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5. Tenant Responses to the Urban Housing Crisis, 1970-1984

Ronald Lawson with the assistance of Reuben B. Johnson III

A Watershed for the Tenant Movement, 1970 - 1975

The early 1970s represented a watershed for the tenant movement in New York City. Dramatic changes in the housing market and legislative climate presented the movement with new challenges and opportunities. First, severe decay and abandonment of the housing stock increased sharply in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Second, the system of rent regulations, the central features of which had been in place since 1943, was suddenly challenged and undermined: a law enacted by the state legislature in 1971 provided that the bulk of apartments with regulated rents would be decontrolled within a few years, while a measure passed by the city council the previous year introduced annual rent increases for apartments while they remained rent controlled. Third, the threat of tenant displacement took on new forms. In the neighborhoods of the poor the culprit was the many faces of abandonment: fires, absent services, unsafe buildings, the stripping of pipes and appliances from vacant apartments. For tenants of stable working-class and lower-middle-class neighborhoods the threats were gentrification, manifested in evictions to make way for luxury redevelopment and "brownstoning," and hospital expansion. And for tenants of desirable buildings, the threats took the form of two landlord strategies: cooperative conversions with the eviction of non-purchasing tenants, and "encouraging" tenants with rent-regulated apartments to move so that rents could be decontrolled under the new legislation and then raised sharply.[1]

Tenants responded to the new conditions with a sustained upsurge of organizing. The sources of this were diverse and often far removed from the Old Left-dominated constellation surrounding the Metropolitan Council on Housing (Met Council). Groups with church ties often initiated efforts to combat abandonment or to stem white flight and reverse incipient decay. Middle-income tenants, frequently veterans of the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s, formed tenant organizations on their own: some took leadership when their buildings faced problems; others, New Left activists seeking a long-term constituency, were attracted to a movement where the basic organizing unit was the building where members lived. Politically ambitious persons also organized tenants once the potential of the movement for building a constituency was revealed. By 1973 eighty-three neighborhood tenant organizations existed in New York City, sixty-seven of which had been founded since 1969. Over one hundred service centers funded by the federal Office of Economic Opportunity also purportedly engaged in tenant organizing. A broader spectrum of tenants became active in the movement: the abandonment issue attracted the poor and members of racial minorities, while the threat of displacement and rent increases drew both working- and middle-class tenants. A clear majority of the activists in all segments, especially at the grass roots, continued to be women. Together this constituency had considerable political potential, for 75 percent of the city's population were tenants.

New issues also bred new strategies. Low-income tenants began taking control of abandoned buildings, rehabilitating them, and owning them jointly as cooperatives. Other tenant organizations began to intervene directly in the political process, where they drafted and lobbied for legislation, held legislators to account for their actions, and supported candidates, including, occasionally, tenant leaders running for office themselves. Meanwhile, the traditional strategy of the movement, the rent strike, was also evolving new forms.

Rent Regulations and the Politicization of the Movement

Since New York City's rent control law was originally enacted to meet an "emergency," it included a "sunset clause," meaning that the law would lapse if a continuing emergency were not affirmed and the law extended -- usually every three years. In the late 1960s, leaders of the real estate industry came to regard the next extension by the city council, which was due by March 1970, as an opportunity to seek the passage of amendments that would weaken the rent control system. Spurred by the rising costs associated with the inflation accompanying the Vietnam War and a sharp drop in the vacancy rate from 3.2 percent to 1.2 percent between 1965 and 1968, real estate leaders launched their campaign.

Jason Nathan, the administrator of Mayor Lindsay's new Housing and Development Administration, was sympathetic to the contention that the rent system was causing rents to lag behind cost increases. Consequently, he contracted for studies to assess the impact of controls on the rental housing industry and to derive a cost-driven formula to set and adjust rents within the framework of rent controls. A Rand Corporation study found that housing abandonment had increased sharply in New York City during the second half of the decade, with an average of 38,000 units per year being abandoned as compared with 15,000 between 1960 and 1964. Moreover, while the inventory of "sound" housing had grown by 2 percent between 1960 and 1967, "dilapidated" housing climbed by 44 percent, and "deteriorating" housing by 37 percent. The study blamed housing decay to a large extent upon a "rent gap" between the controlled rents landlords received and the "economic rents" necessary for them to maintain their buildings adequately. A second study, by George Sternlieb of Rutgers University, also argued that rent control indirectly discouraged maintenance and capital improvements by reducing property values.[2]

These studies convinced city officials that rent control led to abandonment. Consequently, the Lindsay administration extended the rent control legislation, but then introduced a series of modifications to it known as the Maximum Base Rent (MBR) system, which became law in July 1970. This system used a formula to establish an "economic rent" for each apartment, which, because it was usually much higher than prevailing rent levels, was to be phased in gradually, with an initial across-the-board increase of 15 percent followed by 7.5 percent annually as long as the landlord was maintaining his building and providing services. The addition of annual increases to the rent control system, where 15 percent increases on turnover had previously been the chief source of rent escalation, was a considerable change.

The new law affected a large constituency: 1.3 million apartments were covered by rent control. In its newsletter for October-November 1969, Met Council had begun to warn its affiliates of possible attacks on rent control. However, apart from statements against changes at the city council hearings on the extension of the rent control law, there was little activity by tenant organizations to protect rent control during the crucial months early in 1970. The position against modifications found little support, even among tenants who would be affected by them. In a poll instigated by the city administration, Louis Harris and Associates found that 37 percent of rent-controlled tenants living in transitional areas thought rent hikes to cover increases in landlords' maintenance costs were "fair," while 35 percent thought they were "unfair" and 28 percent had "no opinion."[3] Only a few Reform Democrat and Liberal council members opposed the changes, and even they did not work closely with organized tenants. In the end the MBR law passed 27 to 10, with the New York Times lauding the majority.[4]

The tenant response to these changes in rent regulations was shaped largely by the internal dynamics of Met Council. Many of the new neighborhood organizations were not affiliated, and their isolation and inexperience limited their ability to operate in the political arena. Met Council, on the other hand, politically active throughout most of the 1960s, sent large delegations and key leaders to lobby in Albany and published a regular column by Frances Goldin in its paper, Tenant News, that detailed its political plans. During this time, Met Council had built an image of representing a broad coalition, with key politicians, planners, and lawyers taking part in its annual conferences.[5] However, toward the end of the 1960s it had become pessimistic about the effectiveness of working through the political system and became more isolated and politically sectarian. In 1968 it announced that it would no longer endorse political candidates and signified disillusionment with political lobbying. Expressing support for civil disobedience, it reactivated its interest in the rent strike strategy and set out to develop a new form of strike to replace the section 755 form dominant since the Harlem strikes of 1963- 1964. Early in 1970, Lester Evens and Richard Levenson, activist lawyers close to Met Council, devised the "rolling rent strike," under which strikers, refusing to place their rents in escrow, preferred, if necessary, to pay the landlord and then withhold their rents again the next month. The object was to force direct negotiations between tenants and landlords through lengthy court fights and fear of the tenants "skipping" with the rents in their possession. Several experiments with such strikes demonstrated that this form greatly boosted the independence and bargaining power of the strikers while attracting new activists to Met Council, especially veterans of the movements of the 1960s.[6]

