs. The OPA soon became a one-stop housing office, whose volume business undercut most other voluntary efforts. The narrow grounds for OPA certificates of eviction reduced fears of landlords' thirty-day notices and much of the work of the magistrate's courts. Harlem was deluged with OPA leaflets: WHEN IN DOUBT ASK THE RENT DIRECTOR, was the message that the Consolidated, along with other groups, feverishly distributed.
In white, lower-middle-class neighborhoods, the UTL's dwindling affiliates had little choice but to throw in their lot with the growing consumer movement. The OPA, declaring war on price gougers, had enrolled middle-class volunteers from the League of Women Voters, the League of Women Shoppers, and other groups mobilized by the civilian defense effort. As rents steadied compared to the jump in market-basket prices, tenant leaders quickly shifted allegiance to these neighborhood vigilantes. The Mid-Queens Consumer Council, in fact, was behind the most important rent protest of 1943, a mobilization of 250 tenants in Rego Park-Forest Hills against rent increases and evictions, climaxed by a housewives' invasion of the OPA's Long Island City office. The trend in consumer advocacy was furthered by the vogue in "nonpartisan" wartime conferences during the winter of 1943-1944. In Brooklyn, the Non-Partisan Conference on Legislation in Wartime, the Brownsville Neighborhood Council, and the Conference of Brooklyn Consumers Councils brought civic groups, consumer councils, and women's clubs into the united front against war profiteers. Meeting at local hotels or neighborhood YMHAs, conferees generally agreed on liberal civic goals, mentioned fair housing and improved health services in the same breath as the Atlantic Charter, and resolved to struggle for community betterment while winning the People's War.
In this atmosphere, the independent tenant voice of the 1930s withered away. Many tenant veterans had been drafted or volunteered for war service, their places taken by women activists who readily joined the consumers' home front. At Knickerbocker Village, Queensbridge, Williamsburg, and Fort Greene, the preoccupation was the output of nearby war plants, insofar as it could be inspired by civic festivals staged by the projects. Left with a few satisfied, inactive tenant councils in the public projects and some old letterhead affiliations, the United Tenants League disappeared sometime during 1945.
Postwar housing controversies soon stirred the consumers-and-tenants out of their wartime complacence. Within a year after V-E Day, tenant councils became one of the most raucous elements of the city's Left. Their often brazen tactics drew attention from the fact that, at the behest of their neighbors, they pursued an eminently conservative goal -- the retention of OPA controls and what that meant for community stability. But given the country's revulsion against wartime restrictions, and against the OPA in particular, this course proved a long, dogged retreat. Tenant groups sided with President Harry S. Truman in his 1946 showdown with congressional Republicans over OPA extension, demanded Governor Thomas E. Dewey provide standby state controls if federal authority lapsed (which it did, for twenty-five days after June 30, 1946, when Truman vetoed an unacceptable OPA bill), lobbied in 1947 against attempts by the Republican-controlled Eightieth Congress to water down OPA, and later tried to influence the new federal Office of the Housing Expeditor (OHE), OHE rent control offices, and OHE citizens boards that advised on the pace of local decontrol. At best, they were able to delay, or occasionally confuse, but never halt the inexorable postwar pressures to restore free market rents and incentives for housing.
These were the stakes for tenants when President Truman drew the political battle lines during summer 1946, and the city's consumer and tenant councils staged vivid media events to dramatize fears for OPA. The Bronx Consumer Coordinating Council organized a June Buyer's Strike against clothing, appliance, and furniture stores that became the focal points for neighborhood Save OPA rallies. On July 26 the New York Consumers Council and its Brooklyn and Queens affiliates held a Buy Nothing Day aimed at the large chain stores, the "milk trust," and the black market in meat. Prominent stores, such as Macy's Parkchester, Hearn's, and Sachs, announced their scrupulous adherence to voluntary price limits, while local consumer and tenant councils had even greater success intimidating smaller shopkeepers in radical strongholds, like the Allerton Avenue section of the Bronx. The Brooklyn Borough Hall section of the American Labor party mobilized housewives for baby carriage parades, while the Brownsville Consumer and Tenant Council, formed that June, won neighborhood favor with a two-week strike and noisy pickets at butcher shops and clothing stores on Pitkin Avenue. Local consumer and tenant groups seemed the only protection for community standards against the cynical maneuvers in Washington.
