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The Great Rent Wars

The Great Rent Wars: New York, 1917-1929

Robert M. Fogelson
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 512
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  • Book Info
    The Great Rent Wars
    Book Description:

    Written by one of the country's foremost urban historians,The Great Rent Warstells the fascinating but little-known story of the battles between landlords and tenants in the nation's largest city from 1917 through 1929. These conflicts were triggered by the post-war housing shortage, which prompted landlords to raise rents, drove tenants to go on rent strikes, and spurred the state legislature, a conservative body dominated by upstate Republicans, to impose rent control in New York, a radical and unprecedented step that transformed landlord-tenant relations.The Great Rent Warstraces the tumultuous history of rent control in New York from its inception to its expiration as it unfolded in New York, Albany, and Washington, D.C. At the heart of this story are such memorable figures as Al Smith, Fiorello H. La Guardia, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, as well as a host of tenants, landlords, judges, and politicians who have long been forgotten. Fogelson also explores the heated debates over landlord-tenant law, housing policy, and other issues that are as controversial today as they were a century ago.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-20558-9
    Subjects: Sociology, History, Architecture and Architectural History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. 1-14)

    On January 9, 1918, barely a week after taking office, Mayor John F. Hylan declared that New York was facing the worst crisis in its history. With more than two months of winter ahead, the city was running out of coal, the fuel that supplied nearly all its heat, light, and power. A coal shortage was not something New Yorkers ordinarily worried about. But in April 1917 the United States had entered World War I. Seven months later, after the first cold snap of the season, many landlords found that they had very little coal in their cellars and, wrote...


    • 1 The Postwar Housing Shortage
      (pp. 17-39)

      As New York real estate men never tired of pointing out, rent was a function of the law of supply and demand. It was a law, said John J. Hopper, a landlord and one-time public official, that “not only applies to rent, but to everything that is bought and sold.” When the demand for space exceeds the supply, rents go up, remarked Douglas L. Elliman, one of Manhattan’s leading real estate brokers. When supply exceeds the demand, they go down. In New York the supply rarely exceeded the demand. As early as 1825, when New York was more than twice...

    • 2 Between a Rock and a Hard Place
      (pp. 40-61)

      Rather than notify the tenants in person (or send an agent to notify them), many landlords announced the rent hikes by mail. “I want to advise you,” Edward W. Browning wrote one of his tenants on West 119th Street, “that if you desire to remain a monthly tenant after January 31st, the rental of your apartment will be $60.00 per month instead of $41.00 per month as heretofore.” Some landlords made little or no effort to justify the increase. “We believe,” the Usona Construction Company told a tenant on East 163rd Street in the Bronx, “that existing conditions are so...

    • 3 A Weighty Decision
      (pp. 62-84)

      More than three thousand irate tenants, many of whom had been notified that their rent would be raised on May 1, 1919, attended the Brooklyn Tenants League meeting at which Socialist Assemblyman Charles Solomon declared, “If everything else fails, why there is nothing left for us to do but strike.” Before the meeting adjourned, they adopted a resolution, which was sent to Governor Smith, saying that unless state officials did something to curb rent profiteering, thousands of tenants would be forced to go on strike. As the tenants well knew, it was one thing to adopt a resolution and quite...

    • 4 The Great Rent Strikes
      (pp. 85-106)

      Some of the postwar rent strikes had a lighthearted, even festive air. Writing about one at 473 Powell Street, a tenement house in Brownsville, theNew York Callreported in August 1918 that “the whole affair has been a picnic. The children have enjoyed the excitement. The hospitable women have enjoyed taking in their evicted neighbors. The evicted women are enjoying their visit. The rest are getting ready to take their turn when the marshal comes.” During some strikes mothers cooked meals on the sidewalks and children sang while they paraded around the block. “Strike, strike, strike!” went the songs....


    • 5 The Mayor’s Committee on Rent Profiteering
      (pp. 109-131)

      On November 6, 1917, nearly 700,000 New Yorkers went to the polls to choose who would govern the city for the next four years (and also whether women would be given the right to vote). The result, theTimesreported, was “A Tammany Sweep”—a resounding victory for the New York County Democratic machine that had dominated city politics for much of the nineteenth century and, in conjunction with the Kings County Democratic machine, for much of the twentieth. Tammany Hall won all the citywide offices. The mayor-elect was John F. Hylan, who handily defeated his three rivals—John Purroy,...

    • 6 Enter the State Legislature
      (pp. 132-152)

      Down through 1918 the plight of New York City’s tenants was not a matter of much concern in Albany. Not to the governor, Charles S. Whitman, a Republican who had been elected in 1914 largely on the basis of his reputation as the crusading Manhattan district attorney who had successfully prosecuted Lieutenant Charles Becker of the New York Police Department for the murder of gambler Herman Rosenthal. And not to the state legislature, both houses of which were firmly under the control of the Republicans, most of whom came from upstate New York. Under no pressure from the governor to...

    • 7 The April Laws
      (pp. 153-175)

      In the aftermath of the special session there was some evidence that the new landlord-tenant laws might be more than “pure buncombe,” as one resident of Brooklyn called them. More than 60 percent fewer landlord-tenant disputes were filed in the municipal courts in early July 1919 than in early July 1918. And in many cases, reported theTelegram, the judges were refusing to issue eviction warrants “unless there is sound merit to the claims of the landlords.” A month or so later a Bronx landlady named Dorris Hecht brought summary proceedings against a group of tenants who had gone on...