Consequently, Met Council responded to the passage of the MBR law by calling for a citywide rent strike to protest the plan: "Do not count on legislators. Take matters into your own hands." On August 1, the day on which the 15 percent across-the-board rent increase took effect, Met Council renewed this call and began a Tenant Strike Campaign. With Met Council in the lead, tenant organizations in many sections of the city set out to organize strikes.[7] Tenant leaders thus reacted much more strongly once the increased rent bills were in hand than they had done in prospect. Nevertheless, while the campaign led to strikes in several dozen buildings, it never gained the momentum of a citywide strike and consequently had almost no impact on the legislative process. When, at the end of 1971, Met Council reviewed the strike and summarized the experiences of forty striking buildings, the focus of the story was on victories over individual landlords rather than clout with legislators.[8]

The only political opposition to the implementation of the MBR system came from the New Democratic Coalition, the reform wing of the New York Democratic party. In January 1971, under the leadership of Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, Reform Democrat political clubs began a campaign to collect signatures so that an MBR repeal referendum could be added to the election ballot. Tenant organizations participated actively in circulating petitions. The drive, however, aroused strong opposition from other sectors of the Democratic party, civic groups, the news media, and the Lindsay administration. The New York Times denounced "demagogy on the rent front"; Commissioner of Rent and Housing Maintenance Benjamin Altman called the effort "irresponsible."[9] Ironically, this support from the Reform Democrats proved harmful to the tenant cause because it gave anti-rent-control forces "proof" that no New York City administration could ever administer rent control fairly or implement modifications in the law because "irresponsible" politicians and the huge bloc of tenant votes would eventually combine to repeal any changes.

This argument was used by Governor Rockefeller during the 1971 session of the New York State legislature to support a drastic reversal of the state's policy of allowing New York City home rule in rent matters. In proposing this change, Rockefeller cited the rapid deterioration of housing in New York City and said the laws were needed to provide incentives for private interests to begin the construction of new housing that would ease the housing shortage. One of the bills in the package removed rent regulations (both rent control and rent stabilization) entirely from apartments as they were vacated by their tenants ("vacancy decontrol"), while another prohibited New York City from imposing "stricter" rent regulations than those then in effect.[10]

Because of the speed with which these laws were introduced and passed, there was little time to organize opposition to them. Tenant organizations were caught off guard and put up even less opposition than they had against MBR. The only concrete action taken within the tenant movement was the calling of a citywide conference to organize a mass rent strike, which was endorsed by Met Council, the East Harlem Tenants Council, and Jesse Gray's Harlem Tenants Union. Met Council's Tenant had the following advice concerning efforts to apply political pressure: "While pressure should be kept on city legislators, there is not much influence a New York City voter can have on the State Senator from Canandaigua. Met Council has been on too many fruitless Albany trips in the past." [11] The calling of a mass rent strike was wishful thinking on the part of tenant leaders, for the tenant movement was without the necessary networks and had to organize buildings one by one.

The strongest opposition to vacancy decontrol in fact came from the city of New York. The Lindsay administration bitterly resented both the loss of power in the abrogation of home rule provisions and the fact that Rockefeller's legislation was introduced before its MBR system had been given time to have visible effect. The New York Times and several social welfare and "good government" groups backed the city in its opposition.[12] Nevertheless, these forces failed to prevail over Governor Rockefeller and his real estate supporters.

The political events of 1970-1971 showed that neither alone nor with the assistance of powerful allies were tenant groups able to stop the erosion of protective laws that had been in effect for twenty-eight years. Politically, these events represented the nadir of the tenant movement. Moreover, because Rockefeller's laws moved the decision-making arena for rent issues from the city council to the state legislature, they made it much more difficult for the tenant movement in New York City to influence such issues in the future.

At the time of the MBR and vacancy decontrol battles, many of the neighborhood tenant organizations were new. For the most part they had little knowledge of other organizations concerned with similar problems. However, between 1971 and 1973 contact between these organizations increased and played a key part in building the strength of the tenant movement in New York.

The Lindsay administration took the lead in helping to establish these communication networks. In so doing it responded both to its own chagrin at the passage of Rockefeller's laws and to fears concerning their consequences. The vacancy decontrol law eliminated tenant rights that had become traditional in New York City, such as the right to a lease and to renew it at the tenant's discretion, the right to periodic painting, the obligation of the landlord to maintain essential services, and almost absolute protection against eviction unless the landlord could prove, in court, that the tenant was unjustifiably withholding rent or destroying property. Tenant leaders were especially fearful that the law would provide landlords with an irresistible incentive to harass tenants into moving out of rent-controlled apartments.

Benjamin Altman, Lindsay's commissioner of rent and housing maintenance, the man responsible for pushing through the MBR law, responded to the new state laws by calling a meeting of tenant leaders to form an umbrella organization that would protect tenants against landlord harassment by organizing them "landlord by landlord" and promoting rent strikes if necessary. "The aim is simple," said Altman, "we'll establish tenant power."[13] Altman invited thirty representatives of neighborhood organizations and antipoverty groups that worked with tenants to the first meeting of his Tenant Advisory Committee (TAC). Several uninvited groups also demanded to be included and were admitted. Met Council, on the other hand, refusing to have anything to do with the body, dubbed Altman's initiative, in view of his MBR role, "cynical" and denounced the participants: "Company unionism never pays!"[14]

However, the members of TAC proved to be neither pliant nor patient. Within a month, thirteen of them had endorsed a letter to Altman pressing ten demands, one of which was that the city back the move to repeal the MBR law. Calling the demand "irresponsible," Altman refused. A week later seventeen of the forty members, declaring that the committee "served no effective function," resigned.[15] Significantly, the dissidents were a mixed group of activists from organizations representing both middle-class and poor minority neighborhoods.

