Terrible landlords, bad plumbing, the rent being too damn high—New Yorkers have been here before. They have faced these conditions for more than a century. They’ve also had to put up with the same self-serving lies of the real-estate industry, which claims that only new construction, new development, new #HQ2s, can increase the housing supply and solve the housing crisis. But throughout the city’s history, only tenants have ever truly helped tenants. Through mutual aid, rent strikes, demonstrations, riots, and the ballot box, tenants helped create a public policy that for more than forty-six years has enabled working-class New Yorkers to claim their right to the city: rent control. Now, after recent decades during which real-estate interests and their political allies weakened these laws, a new wave of tenant mobilization promises to add a more hopeful chapter to this legislation’s history.
The roots of the rent-control movement in New York City lie in the struggles of radical working-class immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century. Eastern European Jews, many with experience in covert organizing and radical politics, organized tenants throughout the Lower East Side in the years preceding the First World War. Borrowing the tactics and even the language of the labor movement (hence the tenant “union” and the rent “strike”), these workers also drew support and coordination from the city’s nascent Socialist Party (SP), which had deep roots in the city’s immigrant neighborhoods. Women were at the center of these early struggles. While often denied formal leadership roles, they often ran the meetings, walked the picket lines, and ultimately organized the tenant unions that provided the major force behind rent control.
By 1919 workers had organized 25,000 apartment dwellers into the Greater New York Tenants League, which worked with the SP—which the year before had swept ten state assemblymen and seven local aldermen into office—to lead a rent strike of 500 buildings. This combination of social pressure and political representation helped secure the city’s first rent-control legislation at a time when record-low vacancies of 0.3 percent enabled landlords to charge extortionary rents to families only recently reunited after the war. In 1920 the state assembly passed the April Rent Laws, which provided tenants with a special court to defend themselves against evictions for nonpayment of “unjust, unreasonable and oppressive” levels of rent. While the wording was vague, the law nonetheless marked the first time in the city’s history that housing prices were subject to something other than market forces alone.
Mere hours after this legislation was signed, the Socialist assemblymen who spearheaded its passage were denounced and suspended from Albany, victims of the first Red Scare. Not until the onset of the Great Depression in the early 1930s did tenants again agitate en masse for restrictions on landlord power. Once again, the movement was spearheaded by leftists with deep ties to their communities—from Jewish socialists in the Bronx to black communists in Harlem. Three factors enabled these tenants to mount a more successful offensive against their landlords during this period. First, citywide tenant organizations cooperated with a resurgent labor movement and civil rights organizations to push housing affordability as a universal working-class issue. Second, an influx of union-affiliated progressives and radicals (ranging from socialists in the American Labor Party to communists in New York’s City Hall) conveyed the legislative demands of tenants into the halls of power. By 1939 the coalition of left-wing tenants, unions, and left-wing legislators had pushed through an early form of rent control restricted to the city’s oldest tenement housing stock.
But it was the Second World War that provided the opportunity to make rent control a right of all of Gotham’s tenants. In 1941 the federal government instituted the Office of Price Administration as a means of freezing rents in strategically important manufacturing centers, thus enabling workers to contribute to the war effort without fearing eviction. New York was not initially chosen as one of these localities—federal administrators assumed that the city’s relatively high vacancy rate (7.5 percent at the beginning of the war) insulated tenants from hazardous rent increases. But tenants did not agree, and a combination of demonstrations, lobbying, and a full-on riot in Harlem eventually forced the federal government to put in place mandatory rent ceilings in New York City Following the war, New Yorkers successfully fought to retain these ceilings. While state legislation ultimately exempted construction after 1947 from rent controls, all properties completed up to that date enjoyed ceilings on rent levels, with allowances for “voluntary” increases.
This period of victory was again followed by a right-wing backlash. Leftist tenant organizers were driven underground during a second Red Scare. Their place was filled by African-American and Puerto Rican organizers in the 1960s, along with white middle-class recruits from the New Left, but they organized under less friendly circumstances; centrist unions and conservative local officials refrained from providing the kind of support tenants had enjoyed in previous decades. While rent-stabilization legislation was passed in 1969 as a means of extending rent control principles to buildings constructed after the original 1947 cutoff date, the state legislature passed a “vacancy decontrol” law in 1971, which mandated that any vacant rent-controlled unit would automatically lose those protections.