These were just the opening skirmishes, however, of the bitter campaign during spring 1947 to influence the housing policies of the Eightieth Congress, whose new Republican leaders were intent on scrapping rent and price controls. Amid post-election fears, American Labor party radicals and consumer and tenant leaders organized the Emergency Committee on Rent and Housing (ECRH) to mobilize scores of local unions, consumer and tenant leagues, and ALP storefronts. The ECRH sent a powerful lobby to Capitol Hill, but could not prevent passage of the Housing and Rent Act of 1947. While the law extended OPA defense-rental ceilings (to be administered by regional rent offices within the newly created Office of the Housing Expeditor), it also allowed 15 percent increases on apartment "turnovers" and on varied categories of "improvements"; removed rent ceilings on new multiple dwellings as well as on apartment hotels; and on July 1 ended the required OPA certificates of eviction. Back in New York, these provisions touched off citywide fears of evictions and "pandemonium" in Manhattan's residential hotels. A stunned Mayor William O'Dwyer embraced the city council's rent laws, which froze residential hotel rents and set up a City Rent Commission to adjust "hardship" inequities and ration sharply the number of approved evictions. But the ultimate mobilizer of tenant fury were the loopholes of the 1947 federal law, which permitted landlords to negotiate 15 percent "voluntary" rent increases with tenants and to petition the OHE rent control office for rent increases based upon "hardship." Landlords took advantage of these loopholes en masse: from July to December 1947 the New York rent office approved over 250,000 leases containing "voluntary" 15 percent increases.
Throughout the city, tenants flocked to local consumer and tenant councils for help against the "hardship" scourge. Brooklyn saw the overnight growth of eighteen tenant and consumer councils (one each in Coney Island, Brighton Beach, Sheepshead Bay, several in Flatbush, and others scattered throughout the borough). Most had been quickly improvised by nearby ALP and Communist clubhouses. Probably, the center of this activity lay in predominantly Jewish Brownsville, along Powell Street and Blake and Pitkin avenues, neighborhoods also in the shadow of new public housing projects. Here the Brownsville Tenants Council mushroomed to more than four hundred members, met every Wednesday at local ALP headquarters, and conducted an ongoing rent clinic and complaint night against building violations. Not far away, the Stuyvesant Tenants Council claimed a membership of five hundred families, a potent force in stopping evictions and "keeping the rent control front firm." Amid all the confusion about the new federal rent law, the ALP's rent clinics were a comforting presence in many localities.
Information about these Brooklyn groups, including the banner units proudly described in the Daily Worker, reveals an inadvertent conservatism that prevailed, whatever may have been the aims of their leaders. One of the most active, the Ocean Front Tenants League, founded in 1945, was described by a Worker reporter in 1948 as "an established part of community life in Brighton Beach." It claimed some seventeen hundred members (out of fifty thousand area residents), with a summer intake of twenty-five tenant cases on each of three nights per week at its Neptune Avenue office. While the Ocean Front League placed a premium on grass roots organization, it really depended upon walk-in clients, predominantly elderly Jews who feared landlord demands for "hardship" increases. During mid-1948, however, tenant counciling gave way to the all-out effort for Henry Wallace, the Progressive party's presidential candidate, and for Lee Pressman, running on the Progressive ticket for Congress. The Boro Park Tenants and Consumers Council was another spring 1946 upstart in the OPA struggle By 1948, leaders boasted six hundred members in the Orthodox Jewish and ALP heartland of the Sixteenth Assembly District, an area of two-, four-, and six-family houses on quiet residential side streets. "The Council is known in the neighborhood," summed up a laudatory Daily Worker article, "for aiding evicted families, for sending delegates to Washington on price and rent lobbies, and for collecting thousands of signatures for worthy causes." But its weekly sessions at the local YMHA were dominated by routine housing complaints as well as responses to landlord demands for 15 percent increases. Despite its radical claims, the Boro Park Council was an expeditor of tenant complaints to the rent control office, a fairly effective goad of landlords to provide heat, to paint, to make repairs, and to provide other services. While leaders saw the need for grass roots mobilization, and even proposed setting up "block groups which will work on the problems on each given block, the idea was never carried out. In any case, like the Ocean Front, the Boro Park Council soon turned its attention to canvasing the larger apartment dwellings for Henry Wallace.