Prior to the formation of TAC, tenant activists had not been aware of the variety and profusion of tenant organizations in New York City. With the exception of the clusters affiliated with Met Council and the City-Wide Anti-Poverty Committee on Housing, a group of antipoverty agencies that occasionally met but rarely did anything collectively, tenant organizations seldom interacted. No one had previously taken the initiative to organize a grand coalition that brought together all the housing and tenant groups of the city.

The dissident groups plus some others continued to meet together after the dissolution of TAC to plan a joint attack on housing problems. In August 1971, twenty-five groups from four of New York City's five boroughs formed the Federation of New York Tenant Organizations, which shortly afterward presented a list of demands to Mayor Lindsay.[16] Rent regulation issues remained prominent because the Lindsay administration was seeking to have the rent levels in the city excluded from President Richard Nixon's phase I price control program, and thus to have the scheduled MBR increases take effect on January 1, 1972. Although the tenant lobbying was ultimately unsuccessful, the publicity given their campaign to freeze rents led them into contact with tenant organizations in three suburban counties and with the National Tenant Organization (NTO), whose constituency was made up primarily of public housing tenants and whose executive director was Jesse Gray.

Realizing that tenants now needed statewide political strength in order to secure favorable housing legislation for New York City, a few of the tenant leaders from the city began to plan the formation of a statewide tenant federation. The organizations most involved in this effort included the West Side Tenants Union, Met Council, and the Harlem Tenants Union (HTU) from New York City and organizations in Rockland County and Albany. With the exception of the HTU representative, all the main figures on the steering committee were white and middle class. However, the connection between HTU and NTO provided by Jesse Gray also gave the organizers good contacts with organizations in upstate public housing projects.

The meeting to create the state organization was set for January 15, 1972, in Albany. However, because of Gray's prominence in NTO and his plans to run for the state assembly later that year, he did not want an independent state tenant leadership. Consequently, despite the participation of HTU in months of planning, Gray arranged to pack the Albany conference with upstate public housing tenants, to overturn the planned agenda, and to have his own candidates elected to run the new organization, which was then left to lie dormant. The conference thus resulted in great bitterness and division rather than the formation of a unified organization and a common agenda of issues to present to state legislators during the 1972 session.[17]

Many tenants received an unexpected respite from the first annual 7.5 percent MBR rent increase -- due to take effect in New York City on January 1, 1972 -- because the city had great trouble setting up the information and computer systems that were to determine which buildings and apartments qualified for the increase. By the end of May the Housing and Development Administration (MDA) had issued only one-third of the expected one million MBR orders that were needed before landlords could increase rents. As a result, several landlord organizations petitioned the court to allow them to raise rents without the official orders, and Justice Paul Fino ruled in their favor. Consequently, six hundred thousand apartments were scheduled to receive 15 percent increases on July 1, and then the second annual 7.5 percent increase six months later. When the Lindsay administration chose not to appeal the decision but instead to issue "Interim MBR" orders that landlords could present to their tenants, tenant organizations from all over the city blasted the administration for allowing increases without requiring landlords to prove their buildings were without serious violations.[18]

Met Council reported that it was inundated with inquiries and requests for help from tenants. It did its best to counsel them, but did not take any action against the interim orders. However, two of the newer, more politically oriented neighborhood organizations, the West Side Tenants Union and Queens Presidents Council, each separately went to court to try to stop the orders. Although these cases ultimately failed, they illustrated the importance of the new organizations: unlike Met Council, which had little faith in the institutionalized channels of protest, the new organizations were more willing to work with politicians, to bargain and compromise when necessary, and to use political institutions, such as courts, to fight for tenant demands.[19] Meanwhile, other organizations were pressing a campaign among politicians to protest the abuses of the MBR system. By the end of August the list of politicians endorsing this drive totaled thirty-five.

The MBR protest campaign was interrupted by the elections of November 1972. Tenant leaders ran in four state legislative assembly districts and were successful in two: Jesse Gray won in Harlem and Frank Barbaro, chair of the Bensonhurst Tenants Council, in Brooklyn. Tenant organizations also targeted other legislators whom they regarded as enemies.[20] Early in 1973 John Dearie, president of the Parkchester Tenants Association in the Bronx, was also elected to the assembly in a special election. The presence of tenant leaders in the legislature represented a significant development.

The rent control law faced renewal once again by the city council in the spring of 1973. At the first hearing concerning the legislation, in December 1972, tenant groups demanded the repeal of MBR. However, MBR had powerful supporters: the Lindsay administration, real estate organizations, civic groups such as the Community Service Society, and the New York Times. The latter, criticizing those councilmen who supported repeal, said that their actions were motivated by the upcoming elections; it warned, moreover, that any attempt at repeal would be overruled in court since the city was now prohibited from imposing stricter rent regulations.[21] Tenant organizations, however, continued their campaign, and in March 1973, 130 activists signed a statement calling for the repeal of MBR. Despite differences in strategy between Met Council and some of the newer organizations, their combined pressure, in an election year and perhaps with a cynical eye on the likely court outcome, produced the astonishing result of the passage of MBR repeal by a 34 to 1 vote.

As the Times had predicted, the MBR repeal began a series of court appeals that eventually found the action of the city council illegal. Nevertheless, the vote reflected the growing political strength of the tenant movement. Organized tenants were no longer concentrated in Manhattan, but could now be found in almost every neighborhood of New York City -- middle income, blue collar, and poor; black, white, and Hispanic. No longer could the politicians from the outer boroughs look upon tenant activists as someone else's constituents.

Despite the growing strength of the movement, Met Council stood conspicuously apart from many of the newer organizations. In November 1972 it had purged its vice-chairman, Michael McKee, and eight other officers and board members, in an attempt to reassert centralized leadership by its Old Left faction.[22] Those resigning included most of the young, New Left-oriented members who had come to prominence as a result of the rent strike campaign and had occupied almost half the positions on the organization's executive board. In the face of the political defeats of 1970-1971 and the failure of the rent strike campaign to have a political impact, these young organizers had become restless and had attempted to move toward a stronger local focus with greater autonomy for their "organizing committees" in Brooklyn and Manhattan's Upper West Side. However, these moves were regarded with suspicion by the long-term leadership. They forced the new recruits out, only to watch them rise to leadership among the new, more legislatively oriented, tenant organizations.

The emergence of an effective tenant presence in the state legislature was triggered by the impact of vacancy decontrol on middle-income neighborhoods.[23] Testimony before a commission of inquiry headed by Assemblyman Andrew Stein confirmed that tenant fears, that the law would give landlords reason to "encourage" middle-income tenants to move in order to decontrol the rents of apartments in such neighborhoods, were being fulfilled.[24] Meanwhile, the construction of middle-income apartments, which had already declined sharply since the mid-1960s, was cut again by Nixon's freeze and changes in the policies of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). This in turn further strengthened the demand for housing and raised rents, especially in Manhattan.