This legislation, the product of an unholy alliance between upstate Republicans and downstate developers, was initially justified as a means to increase tax revenue for the fiscally strapped city. In reality, it was motivated by the decreasing profit margins of developers under Vietnam War–era inflation. They saw the city’s shrinking vacancy rate (1.2 percent in 1969) as an opportunity to squeeze tenants. The effects were immediate: between July 1971 and December 1973 approximately 380,000 apartments were decontrolled, their rents rising an average of 52 percent, even though operating costs had only increased by 7.9 percent over the same period. Faced with this attack, along with landlord vandalism and arson in the 1970s, tenants countered with revitalized organizing projects in which racial minorities and women were prominent leaders. The most devastating assaults on rent control, however, were still to come.
In 1994, the New York City Council passed a bill enabling any landlord to abandon rent-stabilization restrictions once rents surpassed $2,000 a month. While the measure was initially justified as a means of eliminating higher-end units from the rent-stabilization system, landlords quickly hiked rents well above this number throughout the city, turning low-income apartments into luxury residences overnight. Albany legislators followed up with another anti-tenant policy in 1997, spearheaded by Republicans but with plenty of Democratic support, that gave landlords the power to increase apartment rents by 20 percent whenever an individual stabilized unit fell vacant—a measure aptly labeled the “eviction bonus.” Finally, in 2003 Albany Republicans forced through legislation giving landlords the ability to vacate rent-stabilized units through an insidious loophole: retroactive rent collection. The results of these laws has been devastating. Between 2005 and 2017, 88,518 rent-regulated units were decontrolled—more than the entire new rental housing stock created during that same period.
The squeeze on tenants has gotten tighter since these anti-rent-control laws went into effect. However, a recently-formed coalition of unions, good-government groups, and tenant organizations called the Upstate-Downstate Housing Alliance is currently working to restore and expand the rights of tenants. The alliance recently created a universal rent control platform consisting of nine pieces of legislation, most of which explicitly reverse the weakening of rent control in the 1990s by ending vacancy decontrol and the eviction bonus. Some go even further. One measure extends rent stabilization to counties outside the New York City region, while another expands these same protections to cover structures with fewer than six units (as are prevalent in rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Bushwick).
These measures have a greater chance of passing than at any time in recent memory. In 2018 a “blue wave” of Democrats swept the Albany state house, casting out Republicans and several bought-and-sold Democrats. With the state’s existing rent-control laws about to expire in mid-June, many progressives hope they will be strengthened—not merely renewed—by implementing the Housing Alliance’s platform. And they aren’t stopping there. One legislative newcomer, Democratic Socialists of America member Julia Salazar, has gone beyond the Housing Alliance’s platform by proposing that no tenant should be evicted from a market-rate apartment for not paying an “unconscionable” rent increase (above 150 percent of the regional Consumer Price Index)—an echo of the original 1921 April Rent Laws banning “unjust, unreasonable and oppressive” rent burdens.
But real estate remains politically influential. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s top donors in his last reelection were from this sector, while the current speaker of the house has received $74,000 from these same sources. The cynically named Rent Stabilization Association is campaigning to frighten legislators outside the five boroughs on the danger of rent control. The expansion or even survival of rent control is by no means assured.
Over its history, rent control has faced many setbacks. To the extent that renter-friendly policies have been implemented in Albany and City Hall, their strength and persistence has depended on organization and agitation by tenants themselves. Now, with tenant mobilization again at a high point and with progressives again a force in Albany, working-class New Yorkers have a chance to strike a blow for housing justice and universal rent control in our own time. Nobody else will do it for them; but when the people are united, nobody else needs to.
Daniel Wortel-London is a doctoral candidate in history at New York University, where his research focuses on the history of public finance in New York City. He is a dues-paying member of the Central Brooklyn DSA.