Manhattan's consumer and tenant councils also rode the "hardship" tide and were equally dependent on ALP activists who mastered the rent control game. On the Upper East Side, the Yorkville Tenants League operating out of the local ALP clubhouse, cultivated a legal service that claimed to have handled hundreds of eviction cases in the magistrate's courts and rent reduction applications with the housing expeditor. Further north, Congressman Vito Marcantonio's East Harlem club illustrated the full-service ALP at the height of its power. His office staff took on the whole array of neighborhood housing problems -- not only "hardship" increases, but evictions and complaints about heat or hot water, garbage, and repairs. When tenants approached his ALP headquarters, the staff sought the individual tenants' names, sent out a form letter, and arranged a meeting at the ALP clubhouse. Marcantonio's eager, young aides gave a pep talk, handed out pamphlets, such as "Tenant Rights Concerning Painting, Repairs, Rent and Hot Water, and Rent Increases" (written by an assistant), and the indispensable temperature charts. When necessary, the staff arranged for power of attorney to deal with the housing expeditor. Always, the meticulous follow-up included personal letters from "Marc" and a friendly huddle at ALP headquarters. Understandably, landlords charged that the congressman had "trumped up petty complaints" for his radical cause, but the painstaking tenant work seemed more like the traditional Tammany ministry to the poor Hispanics on East 100th Street pledged to him in early 1949, "You have votes in the building where we live, we fite for you when Election comes. You can ask to your peoples if they come here to take sign for anything you need in the political." But Marcantonio's success at moving grievances from tenement stairwells to the ALP clubhouse and then to the housing expeditor also inhibited the formation of independent tenant groups in East Harlem, except as they existed as names on his mailing lists.
By all accounts, however, the Bronx was the tenant movement's spearhead. No other borough combined so many key ingredients: a tradition of neighborhood Jewish radicalism, local working-class institutions (ALP clubs along with the lodges of Michael Quill's Transport Workers Union), plus a special rancor in landlord-tenant relations going back to the early 1930s. The Bronx also began with a strong consumer-and-tenant cadre, thanks to Helen Harris, a junior high school teacher who had guided a wartime consumer group into the Bronx Emergency Council to Save Rent Control. During the 1947 struggle against the "hardship" challenge, the Bronx Emergency Council boasted forty-five thousand members in thirty-three "autonomous" neighborhood branches and a storefront headquarters with eight full-time organizers and an attorney. Local councils charged a dollar initiation fee and three dollars annual dues, which went for legal expenses and mass distribution of leaflets, such as the "Tenants Bill of Rights." Among the most active were the Archer Avenue Consumer Committee and the Morrisania Consumer Coordinating Committee, which organized housewives in Fleetwood, the Grand Concourse, and Yankee Stadium areas, the Highbridge Consumers Council, and the tenant councils on Burnside Avenue, Gunhill Road, and Claremont, all areas of solid six-story, lower-middle-class buildings.