As a result of these pressures on middle-income tenants, leaders of the new neighborhood organizations felt a need to establish a presence in Albany that would encourage legislators to strengthen rent regulations. Consequently, some of them made joint lobbying trips to Albany during the 1973 session of the state legislature, and toward the end of that year Michael Ehrmann, of the West Side Tenants Union, and Michael McKee, now of the new Brooklyn Tenants Union, established the New York State Tenants Legislative Coalition (NYSTLC). Although most of the original neighborhood organization members were from New York City, NYSTLC set out to act on its recognition that political strength in Albany depended on building suburban and upstate constituencies also. Strategically, it stressed "skilled" lobbying by a few informed leaders who would provide an ongoing presence in Albany and work with legislators there rather than Met Council's practice of taking a crowd of tenants to Albany on an annual protest.

The situation in Albany confronting NYSTLC during the legislative session of 1974 was changed dramatically by the resignation of Governor Rockefeller toward the end of 1973 and his replacement by Malcolm Wilson, who, though relatively unknown, had to face the voters a year later. Realizing that the vacancy decontrol law was a major source of disquiet among New York City tenants, Wilson took the unexpected step, for a Republican governor, of seeking the support of that constituency, and in so doing had his aides work closely with the leaders of the new federation.

Tenants gained considerably from the 1974 session. The Cooperative/ Condominium Fair Practices Act required that 35 percent of tenants purchase their apartments in order for a conversion plan that would evict non-buyers to go into effect. The "Langley Law" allowed upstate public housing tenants the right to elect up to two representatives to the governing boards of local housing authorities. The Preservation of Sound Housing Act made it more difficult for real estate developers to demolish economically profitable rent-controlled housing in order to erect new luxury buildings. Yet another successful bill limited the proportion of income paid by senior citizens in rents or, if they were homeowners, in property taxes. Ehrmann and the other NYSTLC stalwarts had drafted and lobbied actively for all these bills and had journeyed to the state capitol at least once a week to drum up support for them and to push them through the legislative process.

The NYSTLC constituency had a special interest in strengthening rent regulations. NYSTLC lobbyists were filled with secret jubilation toward the end of the session as they worked out an agreement with the governor's aides: indeed, Ehrmann was called by the head of the State Division of Housing and Community Renewal and asked to spend the whole of the last week of the session in Albany. However, when the agreement was revealed to the leaders of the state senate and assembly, they revolted and it unraveled. The result was a compromise law, the Emergency Tenant Protection Act (ETPA), which allowed the rents of decontrolled apartments to rise to market levels upon initial vacancy, but then limited further increases by placing them under the rent stabilization system. The law also extended rent stabilization to the suburban counties and gave all newly stabilized tenants the right to a lease and protection from arbitrary eviction.

During the 1975 session NYSTLC helped pass the Warranty of Habitability Law, a watershed in tenant protective legislation. Since the late 1960s, many politicians and "good government" groups had supported an "implied covenant" measure that would have required landlords to maintain their apartments in return for the rents they received; however, they were never able to get the bill passed. NYSTLC began to lobby for a similar, but more stringent, bill in 1974, and in 1975 it was enacted. This law transformed the lease, which had previously been one-sided in the obligations it created, to a contract with rent abatement penalties should landlords fail to provide necessary services or maintenance.

How can NYSTLC's extraordinary success in raising issues, defining the terms of legislative battles, and securing the passage of favorable legislation be explained, especially after the defeats suffered by tenants in 1970 and 1971? Until 1973, lobbying activity was restricted to Met Council, and its efforts in this respect had tended to be half-hearted. Its demands were also more radical than most elected officials would accept. Met Council would threaten and shout, but it rarely presented rational, informed arguments that legislators could understand or sustained pressure on them. The purpose of its lobbying pilgrimages seems to have been more to educate its members about the difficulty of making the system work than to secure legislative change: when nothing came of them, it used this to prove the futility of working within the political system. The emergence of NYSTLC and its more professional approach thus gave tenants a voice that was listened to in the state capitol for the first time in years. It was not content to protest and then hope that civic organizations or the city or state administration would devise a solution to tenant problems. It protested arid presented its own solutions, often in the form of draft legislation, arid participated in the formation of policy. Many legislators who had been alienated by the tactics of Met Council were receptive to NYSTLC, even though the demands of the two overlapped considerably. Moreover, NYSTLC gained credibility from the shrill presence of Met Council to its left, which made NYSTLC's demands seem reasonable, and from its statewide constituency. NYSTLC also had the advantage of operating in a more favorable political context -- Governor Rockefeller's withdrawal had created greater flexibility -- and of choosing legislation, such as the Warranty of Habitability and the Langley Law, that could be portrayed as so eminently reasonable that similar laws were being passed in other states.

Thus, by 1974 the tenant movement had developed the expertise to be its own advocate within the political process.

Coping with Abandonment: Tenant Control, Rehabilitation, and Ownership

When poor tenants were faced with the decay of their buildings and the disruption of services as the abandonment rate accelerated during the late 1960s, some, rather than suffering in silence until the situation became unbearable and then moving, turned to the central strategy of the tenant movement, the rent strike. However, many of those facing incipient abandonment did not achieve the results they hoped for from the withholding of their rents: rather than giving them the leverage to persuade their landlord to improve their living conditions, this strategy often hastened his exit, leaving the tenants still cold in winter but with a large collective bank account. By 1969-1970 some building organizations were responding pragmatically to this situation by spending the rents they had collected to buy oil and make urgent repairs. However, since the experienced leaders of tenant organizations -- notably those associated with Met Council -- initially regarded such tenant seizures of de facto control as too risky, this strategy was not fostered or publicized at that time.[25] Later, as experience in these isolated buildings taught movement leaders that tenants were not, through this strategy, inviting eviction, its use spread rapidly until, by the mid-1970s, it was the most common form of rent strike.

Meanwhile, several activist professionals -- priests and lawyers -- had suggested that one solution to the abandonment problem was to cede abandoned buildings to their tenants, thus creating low-income cooperatives. They raised the hope that owner occupancy could reverse decay and even curb the prevailing civil unrest by giving the poor and alienated a stake in the system. Some of these professionals, each originally acting in isolation, took the initiative in putting these ideas into action. The first low-income conversion to tenant ownership was initiated by a Harlem church in 1963; the second, sponsored by a lawyer, commenced in 1967; others followed rapidly.[26] At this point the concept attracted the attention of the city administration, and in mid-1969 Jason Nathan, HDA administrator, created an exploratory cooperative unit within the Office of Special Improvements (OSI) and staffed it with eight college interns -- but gave them no resources, budget, or support staff.