    • 8 The September Laws
      (pp. 176-200)

      No sooner had the state legislature enacted the April laws than the real estate interests launched a campaign to water them down. The laws might protect some tenants from profiteering landlords, they believed, but they would do nothing to relieve the housing shortage; if anything, they would discourage residential construction. They would also reduce property values and stifle real estate transactions. As Edward P. Doyle, legislative agent for the Real Estate Board, pointed out, many deals had fallen through because under the April laws, which empowered the municipal court judges to grant tenants stays of up to twelve months, sellers...


    • 9 The Battle in the State Courts
      (pp. 203-228)

      New York’s real estate men lost no time launching an attack on the emergency rent laws. On October 1, just a few days after the September laws went into effect, the Board of Governors of the Real Estate Board held a special meeting at which it decided to test what it viewed as the state legislature’s misguided decision to suspend the fundamental rights of the city’s property owners. As counsel, the board retained George L. Ingraham, a former presiding justice of the First Department of the New York Supreme Court’s Appellate Division, which covered Manhattan and the Bronx, and now...

    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)
    • 10 The Fight in the Federal Courts
      (pp. 229-254)

      Less than a week after the September laws were enacted, theNew York Timesreported that they would soon be challenged on constitutional grounds in federal court as well as state court. Bringing the challenge was Marcus Brown, a native of Poland who was born in 1854, came to the United States when he was nine, and lived in upstate New York until 1904, when he moved to New York City and went into the real estate business. By 1920 he owned both the Marcus Brown Construction Company, which built apartment houses on the Upper West Side, and the Marcus...


    • 11 A Question of Coverage
      (pp. 257-281)

      A few months before the U.S. Supreme Court issuedBlock v. Hirsh, John H. Wigmore, dean of Northwestern University School of Law (and the country’s foremost authority on evidence), wrote an article about how to curb rent profiteering without violating the Constitution. The most effective way, he said, was for the state legislature to establish an independent administrative agency that would regulate rental housing in the same way that other administrative agencies regulated other businesses “impressed with a public interest.” Appointed by the governor, its members would be empowered to fix rates for rent, make rules for service, and resolve...

    • 12 A Reasonable Rent
      (pp. 282-308)

      Under chapter 944 a tenant who was sued for nonpayment of rent could argue in his defense that the rent was unreasonable (and that the agreement under which the landlord was attempting to recover it was oppressive). How, the judges wondered, were they supposed to determine rental values in a city that had hundreds of thousands of apartments, ranging from large and lavish ones on the Upper West Side—with elevators, steam heat, hot water, and doormen—to small and squalid ones on the Lower East Side, most of them cold-water flats in old-law tenements with few sanitary facilities? How,...

    • 13 The Four Exceptions
      (pp. 309-330)

      Other than chapter 944, no emergency rent law was the source of as many landlord-tenant disputes as chapter 942. This statute prohibited the landlords from bringing summary proceedings against tenants whose leases expired before November 1, 1922, provided that the tenants were willing to pay a reasonable rent. Designed, said the Lockwood Committee, to “do away with the anxiety” of the many New Yorkers who were holding over in their apartments or had been served notice to move by October 1, 1920, chapter 942 covered all buildings that were “occupied for dwelling purposes,” but excluded new buildings—ones that were...


    • 14 Landlords and Tenants in New York and Albany
      (pp. 333-359)

      Many of the efforts to circumvent the emergency rent laws were aimed at chapter 944, which empowered the municipal courts to set reasonable rents for residential property. Some landlords inflated the value of their property—or hired expert witnesses to inflate it for them. Others padded the bill of particulars, claiming expenses for work that was not done (or was done for less money or in another apartment) and charging against current income capital improvements that should have been amortized over years if not decades. Even a spokesman for the United Real Estate Owners Association acknowledged that some landlords were...

    • 15 The Extension of Rent Control
      (pp. 360-386)

      Although some of the emergency rent laws were permanent, chapters 942, 944, 945, and 947, which were widely viewed as the keystone of the legislation, were not. They were supposed to expire on November 1, 1922, or slightly more than two years after being enacted. And while the legislature could extend these laws for another two years or even longer, that was easier said than done. Under the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling inBrown v. Feldman, the legislature would have to make the case that New York was still facing an emergency. Even William D. Guthrie and Julius H. Cohen...

    • 16 The Expiration of Rent Control
      (pp. 387-414)

      Even before the Court of Appeals handed downOrinoco v. Goodkind, a few prominent real estate men began laying the groundwork for a campaign to stop the state legislature from extending the emergency rent laws beyond February 15, 1926. One was Isidor Berger, general manager of the Greater New York Taxpayers Association. Starting two weeks after Governor Smith signed the Dunnigan Act, Berger wrote a series of articles in theReal Estate News, the association’s monthly journal, in which he stressed that the emergency no longer existed. Citing a recent report by Tenement House Commissioner Frank Mann, Health Commissioner Frank...

    (pp. 415-420)

    The expiration of the emergency rent laws was not a problem for “the gentlemen from Essex, Chautauqua or St. Lawrence counties.” But what about the gentlemen from New York City? What about the mayor and the members of the Board of Aldermen and Board of Estimate, the vast majority of whose constituents were tenants? For them the political fallout of the legislature’s decision was a source of great concern. To deal with it, Alderman Charles H. McGillick, a Democrat from Harlem, introduced a bill in late May to impose rent control in New York after June 1. Drafted by Assemblyman...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 421-474)
    (pp. 475-476)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 477-495)