A pictorial history

Ronald Lawson

1. New York City's first mass rent strike broke out in 1904 among Jews on Manhattan's Lower East Side; the issue was rapidly escalating rents. Part of the source of tenant bitterness was their sense that they were being exploited by poor but ambitious fellow Jews who, as "listers" or "cockroach landlords," leased whole buildings from landlords and then profited from the rents they charged for individual apartments. The socialist Jewish Daily Forward depicted this bitterness in a cartoon published during the strike. Its lengthy caption read: "The man is not a capitalist. He's showing off as a capitalist. The house is not his -- he's just a 'lister.' He rented the house on a lease. He wants to get rich in a hurry. The woman is the wife of an oppressed tenant. He is asking for another $4 per month. She is asking for pity, but he says he is a landlord and doesn't have any" (March 20, 1904).

2. The leaders and organizers of the rent strikes in both 1904 and 1907 were young women. Indeed, most of the grass roots leaders throughout the history of the tenant movement in New York, and most of the participants, have been women. Illustration 2 shows one of these women, with her fist raised, addressing a group of tenants outside a Lower East Side building in December 1907. From The Independent, January 1908. Lewis W. Hine Collection, U.S. History, Local History and Genealogy Division. Courtesy the New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.

3. The rebellions by tenants took the Socialist party by surprise, for their doctrines focused attention on the workplace. However, once the 1907-1908 strike demonstrated the potential of tenant discontent, the Socialists set up a committee, dominated by young men, to try to expand the strike and give it overall direction. This established a pattern of male leadership of the coordinating organizations within the tenant movement -- a pattern that only began to change in the 1960s. Illustration 3 shows a meeting of this committee. Note the portrait of Karl Marx on the far wall. From Harper's Weekly, January 25, 1908.

4. Tenement children, too, were moved by the spirit of the strikes. Illustration 4 shows a group on the Lower East Side hanging a landlord in effigy in December 1907. From The Independent, January 1908. Lewis W. Hine Collection, U.S. History, Local History and Genealogy Division. Courtesy the New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.

5. The strikes of 1917-1920 encompassed many of the neighborhoods of the city. Illustration 5 shows tenants outside a Harlem building where every tenant went on strike in September 1919. As strike momentum built, the fears of landlords, politicians, and the conservative media led to accusations of striker disloyalty. When Abraham Levew, the landlord of this building, charged that the committee of three leading the tenants was really a soviet, one of them, Anne Breitman, retorted that she would slap anyone's face who said she was not 100 percent American. Courtesy UPI/Bettman Newsphotos.

6. As the strikes spread, evictions multiplied. Illustration 6 shows rent strikers in Brownsville, having been evicted by their landlord for refusing "to pay exorbitant rents imposed on them," with their furnishings piled up on the sidewalk. Courtesy UPI/Bettmann Newsphotos.

7. In the early 1930s rent strikes broke out yet again in many parts of New York City. But unlike the earlier strikes, which protested rent increases, these instead demanded rent reductions, for the depression had left tenants unable to pay the prevailing rent levels. Illustration 7 shows a strike: "But it is not higher wages but lower rents that these strikes are demanding. Housewives and their children (93 lease holders are affected) [are shown] doing picket duty in front of their homes in Williams Ave., Brownsville, Brooklyn. All have received notices of eviction." Courtesy UPI/Bettmann Newsphotos.

8. Sometimes crowds of the unemployed were attracted to evictions and responded by attempting to move the furniture of the evicted tenants back into their apartments. On January 27, 1933, "police reserves were called out to battle 500 jobless men and women who rioted when seven writers and artists were evicted from 'Paradise Alley,' a colony of artists and poets at Ave A and 11th St" on the Lower East Side. Courtesy UPI/Bettmann Newsphotos.