In February 1970 Robert Schur, a West Side lawyer who had been prominent in promoting the plan, was appointed head of OSI and, having secured the promise of a budget for the purpose, pledged to get a co-op program off the ground. Schur utilized the Municipal Loan Program, which had been designed by the city to help landlords rehabilitate their buildings, and the federal Model Cities Program, to provide loans to tenants for the purchase and rehabilitation of deteriorated buildings. This cost was to be paid off, at low or no interest, by the new tenant cooperators. The extent of rehabilitation was usually curtailed -- "moderate" rather than "gut" -- in order to limit costs and typically was restricted to the "major systems" -- plumbing, wiring, heating, the front door, and roof. All the co-ops were required by the city to incorporate as Housing Development Fund corporations,[27] which imposed income limitations. However, the majority did not take the second step of registering with the attorney general as formal cooperatives and thus avoided the costs of issuing a plan/prospectus and of allocating shares. Content to remain informal co-ops, they granted all tenant cooperators an equal vote at meetings. With Schur, able and committed, in command of an enthusiastic staff, the flow of would-be co-ops in the pipeline strengthened considerably.[28]

United Neighborhood Houses, a coalition of settlement houses, was so impressed by the potential of the low-income co-op movement that in 1971 it hired Robert Kolodny of Columbia University's Department of Urban Planning to map its development. Kolodny studied the movement at what turned out to be the time of its greatest expansion. By May 1973, when his report was finished, he listed 18 buildings that had completed the conversion process and 268 others that were at various stages in the pipeline. In many of the buildings entering the pipeline more recently, the tenants had already taken de facto control through the collective spending of their rents.[29]

The third strand of the evolving strategy of tenant ownership and control was the most dramatic of all: the rehabilitation of totally abandoned buildings by the would-be tenants themselves. The first examples of this strategy were initiated by a Catholic priest, Father Robert Fox of East Harlem, who, beginning in 1969, led a group of would-be tenants in the rehabilitation of two fire-damaged and derelict buildings on East 102d Street. This procedure, dubbed "sweat equity" by Schur because it allowed financially poor people to gain equity in buildings through their labor, attracted considerable attention from the media because of some of the groups involved -- a street gang, welfare mothers, teenagers. Initially most were Puerto Ricans; then blacks also "got a piece of the action." Those involved often formed local organizations that provided leadership for neighboring sweat equity projects. In other instances neighborhood organizations, such as Interfaith Adopt-a-Building, that were already organizing rent strikes began to sponsor sweat equity in vacant buildings. Once again Schur utilized the Municipal Loan Program to fund building materials and, often, low wages for the "sweaters." Behind the strategy lay dreams not only of owning good housing (this was gut rehabilitation, and in most instances architects redesigned building interiors), but also of securing job skills. Later projects included an explicit job-training component, funded by the Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA) program.

With the city's enactment of a new statute, Schur was able to beef up the hitherto small Receivership Program, which dated from the mid-1960s, from 15 to 250 buildings in a year. Under this program buildings with serious code violations could be taken from landlords before the buildings deteriorated too badly. Schur went on to experiment with granting management controls for such buildings to community organizations (mostly neighborhood tenant organizations), thus increasing the coterie of organizations involved in programs aimed at preserving decaying buildings. He saw this program as a major resource for co-op conversions -- it could preserve buildings while buying time to develop the unity and skills of the tenants.[30]

By transforming existing programs that had been created with housing developers and landlords in mind, Schur had built an eclectic co-op program upon the foundation laid in the first spontaneous, sporadic efforts.

However, it proved to be a difficult time to be launching low-income co-ops, for the process was fraught with delays, disruptions, and frustrations, which sapped the morale of the participants. The city itself was the source of most of these disruptions -- for two reasons:

First, the programs, being experimental, required flexibility, faith, and consistency from a complex city bureaucracy that proved inflexible, unbelieving, and capricious. Loan packaging often bogged down, and once construction was under way it frequently encountered delays in securing approvals of change orders and payment of requisitions.

Second, financial scandals and crises resulted in programs being suspended and their rules altered. The first of these was the Municipal Loan scandal,[31] which surfaced in 1971 and led to the suspension of the program. Despite the fact that corruption had been restricted to the private owners involved in the program, and thus the co-ops were not tainted, the scandal resulted in the suspension of loans to co-ops and the application of more stringent regulations to them once the program was resumed. These events made things much more difficult for the co-ops in the pipeline.[32]

Following the election of Mayor Abraham Beame in 1973, his appointment of Roger Starr as HDA administrator, and eventually the firing of Schur, the official climate became even less conducive to creating low-income co-ops. Finally, most of the funding programs collapsed altogether in September 1975 with the New York City financial crisis. A few of the many properties in the pipeline eventually made it to tenant ownership with the aid of the Association of Neighborhood Housing Developers (ANHD), a federation created in 1974 under the direction of Schur, and the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB), a technical assistance unit fostered by the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Most, however, were stillborn: of the 286 formed or would-be low-income co-ops in 1973, only 48 were eventually completed.[33]

Factors internal to the co-ops also compounded the difficulties of these programs. Many of the sponsors were themselves inexperienced and consequently inefficient. All sweat equity projects had at least some degree of conflict among the would-be tenants, conflicts caused, for example, by differentials in the amount of work, or "sweat," put into the building. And in a few cases friction between the contractors responsible for moderate rehabilitation and the tenants became so acute that it disrupted progress because tenants denied the contractors access to their apartments.

Delays caused overruns, sapped fragile tenant morale, and, where they interfered with employment, resulted in rent arrears. They also caused arrears in debt service payments, for loan agreements set the dates for debt service to begin and these dates passed with sweaters still working on incomplete buildings and moderate rehabilitation properties still partly empty because vacant apartments were not yet available for rent. For many of the young cooperatives, these problems marred what was otherwise an exciting, innovative approach.

One of the directions successfully pursued by ANHD was the expansion of Schur's experiment under which HDA contracted with neighborhood organizations to manage buildings that had previously been managed centrally by HDA. This approach was institutionalized as the Community Management Program. ANHD saw such a procedure as helping to stabilize its affiliates by giving them a steady income through management fees and staff lines, as producing better, more sensitive management, and as preparing the buildings, through moderate rehabilitation under the program and the development of leadership among the tenants, to become tenant owned.