Behind many of these neighborhood leagues lay spontaneous outbreaks among tenants who had worried for months about their rights under the new federal rent law, then panicked with a sudden notice of eviction or blew up at a landlord's pompous message that his 15 percent increase would provide more security of tenure. The Bronx Home News reported numerous "spontaneous meetings" where "tenants banded together in many large apartment houses and defied threats by landlords to 'pay up or get out."' It did not take long for some tenant, either on his own or at the prompting of an outsider, to suggest that they take their landlord's "coercive" letter to the local rent office or the Bronx Emergency Council. A typical uprising saw one hundred tenants, mostly housewives, from 2100-2120 Wallace Avenue, jam the local OPA office to protest an abrupt notice of hardship increases. Actually, as one husband noted, "This thing's been smouldering for several years now." At 2100 Wallace the landlord had gradually cut concessions and skimped on heat, while next door he had the nerve to tell the mothers to keep their noisy kids out of the courtyards. "It was one grievance after another. But when we got those sudden notices from the OPA, we boiled over." Rent officials rushed to the trouble spot, making sure that local newspapers reported their rapid response. Bronx rent director Albert J. Haas, a political fixer one step ahead of the firestorm, quickly notified tenants that he would reopen the case and weigh their arguments. But just as rapidly on the scene were representatives of the Pelham Parkway Consumers Council. A few days later the ALP announced that negotiations with the landlord on Wallace Avenue were just one of several being handled by ALP volunteer attorneys.
Fears of evictions and hardship increases made the Bronx a political battleground, where Democrats, the ALP, and upstart Liberals contended for the allegiance of Jewish tenants, that crucial swing vote in the borough's multiple dwellings. At the outset, the ALP stole a march on the rent issue. In late 1946, the Parkchester ALP haunted subway exits with leaflets charging the Republicans with betraying tenants and put the incumbent GOP assemblyman on the defensive. Then, with a battery of volunteer attorneys, the Bronx County ALP inaugurated free legal services. The party kept up the pressure during the fall 1947 municipal elections, when ALP workers, canvasing apartment houses, distributed over one hundred thousand informational folders on tenant rights. But Bronx Democrats were not to be outdone. As part of its decisive break with the ALP and bitter campaign to defeat proportional representation, the county party threw open fourteen clubhouses to acquaint tenants with their rights. Bronx boss Ed Flynn personally marshaled the volunteer attorneys for clubhouse service. Competing Liberals responded with open-air, rent control rallies. By October they had also turned their clubhouses into legal centers, one at their Bronx headquarters at 2707 Wallace Avenue, another on Southern Boulevard, and the third astride the contested ground on East Tremont Avenue.
All these activities were a prelude to the all-out war in 1948 for the hearts and minds of Bronx tenants. On the eve of the Progressive party's presidential campaign for Henry Wallace, the New York World Telegram headlined that seven tenant and consumer councils, including those in Hunt's Point, Williamsbridge, the Stadium, Tremont, and the Concourse, were headquartered in local ALP storefronts placarded for Wallace. It reported widespread complaints against the radicals' high-pressure recruiting, which engendered feelings that "when a council representative moves in to organize an apartment house, [residents] have nowhere to turn." Their tactics touched off counterattacks by local Democrats and Liberals, some of them affiliated with the new, avowedly anti-Communist, Americans for Democratic Action. Liberals stepped up their Bronx rent struggle, leafleting, holding thirty outdoor rallies, and assembling a phalanx of volunteer lawyers at county and district headquarters. "We have been flooded with 'phone cells,' with individuals calling in person, and with delegations seeking such assistance," said Liberal party director Ben Davidson. Attacking the notion that the Communists were the only activists in the struggle against landlord claims, the Liberals' Rent Control Committee reported that federal officials granted rent increases "roughly the same as that awarded in the case of tenants 'protected' by the [ALP] councils. Yet, in relation to the legal work they provide, the councils charge exorbitant fees."
