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The ‘Great Rent Wars’ of New York

Historian Robert Fogelson’s new book uncovers the origins of rent control in a World War I-era fight between tenants and landlords for control of New York real estate.
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In 1920, a Bronx district court judge named William E. Morris heard a series of cases that aroused his ire. Morris was a tough Army veteran: While serving under Gen. George Custer in 1876, he had survived wounds at the infamous Battle of Little Bighorn. But decades later, these cases kept getting under his skin.

When one lawyer in Morris’ courtroom announced he would file for a writ of mandamus, to force an immediate hearing, Morris threatened to punch him, shouting, “I’ll mandamus you in the nose.” When another lawyer threatened an appeal of a Morris ruling, the judge responded, “Go to the Supreme Court. Go to hell.”

What subject could have so angered this judge? For those who have lived in New York and certain other high-rent districts, the answer may come as no surprise: It was rent control.

In a place where, then as now, real estate was highly coveted, the state of New York had just instituted the precursor to the rent-control policies that still exist today. Tempers flared; tenants went on strike; emotions boiled over in courtrooms. But a new legal idea had been implemented, and would even be upheld by the Supreme Court, granting rights to a group — tenants — who had not previously enjoyed such a foothold in cities.

This battle for control of urban space is the subject of a new book by MIT historian Robert Fogelson, “The Great Rent Wars,” newly published by Yale University Press. Fogelson reconstructs the little-known circumstances that led to the creation of rent control in New York (and elsewhere), and in so doing uses history to let us consider anew the way that interests, money, and popular sentiment collide in American politics.

“I had no idea there was rent control as early as there was in New York and other cities,” says Fogelson, who grew up in a rent-controlled apartment in New York. “I’m interested in telling the story and trying to figure out what inspired people to act in the way they did.”

How World War I lowered the rent

Rent control in the United States has its origins in World War I, which directed material resources away from housing, and soon led to an acute shortage of new buildings in New York.

“These great rent strikes were largely a consequence of the almost complete cessation of residential construction during and after World War I,” says Fogelson, a professor of urban studies and history. “Builders stopped building. Investors stopped investing. The result of this was a very serious housing shortage.” The city’s vacancy rate dropped to a fraction of 1 percent.

As a consequence, rents soared, and a new social movement cropped up: Renters started organizing rent strikes to protest the punitive monthly housing costs they faced.

“The most active strikes were in working-class neighborhoods,” Fogelson says; they often occurred in Jewish immigrant neighborhoods such as Brownsville and Williamsburg in Brooklyn. “Women played a large role, staffing the picket lines, fighting with landlords, trying to head off the police.” Women had organized strikes against the garment manufacturers, he adds, and now “applied some of the same tactics to landlords and housing.”

In light of this unrest, New York’s state legislature took action. Although then controlled by Republicans, who traditionally favored building owners, the legislature passed a rent-control program designed to keep costs down and limit baseless evictions. Facing the same general circumstances, similar laws were passed elsewhere in the country, including Washington, D.C.

Surprisingly, New York’s legislature failed to create a board to oversee the implementation of its new laws. That left enforcement of rent control to the city’s 50 municipal court judges. Some, like Morris, were sympathetic to tenants; others, to owners. All were in new legal territory.

“The municipal court judges had to deal with problems the likes of which they’d never seen before,” Fogelson says: Did residential rent control apply to a resident who had started a home-based business? What was a reasonable rent? The result was a patchwork of rulings.

The ‘emergency’ ends

The rent-control regime lasted until 1929, when New York City’s housing “emergency” was deemed over, and the state laws expired. A building boom in the mid-1920s had helped ease the housing crunch, at least for the well-off.

“The idea was that the market is now capable of dealing with housing,” Fogelson notes. Yet the rent-control concept lingered on. It was revived during World War II, and remains today, sometimes in the form of “rent stabilization” laws that limit rent increases.

Fogelson shuns direct comparisons between the rent-control wars of the 1920s and any current housing issues in New York. Still, he notes, even the developer-friendly New York of today has not erased all support for rent control.

“The tenants still have a fair amount of clout,” Fogelson says. However, he adds, the original working-class drive for rent control was abetted by support from a middle class that was hit by the housing crisis of the late 1910s. Then, when the housing stock expanded, “Politically it was harder to make the case to keep rent control,” Fogelson says.

“The Great Rent Wars” has been well-received by other scholars; Elizabeth Blackmar, a historian at Columbia University, calls it a “highly original contribution to our understanding of American urban politics.” Fogelson is continuing his research into housing: His current book project is a history of attempts to sustain nonprofit co-operative housing in New York City.

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