Met Council criticized initiatives leading to tenant ownership because it regarded them as governmental endeavors to escape responsibility and as leading to the cooptation of the tenant movement through involvement in programs and dependence on external funding. However, Met Council found that organizing in the most decayed neighborhoods, where the withdrawal of landlords often left tenants in de facto control of their buildings but without either sufficient income to make them habitable or the authority to discipline tenants who failed to contribute their rents, was an overwhelming drain on its organizers. Symbolizing a strategic change, it moved the site of its Bronx branch from Morris Heights, where it had been in the midst of rampant abandonment, to a more stable neighborhood near Fordham Road. It thus largely conceded the tenants facing advanced decay to the affiliates of ANHD.

The Fear of Displacement

At the beginning of the 1970s, several different sources of displacement threatened tenants in various sections of New York City. Although the diversity of the sources made it difficult for those threatened to join together defensively, the expansion of the tenant movement as a whole enabled these groups of tenants to be more successful at finding allies and strategies than were the earlier victims of government-sponsored urban renewal, who had tended to organize late and in isolation.

The 1970s began with the last major echo of earlier disputes over urban renewal. Many buildings on Manhattan's Upper West Side had been cleared of their predominantly poor and working-class tenants during the 1960s to make way for redevelopment. However, the continued presence of a large amount of vacant, sound housing awaiting demolition, in a most desirable area, was an affront to poor tenants seeking housing in an extremely tight market. Consequently, some of them, entering at night, took possession of buildings, fixed them up as necessary, and fortified them. When their actions received media publicity, other groups of tenants emulated them and organizers from Met Council came to help spread the idea further.[34]

The city found the squatters more difficult to remove than it expected. Eviction required force, which created unfortunate media images, and squatters often returned to the same or neighboring buildings. The city's response was to damage the buildings considerably during the eviction process, so that they could not be reoccupied, and to speed up the demolition timetable.

One result of the short-lived squatter movement was that some of the most persistent squatters were offered a long-abandoned city-owned building near the urban renewal site. This eight-unit building became the first sweat equity project to be completed and a major inspiration to others because of the quality of its gut rehabilitation and the fact that the bulk of the work was done by two welfare mothers.

A new source of displacement grew out of a decision by the state administration during the second half of the 1960s to begin making long-term low-interest mortgage funds available for hospital expansion. New York City hospitals began, without publicity, to buy up surrounding buildings and to draw up plans for new wings, staff housing, parking lots, and buffer zones to separate them from poor communities. Typically, relocation companies were hired as building managers with the express purpose of emptying the buildings so that they could be torn down.

In some instances the tenants went passively, such as those in the way of the expansion of the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary in Manhattan's East Village. But other hospitals found their tenants organizing against them. As some of these organizations gained publicity, the various groups found out about one another, built networks, encouraged other groups of threatened tenants to organize, and eventually formed their own federation, Citywide Save-Our-Homes Committee. By 1972- 1973 its members included tenants organized against the expansion of Columbia-Presbyterian, Mount Sinai, Beth Israel, Columbus, and St. Claire's hospitals in Manhattan and Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn.

The driving force behind this federation was Harriet Putterman, who had been galvanized into action to oppose the plans of Columbus Hospital, which had already demolished other buildings to make way for a new wing, to take the forty-eight-unit double building in which she lived and replace it with a parking lot for twenty-seven cars. The relocation company persuaded over half of the tenants to move within months, but by that time the ties between the other tenants had cemented, and they survived a standoff that lasted from 1970 through 1976. During much of this time the tenants kept the hospital off balance, with strategies that included a suit that would have blocked the state loan for the new wing and, later, a counter-dedication featuring the activist priests, Daniel and Phillip Berrigan, timed to coincide with Cardinal Terrence Cooke's dedication of that wing. These strategies won for the tenants the scuttling of the planned parking lot and an agreement guaranteeing them tenancy for life.[35]

Not all of the members of Citywide Save-Our-Homes Committee were so successful. For example, when some of the leaders of the tenant organization confronting Methodist Hospital accepted individual deals from the hospital, the organization collapsed and the housing it was defending was demolished. The threat of hospital expansion diminished with the state's financial crises of the mid-1970s, and the federation and most of its constituent groups faded away.

Tenants threatened with displacement for luxury redevelopment had an even more difficult time because developers and speculators were much less vulnerable to adverse publicity than either the city or religiously affiliated not-for-profit hospitals, and the proposed sites tended to be more scattered. Nevertheless, a major focus for redevelopment during this period was Manhattan's Upper East Side between First and Third avenues, where activists formed Tenants against Demolition (TAD). Their strategy was again to build networks, to prevent individual contacts with the landlord, to refuse to discuss monetary offers to move, and to seek to harass the landlord through negative publicity or picketing his home or office. The goal was to create delays that would cost the landlord so much that he would eventually cut his losses and give up his plans. The landlord of the building in which the fiery president of TAD, Connie Adamec, was a tenant so overextended himself financially through a long and bitter struggle that he eventually sold the building cheaply to the tenants. In spite of the encouragement and skills imparted by TAD to the tenants of many buildings, most confrontations did not end so well for the tenants because of the resources behind most developers. Because of this frustration, TAD became a founding member of NYSTLC and thus secured wider backing for a bill that would make it more difficult for landlords to demolish housing that was running profitably. Although their Preservation of Sound Housing Act became law in 1974, the recession and municipal financial crisis were probably more important in relieving the threat of eviction at that time.

Co-op conversion represented another threat to tenants. At the end of the 1960s landlords began to realize that by converting rental buildings to cooperatives they could circumvent the restrictions on profit imposed through rent regulations and make much more than they would by selling a building to another landlord. Almost all of the early conversion plans allowed for the eviction of non-buyers once the plan was declared effective by the attorney general. Although there were usually substantial numbers of tenants who were unable or unwilling to buy, they could do little because of the absence of protective regulations. Politicians took little interest in the matter initially because the number of conversions was relatively small and these were restricted to a few electoral districts.