Among the Democrats, the Bronx Emergency Council, and their Liberal rivals, tenants could pick and choose their legal response to landlord "hardships" -- a thicket of redress that often constrained landlords, particularly small owners, who had trouble with the OPA forms and could not afford attorneys. Federal rent enforcers preferred to pursue cases against large realtors, particularly in projects where articulate tenants supplied compelling affidavits and where the rulings might have greater impact as class actions. But small operators often fell prey to strong tenant councils ready to pounce on "hardship" requests. One landlord blamed delays in his petition for a rent increase on "the tenants' committee, having access to all our books of accounts, through the [federal] Office of Rent Control have questioned every insignificant item of expenditure and income." Small owners in areas like Tremont faced formidable tenant leagues, armed with leaflet campaigns and weekly rent clinics. In February 1948 Bronx rent director Albert Haas admitted that borough tenants had generated some twenty-nine thousand complaints against landlord initiatives, 50 percent more than in Brooklyn, despite the latter's greater population. Bronx tenants had, in fact, held their landlords to one of the lowest percentages of "hardship" increases in the nation. During March 1948 the rate of approved applications ran 32 percent, compared to 45 percent citywide and a national average of 61 percent.
While postwar tenants wielded political clout in the rent offices and in city hall, that power rested on limited and shifting foundations. Despite widespread anxieties about OPA controls, tenant activism had remained a phenomenon of working- and middle-class Jewish neighborhoods. The Bronx bastions were those sections that the tenant and consumer councils had closed down on their Buy Nothing Days in July 1946: Tremont Avenue, 174th Street, Southern Boulevard and Prospect Avenue, the Allerton Avenue area, and 167th and 169th streets east of Grand Concourse. No extensive outbreaks occurred in the growing black ghetto in Morrisania or in the Puerto Rican barrio emerging in Mott Haven and Melrose. In Harlem the level of tenant protest appeared to have declined since the seasons of agitation led by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and the National Negro Congress in 1942. Brooklyn told much the same story. Few signs of organized protest appeared in the emerging black ghetto in Brownsville and Bedford-Stuyvesant compared to the anger against arbitrary rent increases and apartments withheld from the rental market in white, lower-middle-class neighborhoods on their periphery.
What passed for a tenant "movement" also depended to a great degree on the organizational finesse and shifting priorities of neighborhood radicals. Just as Communist united-front goals appeared to have dictated the 1942 dissolution of aggressive tenant councils, so evidence points to a reverse strategy behind the blossoming of the tenant and consumer councils during 1946. Certainly, ALP and Communist clubs gave coherence to the sometimes formless anger in the neighborhoods. But the rage of the depression was gone. Baby carriage parades and Buy Nothing Days were the acts of exasperated consumers quite satisfied to hang on to their lower-middle-class standards, if only the politicians would have let them. A half decade of OPA bureaucracy had also taken the bite out of many local tenant groups. They had lost whatever gumption they once had to physically challenge landlords and the police; it seemed pointless in any case. Processing rent forms was more effective and far more respectable among middle-class radicals still cultivating the united-front sensibilities of liberal Democrats. The danger, of course, remained that with this growing efficiency at forwarding rent-reduction forms to borough offices, radical tenant councils would become just another voluntary social welfare agency, like the settlement house, the institutional church, or the political clubhouse -- effective at helping individuals in distress but without the power to stir collective action for basic social change.
With the end of the "hardship" crisis and the establishment of complaint routines at the housing expeditor, tenant council strength eroded rapidly. At the City-Wide Tenants Council's old bastions -- the limited dividends and public housing projects -- tenant consciousness encountered the ironic perils of upward mobility. In Long Island City's Sunnyside Gardens, affluent renters had to decide whether to buck the Gardens Tenant Association and purchase the townhouses being converted by a speculator. Despite great acrimony, the private sales went on. At Knickerbocker Village and Hillside Gardens in the Bronx, rising incomes had forced many occupants beyond the income-eligibility limits that the state established years before for these limited-dividend projects. Management seized the opportunity in 1947 to get rid of affluent -- and troublesome -- dissenters and put the old tenant councils on the defensive. As in 1934, the Knickerbocker Village Tenants Association tried to enlist the sympathies of city housing reformers, but this time the middle-class leadership at Knickerbocker Village could not convince liberal Democrats that the state should continue to subsidize the patently nonpoor.