9. Nowhere was the resistance to evictions greater than in the Bronx, where the Communist party was best organized. One of their strongholds was the workers' cooperative colony on Allerton Avenue. On February 1, 1932, "Mounted cops, 50 patrolmen and a like number of detectives help[ed] to evict four Bronx families who refused to pay rent at 665 Allerton Avenue. Thousands of communists rallied to help these families resist the city marshal who sought to evict them. Many bruised bodies and battered heads resulted from this rent strike, the second in a week. Notice how one man has been knocked down practically under the very hoofs of a police horse." Courtesy UPI/Bettmann Newsphotos.

10. The middle-class tenants at Knickerbocker Village, Manhattan, organized when they found their new apartments were not completed on the day they moved in. Later, in March 1936, when they received publicity for joining the picket lines of their striking service workers, the tenants were contacted by other neighborhood tenant organizations. The result was the formation of New York City's first tenant federation, the City-Wide Tenants Council, in which Knickerbocker Village tenants played central roles. Courtesy UPI/Bettmann Newsphotos.

11. In October 1936 the City-Wide Tenants Council supported a demonstration organized by the Consolidated Tenants League of Harlem, which protested rent increases in buildings that were changing from white to black tenantry. UPI reported that "4,000 white and colored persons" took part in the parade. The Consolidated Tenants League was the first substantial, long-lived black tenant organization. Courtesy UPI/Bettmann Newsphotos.

12. Meanwhile, America's first public housing, First Houses, on Manhattan's Lower East Side, had been completed. Illustration 12 shows a view of the opening ceremony, at which Eleanor Roosevelt presided. Public housing, having first been demanded by the Socialist-led tenant leagues during the unrest following World War I, had long been advocated by tenant leaders. Courtesy UPI/Bettmann Newsphotos.

13. When, after World War II, the federal administration began to dismantle wartime rent controls, tenants in New York State mounted a relentless campaign to pass legislation that would continue them. On February 9, 1947, 1,800 "marchers" who had been bussed to Albany from New York City demonstrated around the state capitol. Courtesy UPI/Bettmann Newsphotos.

14. Under state rent control, once it was imposed, the chief mechanism for rent increases was tenant turnover. The tenant movement therefore concentrated on countering the real estate interests' efforts to weaken the system or have the legislature impose across-the-board rent increases. One such campaign took place in 1953. Illustration 14 shows an interracial delegation from the Bronx Council on Rents and Housing about to board a train to Albany (March 3, 1953). The racial base of the tenants involved in the rent control struggle, which had previously been almost exclusively white, was broadening. However, tenant efforts that year could not prevent a general 15 percent increase in units where rents had not already increased by at least that amount as a result of tenant turnover since the imposition of state controls. Courtesy UPI/Bettmann Newsphotos.

15. In the winter of 1963-1964 a rent strike erupted in Harlem. It was led by Jesse Gray, a tenant organizer there since 1953 and now head of the Community Council on Housing. The focus of the strike was not rent levels but a new issue: poor maintenance and services. In illustration 15 Gray (left), Major Williams, an organizer, and Alexander Joseph, a tenant, display rats caught in two Harlem tenements to reporters, December 30, 1963. Courtesy UPI/Bettmann Newsphotos.

16. As the Harlem rent strike gained momentum and publicity, it spread to other neighborhoods, including the Lower East Side, where for the first time New York Hispanics were drawn into the movement in large numbers. Illustration 16 shows Gray speaking there at a rally on January 31, 1964. Courtesy UPI/Bettmann Newsphotos.

17. Urban renewal ravaged poor and working-class neighborhoods in New York City throughout the 1950s and 1960s. However, residents of the neighborhood surrounding Manhattan's Cooper Square, working with planner Walter Thabit, developed an alternative plan whereby the buildings of the renewal area would be razed and replaced in stages rather than simultaneously so that the residents of the community would not be displaced. Although their plan received wide publicity and ultimately official endorsement, it faced thirty years of roadblocks. On November 19, 1964, "members of the Cooper Square Community Development Committee brought out everything from babies to dogs while keeping an all night vigil outside [the Mayor's official residence at] Gracie Mansion in protest over the delay in erecting low rent housing at Houston and Chrystie Streets" (New York Post caption).
The first part of a truncated plan was realized only in 1985.
New York Post photograph by Engel.