In 1972, however, New York City's largest landlord, Harry Helmsley, released a plan to convert the first quadrant of Parkchester, an extensive development in the Bronx. Since this was not highly prized Manhattan real estate, his was a noneviction plan, leaving in place those tenants who did not buy. This provision did not hush the protests, but the plan was nevertheless consummated the next year. Meanwhile, the remaining quadrants of Parkchester, expecting the other shoe to drop, formed a strong organization and then strengthened their influence when their leader, John Dearie, was elected to the state assembly in 1973. During that year rumors circulated that Helmsley was also planning to convert two other large developments: Tudor City in Manhattan and Fresh Meadows in Queens. Both developments formed strong tenant organizations that attracted the attention of their local legislators. All three of the Helmsley development tenant organizations became founding members of NYSTLC, where they made common cause with the West Side Tenants Union and tenant organizations from suburban Westchester County, which were also trying to cope with several local conversion packages. As a result of their concerns, NYSTLC gave high priority to lobbying for legislation that would help protect tenants in buildings where eviction plans were launched. The result was the passage in 1974 of legislation that prevented an eviction plan from being declared effective unless 35 percent of the tenants had bought their apartments.

By the mid-1970s the recession and financial crisis were causing the demand for cooperative apartments to fall sharply. Consequently, the number of conversion plans also declined significantly. Thus, economic forces aided tenants in shaping the initial wave of displacements during the 1970s. Only the threat of abandonment continued unabated at mid-decade.

The Evolving Rent Strike

As the tenant movement grew more diverse in the early 1970s, the rent strike became a far more flexible and effective tool. For the first time multiple forms of strike were used concurrently as organizations shaped the strategy to meet the particular housing problems and ideological and stylistic preferences of their local members.[36]

As we have seen, simply withholding rent, whether via a section 755 action or a rolling rent strike, was ineffectual with a landlord who was no longer committed to his building, so building organizations had begun to use withheld rents to buy what was most needed. One of Met Council's most prominent leaders, Frances Goldin, eagerly endorsing the new strategy in 1970, saw it as akin to the action of the West Side squatters, which Met Council was already supporting. However, Met Council, afraid that such tenants would be evicted because they could not produce the rent if so ordered by the court, repudiated Goldin. Nevertheless, the structure of the movement allowed those building organizations that wished to experiment with the strategy to do so without committing the whole movement to it; then, once the strategy was proved safe and effective, it could be endorsed and publicized by the federations and spread via the movement networks.

Many of the new middle-class constituents of the movement in the early 1970s still regarded the rent strike as too radical a strategy for themselves personally, in spite of real fears of blight and decay encroaching on their neighborhoods. Consequently, some organizers promoted what they called the "rent slowdown." This was not really a strike, but a strategy in which all tenants held back their rents until the middle of the month, when the tenant leader handed them all to the landlord at the same time. It was an eloquent demonstration of tenant solidarity and, therefore, also a warning to the landlord, who often responded to tenant grievances at this point. For the tenants it was in fact an organizational and emotional preparation for a strike should the landlord ignore the warning.

Article 7-A of the Real Property Actions and Proceedings Law had been enacted in 1965, in the wake of the Harlem Rent Strike. The article allowed the tenants of a building where disrepair was imperiling "life, health or safety" to petition a court to appoint an administrator for the building who would collect rents and use them to fund repairs, fuel, utilities, and maintenance. Such an administrator also had the authority to rent vacant apartments and dispossess non-paying tenants. This provision was used very little until 1974 because of legal complexities in bringing the action and the demand of the law that the administrator be a lawyer, accountant, architect, or real estate manager -- few of whom were willing to take on a demanding assignment that paid very little. However, in 1974 this rule was relaxed, and tenants were added to the list of potential administrators. Several local affiliates of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition (NWBCCC) then adopted the strategy as a means of getting a landlord off the backs of striking tenants and of securing the greatest possible flow of income by giving them authority to rent vacant apartments and discipline non-paying tenants. The use of this strategy gradually spread to other tenant organizations, while the city also began to bring cases against landlords. Met Council was adamantly opposed to the strategy for several years, most especially because it rejected on principle the concept of tenants evicting one another. Nevertheless, when it found that tenants it had organized were spending their rent monies on repairs and their efforts were faltering because some non-members were taking a free ride, it reversed its position and decided reluctantly to utilize the strategy.[37]

Meanwhile, Met Council's rolling rent strike, with its stress on direct negotiations between the building organization and the landlord, had been preempted as a result of changing court practices and decisions in the first half of the 1970s. During this period a firm legal basis for rent withholding under conditions of decay or absent services gradually emerged, and judges encouraged landlords and tenants to negotiate settlements in the corridors of the court and then register them officially. Judges fostered such practices because decaying housing was causing crowding of the court and the rolling rent strike had made tenants unwilling to place rent monies in escrow. Such practices became especially common after the establishment of separate, much less formal, housing courts in 1973. Since Met Council preferred to sponsor negotiations on the tenants' home turf, it initially advised strikers to refuse opportunities to negotiate in court corridors. However, it accepted these arrangements as the norm once it realized that tenants were usually eager to negotiate and settle.

The introduction of negotiations into court was a practical move toward the acceptance of the lease as a contract, with mutual obligations, which was presaged by the passage of Warranty of Habitability laws in several states in the early 1970s and by the emergence of this principle in New York case law during the same period. The enactment of this principle into law in New York State in 1975 completed the process. As a result of these changes, the rolling rent strike became unnecessary. Tenants without services had the right to withhold rent until their grievances were corrected as well as the right to receive rent abatements for their pains. Negotiation, arbitration, and settlement became the order of the day in the housing court.

Met Council's attempt to call a mass rent strike as a political weapon in 1970-1971 had failed. However, in June 1975 the tenant steering committee at Co-op City, a fifteen-thousand-unit subsidized middle-income development in the northeast Bronx with primarily Jewish and black tenants, announced a rent strike that confirmed the political relevance of the strategy. The strike, which protested yet another in a series of rent increases, lasted thirteen months, during which time the tenants' checks were hidden at undisclosed locations. With more than 90 percent of the tenants participating, huge amounts -- eventually $25 million -- involved, and a sense of drama attracting considerable publicity, the strike became the focus of political attention. Because the rents were needed to pay interest on state bonds issued to build the development, the state's credit rating and ability to borrow money in the public capital markets was undermined. Nevertheless, a series of government threats during the strike came to nothing. The resolution of the strike, arrived at with Secretary of State Mario Cuomo acting as mediator, turned control of the development over to the tenants' committee. Thus, Charles Rosen, the charismatic strike leader and a former printer, became head of the management team. However, because of the government condition that management collect sufficient rent "to cover, first and foremost, mortgage interest and amortization and, in addition, all operating and maintenance expenses," rent levels continued to rise steeply, beginning in July 1977 with an agreement that brought them almost to the level rejected by the steering committee at the beginning of the strike two years earlier, together with an increase of $50 per room in the equity payment.[38] The tenants became disillusioned with their managers when they continued the politics of confrontation, with disputes over payments, and in 1979 voted the original leadership out of office.