At the same time, a greater challenge faced the toughest tenant cadre in the city -- the project councils of the New York City Housing Authority. During the winter of 1946-1947, the Housing Authority began what it called an "intensive drive to clear the projects of ineligible tenants" whose incomes had risen over the ceiling set in 1943. The Queensbridge Tenants League abruptly renewed its adversary role as spearhead of a new Inter-Project Tenants Council, comprised of tenant leaders from Queensbridge, Red Hook, Fort Greene, and Williamsburg. With leaflets and placards that warned, IF YOUR FAMILY INCOME IS $2355 A YEAR OR OVER YOUR TURN IS COMING!" the Inter-Project mobilized tenants and maneuvered to stave off evictions. When the Housing Authority finally claimed that federal dictates had tied its hands and would force the removal of three thousand affected tenants, the Queensbridge Tenants League wondered where these families could go: "These prospective evictees are occupying low-income houses through no fault of their own -- but rather due to the critical housing situation. Limited dividend apartments are not only insufficient to meet the demand, but are also out of reach for many people whose incomes are just over the amount permitted in low-income housing. Homes are offered for sale at exorbitant prices -- their quality is notoriously inferior. No one likes to make a bad investment." Management replied by emphasizing its first responsibility to the "many thousands" of low-income families on Housing Authority waiting lists, then divulged to the newspapers that 2,953 families in ten projects earned more than the $3,000 ceiling.
The project leagues continued to present plausible alternatives, such as exempting the wages of secondary earners, veterans benefits, and disability pensions; but they were steadily losing moral influence in a city impatient to move ahead with expensive public improvements. At Queensbridge, Red Hook, Fort Greene, and Williamsburg, managers curtailed the leagues' use of community rooms, particularly for Wallace presidential rallies in 1948. Meanwhile, the Housing Authority, documenting its case against excess tenant income, counted 438 such families at Red Hook, 514 at Williamsburg, and 736 at Queensbridge, the centers of white, radical protest. In early 1949 a "program of mass evictions" got underway. Ninety-day vacate notices were sent to excess-income families, with suggestions that they consider rental or purchase of middle-income shelter in new developments, such as Fresh Meadows or Hollis Gardens in Queens. The Inter-Project Council demanded that Mayor William O'Dwyer declare a housing emergency and an immediate halt to evictions. But the council implicitly undermined its working-class rhetoric by pursuit of a transfer policy that would have given these tenants priority on the waiting lists of the Housing Authority's middle-income garden apartments or of Stuyvesant Town, Jim Crow and all. While public housing radicals later blamed their dwindling forces on the Truman administration's witch hunts in the projects, the radicals were clearly losing ground to the affluence that had lifted many tenant supporters out of public housing well before their ranks were purged. In reality, the Queensbridge Tenants League had become a mere letterhead years before its name was added to the attorney general's "list" of "subversive" organizations.
Postwar prosperity and middle-income housing developments undermined the tenant's movement everywhere. As working-class and lower-middle-class Jews experienced upward mobility, tenant agitation switched from the Lower East Side, Chelsea, Morrisania, and Brownsville to the Upper West Side and Yorkville, the Grand Concourse-Tremont neighborhoods in the central Bronx, and Rego Park in middle Queens, where it expired in an alien environment of quasi-suburban garden apartments, whose families withdrew to the pre-occupations of child rearing. These were difficult places to stir tenant consciousness, let alone organize a tenant union.