18. The introduction of the rolling rent strike, a new form of the old strategy, lengthened tenant-landlord struggles. When landlords of decaying buildings were slow to respond, the tenants often invented innovative ways to increase pressure. In the winter of 1971-1972, striking tenants at 565 Crown Street, Brooklyn, picketing the home of Councilmember Howard Golden, demanded that he fire his aide, Milton Kessler, who was their slumlord. Illustration 18 shows the president of the building's tenant organization (left) and Michael McKee, then an organizer and vice-president for the Metropolitan Council on Housing. A year later McKee became one of the founders of the New York State Tenant and Neighborhood Coalition, a rival federation. Photo by Gary W. Foster.

19. When the tenants returned home from the action pictured in illustration 18, they found that Kessler was in their building, a rare happening, and waited at the entrance to confront him. Kessler, however, used his political ties to secure a police escort from the building. He adopted a pose commonly employed by criminals when face to face with a camera. Photo by Gary W. Foster.

20. The decay of buildings and their abandonment by landlords led young minority tenants to experiment by taking control of such buildings and turning them into low-income cooperatives. Initially the way was pointed by equally young middle-class innovators who knew how to manipulate bureaucratic structures. Illustration 20 shows a 1973 title transfer, in the mayor's office, of an in rem building at 334-336 East Eighth Street on the Lower East Side to a not-for-profit tenant cooperative corporation. Several of the key low-income tenant ownership pioneers, together with two city officials and a tenant from the building, are pictured: (left to right) Milton Musicus, administrator, Municipal Services Agency; Louis Morales, coordinator of Adopt-a-Building; Juan DeLeone, tenant; Roberto Nazario, coordinator of Adopt-a-Building; Philip St. Georges, intern, Sweat Equity Program, Housing and Development Administration; Ira Duchan, commissioner, Department of Real Estate; and William Eddy, director, Adopt-a-Building. Eddy was later one of the founders of the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB), and then an Episcopal priest; St. Georges became, successively, a staff member and then the director of UHAB, assistant commissioner of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and head of the Division of Alternative Management Programs, the regional director of the National Co-operative Bank in New York and then vice-president at its national headquarters in Washington; Nazario became president of both Adopt-a-Building and the board of the Association of Neighborhood Housing Developers, and then, after time studying at Harvard, an officer of the Development Training Institute in Baltimore headed by Father Joe McNeely, who had been assistant secretary of HUD during the Carter administration.

21. The small landlords, who typically owned the buildings housing poor tenants, were now pressured by sharp increases in fuel costs and the specter of encroaching abandonment. Their organization, the American Property Rights Association, fixed the blame for their shrinking profit margins on rent regulations and the politicians who supported them. Lacking the funds of the real estate organizations representing larger operators, they utilized such grass roots strategies as demonstrations. Illustration 21 pictures a demonstration during fall 1976, which was part of a campaign, coordinated by several diverse real estate groups, aimed at persuading the legislature to allow the Emergency Tenant Protection Act to lapse in 1977. Photo by Laureanne Pare.

22. NYSTNC and its organizing and training arm, the People's Housing Network, sponsored twelve "schools for organizers" during the period 1973-1980. In spring 1977 it found that classes demonstrating sweat equity were attracting increasing interest. Illustration 22 shows one such class in progress at Fordham University. Robert Schur (left), director of the Association of Neighborhood Housing Developers and the genius behind all strategies establishing low-income cooperatives, was the tutor. Photo by Michael McKee.

23. In October 1977 President Jimmy Carter, accompanied by Patricia Roberts Harris, head of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Mayor Abraham Beame, visited the South Bronx. Their first stop was on Charlotte Street, where they saw the devastation caused by the abandonment process. The second stop in the South Bronx was at 1186 Washington Avenue, where the People's Development Corporation was engaged in sweat equity rehabilitation. The visit provided Carter with hope and inspiration, and sweat equity in general and PDC in particular with valuable publicity. One result was a vast increase in the flow of funds to groups utilizing sweat equity. Courtesy UPI/Bettmann Newsphotos.