In summary, by the mid-1970s the rent strike had become part of the legal arsenal of weapons available to tenants. Rents that were once kept safely in court could now, with city support, be spent directly as needed by the building -- the city concluded that it had to give higher priority to preserving housing in the city than to the niceties of property rights. Meanwhile, what was once perceived as a revolutionary threat had been transformed into a mechanism recognized in law and official programs for the redress of grievances. Its practice had been routinized through the adoption of standard formats (such as those detailed in organizing manuals),[39] and the development of its own jurisprudence (both laws and bureaucracies). By the late 1970s its use extended to representatives of the entire socioeconomic spectrum of tenants.

Multiple Federations and a Diverse Constituency

From 1936, when the first federation, the City-Wide Tenants Council, was formed, until the early 1970s, the structure of the tenant movement in New York was three tiered, topped by one main federation[40] in 1973 and 1974 two other key federations, NYSTLC and ANHD, joined Met Council, the dominant federation since 1959. The emergence of multiple federations represented an important development in the history of the tenant movement in New York. This new situation reflected the diverse interests of the broader, larger tenant constituency that was mobilized in the early 1970s.

NYSTLC, which later changed its name to the New York State Tenant and Neighborhood Coalition (NYSTNC), initially represented the newer, politically sophisticated, and largely middle-class neighborhood organizations of the city and suburbs. Its goals were determined by the particular interests of its members, and it frequently recruited new members by agreeing to adopt their goals as part of its program. There was little attempt to ensure that the various positions it supported were consistent ideologically. Indeed, when members initiated ideological discussion it was usually postponed on the grounds that there were more urgent matters to consider and immediate decisions to be taken.

ANHD served tenants at the opposite end of the spectrum -- primarily low-income blacks and Hispanics. However, the leaders of its affiliates included both a mixture of white, middle-class, college-educated community organizers and professionals and local "community people." The latter tended to be young and were better educated or more skilled than the average community resident. Most of the original affiliates were led by white males who had been inspired by the New Left ideals of the 1960s. However, when these moved on, the lieutenants who moved up to replace them were community people. Several of these were women. Indeed, the top positions in ANHD itself were eventually held by women. Thus even the rehabilitation segment of the movement, where the leadership had originally been strongly male dominated because of its stress on technical and financial expertise, came to reflect the predominance of women members at the grass roots. [41]

The chief emphasis of ANHD was on developing, imparting, and using technical skills that would reverse decay in poor neighborhoods by encouraging tenants to take greater control of their situations. Initially ANHD had two primary goals. One was to help member organizations raise money because they needed full-time staff to deal with the complex housing problems in their communities. The other was to pressure city government to expand and streamline programs that could improve the living conditions of tenants in these neighborhoods. It hired a paid staff to supply technical assistance to member organizations and to represent it in contacts with city agencies. In its first eighteen months, the period preceding the city's financial crisis, its membership grew from seven original neighborhood organizations to almost sixty.

Although, initially, the work of NYSTNC and ANHD was separate, they began to cooperate on certain projects as time passed. The leaders of the two federations were close ideologically and had developed skills that were useful to one another: for example, Schur was excellent at drafting legislation while the NYSTNC leaders had lobbying ability. As a result, some of the ANHD members also joined NYSTNC, not only swelling its membership but also increasing its black and Hispanic constituency.

The emergence of what it saw as two competing federations made Met Council uneasy. It responded by asserting frequently that it was The citywide tenants' union and by keeping a critical eye on the stands taken or actions performed by the others, especially NYSTNC. Met Council had itself been changing. Until 1970-1971 its only members had been organizations. However, during the rent strike campaign it had also begun to recruit strikers as individual members who paid dues and had a vote at its policy meetings. It had generated high hopes of attracting a large membership -- a goal of two hundred thousand was mentioned -- and, consequently, of gaining political influence. But while Met Council organized effective rent strikes that allowed the tenants to win improvements in their buildings, its efforts to educate the strikers were meeting with only minimal success: barely 10 percent of the early recruits renewed their membership for a second year. This disappointment had contributed to the split in Met Council at the end of 1972.

As time passed, Met Council returned to one of the ideas that had been pushed by the young organizers it had purged, and it began to establish a presence at the neighborhood level through creating a series of local branches. By 1976 eight branches were operating -- four in Manhattan, three in Brooklyn, and one in the Bronx. Each was open one or two nights per week and served both as an organizing clinic where questions were answered and building strategies planned and as a gathering place where members were educated in Met Council's ideology and methods and were drawn into further involvement. This new approach was extremely successful, and the branches rapidly eclipsed in importance the scattered organized buildings and the independent affiliates within the organization. Met Council's membership climbed from 2,000 at the beginning of 1972 to almost 4,500 by September 1973, helped by a steep increase in membership renewal to almost 40 percent. Its individual membership continued to increase rapidly during the succeeding three years and passed 7,500 by September 1976.[42] The resulting influx of membership dues (ten dollars per year for employed members) allowed Met Council to add three full-time organizers, who in turn recruited more members, mostly by organizing rent strikes through the branches.

Met Council's identification with the rent strike strategy and its use as a lever to gain repairs and services from landlords meant that most of its effort and constituency lay along the edges of decay, among the white working-class and white-collar workers -- that is, its membership was found primarily among tenants between the two sectors represented by NYSTNC and ANHD. While one of its staff, Bess Stevenson, was successful in building a strong branch in Harlem, even there it typically dealt with buildings that did not face the acute situations endured by neighboring ANHD affiliates.

Throughout much of the 1970s Met Council was developing its long term goals. Although its ideal had long been public housing, it now discarded this because it allowed tenants insufficient control; at the same time, declaring that poor tenants should not be forced to shoulder responsibility for any housing problems that might develop, Met Council rejected co-ops; Instead, it developed the concept of "housing in the public domain, which would replace the private landlord, housing-for-profit system with a system that coupled public ownership and responsibility with tenant control. The major force in the development of the ideology was Peter Hawley, husband of long-time Met Council chairperson, Jane Benedict and himself one-time president of the American Labor party. In 1978, after years of consensus building, he authored a book setting out the approach.[43] However, it was not Met Council's radical ideology that was primarily responsible for its growth -- the goal was too distant to attract large numbers. Rather growth was a result of the fit of its strategies to the needs of constituents in the neighborhoods it served. Still influential, it remained fairly isolated, set apart by its ideology, its style, and its rejection of the pragmatic strategies of the other segments of the movement, which it regarded and portrayed as "selling out" to politicians and the real estate industry.

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