The movement never balanced this lost strength on the Lower East Side, Yorkville, and Chelsea with new recruits from black and Hispanic Harlem or the emerging ghettoes of Brownsville, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Morrisania. A few organizational forays into the black community were the work of the ALP and Communists, although they left the South Bronx and Bedford-Stuyvesant untouched until the all-out political canvas in 1948. Whenever they tried, however, they ran up against strong counter/rends, especially the enormous safety valve on tenant discontent provided by public housing. In East Harlem, for instance, Congressman Marcantonio's office expedited the applications for Housing Authority apartments for some nine hundred constituents in the last half of 1949, and nearly three thousand more during 1950. At the same time, the postwar fair-housing movement deflated the tenant councils' appear to Harlem's middle class. Thanks to the Brown-Sharkey-Isaacs antidiscrimination law and activists on the New York State Committee on Discrimination, blacks once limited to the segregated Paul Lawrence Dunbar or Riverton Houses could consider "interracial" housing on the edge of Harlem and in the "open" suburbs beyond. Before the war, Walter White and Roy Wilkins of the NAACP helped organize their Colonial Park Apartments, while Communist city councilman Benjamin H. Davis boasted that he had made his residence a unit of the Consolidated Tenants League. In 1950 one of the fifteen blacks admitted to Long Island City's Queensview Co-ops was NAACP leader Henry Lee Moon, whose The Negro Balance of Power described the concentration of the black vote in key northern ghettoes. Councilman Davis was unseated in a watershed postwar election by black Democrat Earl Brown, who later moved into Morningside Gardens, another interracial co-op.
Despite the narrow neighborhood base and the loss of rent bargaining to federal bureaus -- or perhaps because of these trends -- the organized remnant poured its remaining energies into rent control politics. This amounted to a series of adroit publicity events designed to preempt liberal efforts to determine the contours of federal decontrol. Tenant radicals were remarkably successful in derailing plans for gradual decontrol and in placing their own demands for rent protection on the public agenda. But their tactics remained limited, defensive ploys that failed to wrest authority over rent control away from the housing reformers, liberal realtors, and their academic allies, who formed the coalition favoring the gradual, but determined, restoration of market rents.
Radicals hinged their campaign on the Housing and Rent Act of 1947, which authorized governors to suggest nominees for the Rent Control Advisory Boards that would propose the scope and pace of local decontrol to the housing expeditor. When Governor Thomas E. Dewey suggested Democrat Joseph B. McGoldrick to head the New York City board, composed of Republicans prominent in real estate and civic endeavors, the Emergency Committee on Rent and Housing (ECRH), the ALP, Progressive Citizens of America, United Harlem Tenants League, National Lawyers Guild, and Greater New York CIO Council all howled against Dewey's failure to name tenants or workers. Such denunciations forced the McGoldrick board, which favored deliberate, phased decontrol, not to urge the outright dismantling of federal rent protection in the New York area. With the ECRH and some 140 other tenant and building councils on constant watch, the state legislature, prodded by the governor and Mayor O'Dwyer, overwhelmingly validated the city council's eviction controls. Throughout early 1948, the ECRH badgered the McGoldrick board to clear its backlog of tenant complaints and lobbied with the housing expeditor for assurances that local rent boards would seat tenant representatives. Even during the disastrous Wallace presidential campaign, the New York Tenant Councils, the ALP's vehicle to enroll apartment dwellers for Wallace, peppered O'Dwyer and Dewey with demands for two-year, statewide controls, a rollback of all rents to 1947, and a procedural thicket against further "hardship" increases.
Governor Dewey somehow managed to placate these demands, while acceding to the fierce realtors' lobby. In late 1949, with the New York Tenant Councils calling for standby state protection and liberal voices like Charles Abrams, the Regional Plan Association, and the United Neighborhood Houses urging a statewide takeover, Governor Dewey convened a legislative fact-finding commission to investigate the role of controls during the housing emergency. Tenant radicals, poised for downstate hearings and city hall vigils, presented witnesses who vented the popular distrust of the housing expeditor and the preference for staunch local authority. The New York Tenant Councils demanded a city administrative commission with bona fide tenant representation, procedures for tenant rebuttal evidence, and a flat prohibition against rent increases in buildings with Multiple Dwellings Law violations. Political realities and GOP patronage needs, however, made a statewide board inevitable. Governor Dewey's bill established a state rent commission and favored landlords with a generous March 1, 1950, freeze date and rent comparability formulas, but balanced this with a six-month moratorium on rent increases to enable McGoldrick, the new state rent administrator, to conduct a scientific study of the rental market. Having finessed this solution to spiraling rents, Governor Dewey expected an easy reelection.