24. Sweat equity rehabilitation allowed for the rearrangement of interiors, with attractive designs such as sunken living rooms. Illustration 24 shows the president of the People's Development Corporation, Ramon Rueda (standing), addressing members in 1186 Washington Avenue, the South Bronx, as the rehabilitation neared completion in 1978. Photo by Ron Diamond.

25. Establishing a pattern of tense, rowdy meetings, both tenant and real estate organizations began to pressure the Rent Guidelines Board, which annually set maximum rent increases in rent-stabilized apartments. Illustration 25 shows a demonstration organized by the Metropolitan Council on Housing preceding a RGB meeting during the summer of 1979. Photo by Chuck Rubenstein.

26. In 1978 the city became the largest landlord in New York City as a result of changes in regulations governing the seizure of buildings for nonpayment of taxes. All these buildings were in various stages of decay and likely to be at least partly vacant, while the incomes of their tenants generally fell far below the city's median level. Consequently, the city found the management of its new real estate portfolio a considerable financial drain. The Koch administration, noting that transfer to city ownership removed housing from prevailing rent regulations, subsequently announced rent increases, which drew both scorn and anger from tenants (March 5, 1982). Photo by Bernard Moore.

27. In the ten years after 1973, NYSTNC became a significant force in Albany housing politics. Illustration 27 shows Bill Rowen, NYSTNC chairperson, telling Richard Runes, counsel to Republican senator John Daly, chair of the Senate Housing Committee, that the tenants refused to leave his office until they had seen the senator (May 1983). Photo by Tom Robins for "City Limits."

28. NYSTNC's successful campaign in 1983 to move responsibility for the enforcement of rent regulations from the landlord-operated Rent Stabilization Association to the state Division of Housing was seen as a victory. However, the endeavor of the senate Republican leadership to placate the real estate industry by giving the RSA responsibility for designing the new code was a threat. Consequently, the tenant movement protested against adoption of the code when hearings were held by the city administration in February 1984. Their efforts were successful: the code was rejected. Among those who spoke against the RSA code at a tenant-organized press conference were Bonny Brower, director of the Association of Neighborhood Housing Developers, and Jane Benedict, chairperson of the Metropolitan Council on Housing -- two of the three major tenant federations. Women leaders had at last achieved prominence in the upper levels of the tenant movement in New York. Illustration 28 shows politicians lining up to speak behind the two tenant leaders: Assemblyman Eliot Engel, city councilman Robert Dryfoos, and state senators Leon Bogues and Franz Leichter were anxious to show their support for the tenant position. Photo by Tom Robins for "City Limits."

29. The tide turned on the Lower East Side in the early 1980s: tenants had helped stabilize the neighborhood through their management and rehabilitation of buildings abandoned by their owners, and now, as real estate prices in Manhattan revived, owners and speculators realized the potential value of a neighborhood abutting the now fashionable East Village and close to the financial district. The process of abandonment ceased almost entirely, but tenants were suddenly faced with a new threat from speculators anxious to remove low-income tenants in order to prepare their buildings for higher-paying tenants. But the community leaders who had saved their homes and neighborhood from the ravages of abandonment were not about to surrender it to gentrification without a struggle. Illustration 29 shows a banner on East Ninth Street in 1984. Photo by Mel Rosenthal.

30. As rent levels escalated as a result of speculation, gentrification, and cooperative conversions, the number of homeless climbed. The latter included both families and single persons who simply could not find homes they could afford and were forced to live in shelters and on the streets. The tenant movement was slow to realize the seriousness of this issue and how relevant it was to its own causes. However, on May 4, 1985, housing activists organized a protest march in conjunction with the Coalition on the Homeless. Their route led them through midtown Manhattan to Trump Tower, a symbol of the pro-business, anti-poor policies of Mayor Koch's administration because of the tax breaks its developer had been given -- subsidies that tenant leaders argued could have been used instead for sorely needed housing (May 4, 1985). Photo by George Cohen.