Special for The Washington Post – Maia silver
On August 26, the Supreme Court struck down a national moratorium on evictions imposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The moratorium ruling, already unevenly enforced, has left millions of Americans behind on their rent facing the possibility of losing their homes. Democrats in Congress have vowed to pursue legislative remedies, but the chances of a viable option being passed are slim. Meanwhile, billions of dollars of rent assistance are trapped in state and city treasuries.
Yet despite the bleak outlook, the tenants’ fight against evictions doesn’t have to end. Historically, the failures and limitations of federal policies have inspired local activism even as they have shut down national possibilities. One such grassroots activism campaign took place during World War I, when brief federal efforts to alleviate the housing shortage led to a much longer struggle against rent increases and evictions in state legislatures, in the local courts and on city streets. Tenants built on the incomplete efforts of legislators to make surprising breakthroughs.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, millions of Americans left rural areas to seek work in the armories, shipyards, and textile factories of large cities. An estimated 200,000 civilian workers migrated to Philadelphia, for example, a city which at that time was known as “The Workshop of the World.” At the same time, the federal government banned virtually all private residential construction initiatives in order to use all available resources and materials for the war effort.
The workers who flocked to Philadelphia were found in a deeply segregated and unequal city where many renters from the working class and black communities had great difficulty finding affordable housing. With the arrival of workers for the war preparations, housing inequalities in the city led to an acute crisis.
Most legislators viewed the supply of housing as exclusive to private markets. But the scale of the shortage was such that concerns arose that government inaction could compromise military readiness or even spark social unrest, especially after Bolshevik revolutionaries had toppled the tsarist government in Russia. Addressing the housing shortage would achieve “more than any other measure to prevent the industrial revolution that threatens our country,” said a supporter of federal intervention.
Congress agreed, allocating $ 175 million for the creation of two new agencies, the Emergency Fleet and the US Housing Corp (USHC), for the construction of housing for workers in the United States. war industry. Federal legislation also prohibited the eviction of members of the military services and regulated rental prices in Washington, a city over which the government had control.
However, with housing construction delays due to a series of bureaucratic setbacks and with black workers being categorically excluded from federal housing plans, these actions left millions of Americans struggling to keep their homes. In Philadelphia, war industry workers flooded the offices of local authorities and federal agents serving cities, demanding government assistance as threats of eviction hung over them.
Overwhelmed by demands from tenants that far outstripped the government’s efforts to build homes, federal agents along with the USHC organized committees across the country to regulate rent prices and prevent evictions. These committees had no legal authority, but in the wartime context in which the government controlled civil life, they were often able to persuade landlords to abide by regulations for the benefit of the war effort.
Francis Lewis, a Philadelphia-based US Fuel Agency agent, refused to supply landlords with coal if they raised rent prices excessively or evicted their tenants during the winter months. The tenants had protested, arguing that they could not comply with Lewis’s orders to ration fuel by buying it wholesale if an eviction order hung over them that could throw them out at any time.
This episode is an example of the daily dynamics during the war years. The tenants, sidelined by official policy but aware that federal agents were committed to solving the housing shortage, demanded action. Those agents, who had been given wide powers to assist in the war effort, many times complied with their demands.
But when the war ended in 1918, Congress moved quickly to end many of the wartime policies and programs. Conservatives opposed to public housing programs argued that any justification for it had ended with the war and warned of the dangers of “socialism.”
Congress opened an investigation against the USHC for its alleged waste of allocated money, sold many of the housing projects that belonged to war workers, and removed many federal agents from their posts. The Supreme Court then struck down legislation that controlled rental prices in Washington.
Arguing that rental prices would decline once the homebuilding ban ended and migration rates to cities decreased, the influential National Association of Real Estate Boards (NAREB for its acronym in English) declared that the housing emergency was over.
They were wrong. On the other hand, the shortage of capital, labor and materials that remained linked to the war effort kept the advances of the residential construction sector at very low levels, while the urban population continued to grow. The Philadelphia’s United Tenants Protective Association, a group that claimed to represent more than 30,000 city tenants, insisted the housing shortage was far from being overcome. “Our boys won the war,” read a hanging sign above an apartment door in Kensington, a working-class neighborhood. “Let Americans also win this war against rent sharks.” “Casualty Lists” were distributed with the names of Philadelphia residents who had been evicted from their homes, as well as the names of the responsible landlords.
Even when residential construction rates finally began to rise in the mid-1920s, housing remained unaffordable for many working-class renters, especially black Americans.
Segregation intensified at that time as the NAREB encouraged its members to use racial restriction clauses. The Philadelphia black press and the Armstrong Association, a local civil rights group, defined the continuing fight against evictions as a matter of racial justice. The Philadelphia Tribune reported that racial restriction clauses prohibited black Americans from buying or renting any of the 35,000 homes built in 1924.
The postwar tenant movement faced significant obstacles. The local Philadelphia real estate lobby launched a press campaign that sought to distinguish what today’s industry calls “home renters” (owners of one or two homes) from the publicly hated “for-profit renters.” These tactics helped persuade the Pennsylvania legislature to reject the rent control bills in 1919, 1921, and 1923, with one representative acknowledging that rent prices were excessively high but reluctant to affect the “honest landlords.” Tenant advocates were most successful in passing legislation in New York State, which regulated rental prices until 1929.
Nor did state legislators take action against the racial restriction clauses, which were ratified by the Supreme Court in 1926.
Still, the Philadelphia tenants achieved a large number of victories. More than 200 tenants living in the properties of wealthy coal merchant William Bryant refused to pay the increased rental prices. After a lengthy court battle, Bryant relented. Under pressure from tenants, the Philadelphia Real Estate Association agreed to a new contract standard, and a local judge refused to issue eviction orders. Warehouse workers locked doors on agents seeking to remove tenants’ furniture after eviction orders, and plumbers reconnected water to tenants after landlords had them shut off.
City tenants also won the support of the Philadelphia Housing Association, the Philadelphia Legal Aid Office, various state senators, and much of the press. Activists helped convince their new allies that housing markets required government intervention even in peacetime, paving the way for permanent public housing programs and other reforms to come in the years to come. .
Although federal policies have often failed to decrease or even increase inequality, historians have shown that limited government action has also served as a springboard for activists.
Thanks in part to the demands of tenants struggling to survive, the control measures on rent prices during World War II were much more extensive and lasted much longer. Black women in postwar Baltimore and Philadelphia convinced local and federal authorities to build safer, more affordable, and inclusive public housing projects. When the passage of fair housing legislation in the 1960s not only failed to stop segregation in the real estate market but even encouraged investors to embezzle black homeowners, those homeowners fought legal battles against the Department of Housing and Urban Development and achieved the victory.
Today, activists fighting for a fair housing system are rallying in the wake of this Supreme Court ruling. They are organizing rent strikes, making sure tenants are aware of the rights they still have under state and local laws, while promoting legislation that expands access to affordable housing. His effort will come late for the hundreds of thousands of tenants who have already been evicted during the pandemic, but it may still lead to more lasting changes.
The tenants’ fight will not end with the eviction moratorium. After all, it didn’t start with this one.
Maia Silber is a PhD candidate in American History at Princeton University.
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