In a series of maneuvers, tenant radicals still attempted to dominate the rent issue. They initiated lawsuits (cosponsored by the New York Tenant Councils and former congressman Leo Isaacson) to uphold the city's eviction laws. Paul L. Ross, chairman of the New York Tenant Councils and the Committee to End Discrimination in Stuyvesant Town, entered the 1950 mayoral race as the rent payer's champion, running a left wing populist campaign against Mayor O'Dwyer's flagrant machine politics and Robert Moses's alleged deals with real estate cronies. The ALP stalked McGoldrick board hearings around the state, with dire warnings of sellouts to landlords, and managed to turn one Manhattan hearing into a marathon of invective. While McGoldrick denounced attempts "by disruptive elements to inflame the public," he had no choice but to emphasize that any rent increases would affect only a small number of "hardship" cases. Nevertheless, as the city's foremost student of scientific property earnings, McGoldrick sent recommendations to the legislature that pegged rent increases to a fixed return on capital investment. He also favored negotiated, voluntary 15 percent rent increases and wider grounds for eviction, particularly for landlords planning to subdivide apartments. The Dewey-McGoldrick package -- the state commission, fixed-return formula, and voluntary 15 percent increases -- became the new staple of state controls.
While controversy embroiled different aspects of state rent control, the Dewey-McGoldrick system proved durable over the next decade. During the debates over revision in spring 1953, housing liberals on the influential Citizens Housing and Planning Council were disturbed by McGoldrick's inadequate 4 percent return on assessed values. They favored a 15 percent rent "catch-up" for tenants who had not paid any increase since 1947, while the Metropolitan Fair Rent Committee argued for an across-the-board 20 percent. The legislature's Temporary State Commission to Study Rents favored renewal with an increased net-return formula, vacancy decontrol, and an exemption on luxury apartments. Although tenant radicals railed against this "open capitulation to landlords," Governor Dewey signed the two-year extension, which granted a 15 percent "equalization" adjustment and increased the net annual return for "hardships" from 4 to 6 percent. Subsequent Democratic leaders ventured no major changes on Dewey's handiwork. Robert F. Wagner, Jr., the Manhattan Democrat who success fully campaigned for mayor in 1953 by attacking Dewey's "rent gouging," was shrewd enough not to take over the rent program when the Democratic legislature offered the city a local-control option. When liberal Democrat W. Averell Harriman succeeded Dewey as governor in 1955, he appointed Charles Abrams as state rent administrator, a move popular with tenant groups from the Village, the Lower East Side, and Yorkville. But it was Abrams who directed the state's series of market-rent studies that eventually provided the rationale for the systematic lifting of selected controls.
During this heyday of liberal Democratic rent control, the old American Labor party neighborhood clubs, where they survived at all, perfected their tenant work amid competition from nearby settlements and Reform Democratic clubs. Tenant radicals had slipped into conservative, safe rent advisement not much different from social casework. Whether in Chelsea or Yorkville, ALP storefronts and their subsidiary councils were practicing rent advisement and the expediting of individual rent claims with federal and state offices, thus becoming veritable extension agents of the rent control system. Rarely did the councils venture outside the system -- and withhold rent. As a mild sort of intimidation connected with rent-decrease petitions pending at the state rent office, Esther Rand's East Side Tenants Union occasionally encouraged tenants to hand their rent checks collectively to a tenant council officer. Not a single instance of rent withholding appears in all the extensive tenant work performed by Marcantonio's ALP clubhouse; nor is there evidence that ALP clubs in Chelsea or Yorkville departed in any significant way from this caution. Tenant radicals had ended up as deputies of the liberal status quo. Desperate to distinguish their services, they had little choice but to shuffle rent-reduction forms faster than the Reform Democrats were doing down the block.
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