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The Great Rent Wars: New York, 1917-1929


Written by one of the country’s foremost urban historians, The Great Rent Wars tells 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 ...

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The Great Rent Wars: New York, 1917-1929

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Written by one of the country’s foremost urban historians, The Great Rent Wars tells 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 Wars traces 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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Fogelson (Downtown: Its Rise and Fall, 1880–1930), a professor of urban studies and history at MIT, turns his attention to the rise and demise of “emergency rent laws” following WWI, during the interwar housing shortage, and in doing so sheds light on the history of rent control in New York. The book features a large and varied cast of characters: “rapacious landlords,” and rarer, “highly compassionate” ones, along with various “real estate interests”; local, state, and national politicians; municipal, state, appellate, and Supreme Court justices; police and city marshals; and, of course, tenants—wealthy, middle class, working class, and poverty stricken. In addition to Dickensian legal wrangling, the complexities in which the interested parties find themselves embroiled include ideological controversies about public housing and “reasonable rent,” among many others. Threaded throughout are details about successful and unsuccessful rent-strike actions. Fogelson’s book is chock-full of information and data, but his prolixity, copious quotations from letters and newspaper articles, redundancies, and digressions make for tedious reading. However, his thorough research and meticulous documentation will be a gold mine for fellow urban historians. Agent: Ike Williams, Kneerim & Williams. (Oct.)
Elizabeth Blackmar
"A powerful history of a remarkable contest over the governance of the housing market in New York City from World War I to the eve of the Great Depression. A highly original contribution to our understanding of American urban politics."—Elizabeth Blackmar, Columbia University, author of Manhattan for Rent, 1785–1850
Lisa Keller
“A must-read for understanding urban housing issues not just in New York but across the nation, The Great Rent Wars provides an in-depth analysis of the notoriously complex relationship between landlords and tenants in America’s largest city. This is a meticulously researched study about a subject that troubles us almost a century later." —Lisa Keller, Purchase College, State University of New York, executive editor, The Encyclopedia of New York City
Wall Street Journal
“Mr. Fogelson's book, while scholarly in tone and approach, provides a readable guide to these difficult years that will appeal to readers beyond the academy.”–Wall Street Journal
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300191721
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 10/15/2013
  • Pages: 512
  • Product dimensions: 6.90 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert M. Fogelson was born and raised in New York City. He is professor of urban studies and history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of several books, most recently Downtown: Its Rise and Fall, 1880–1930, and Bourgeois Nightmares: Suburbia, 1870­–1950, both published by Yale University Press.

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Read an Excerpt


New York, 1917â?"1929

By Robert M. Fogelson


Copyright © 2013 Robert M. Fogelson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-19172-1


The Postwar Housing Shortage

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 as large as Philadelphia and more than three times as large as Boston, Niles Weekly Register wrote that "a finished house without a tenant is not to be found in this great city." By midcentury the New York Times observed that a private house was "not to be found for love or money." Things grew even worse in the second half of the century, when hundreds of thousands of Europeans poured into New York and hundreds of thousands of Americans left the countryside for the metropolis. Spurred by the huge influx of immigrants, the population of New York soared to more than 3.4 million by 1900. And though they tried, the builders could not keep up with the growing demand. The housing shortage was especially hard on working-class New Yorkers, the great majority of whom were first-and second-generation immigrants. Most of them rented apartments in extremely crowded and highly unsanitary apartments on the Lower East Side and in other ethnic ghettos. The less fortunate slept in cellars or in police stations, where they were housed as vagrants or "indigent lodgers."

As far back as the 1850s, New York's squalid tenements had aroused grave concern among the city's upper-middle-class reformers, one of whom referred to New York as "the City of Living Death." After fobbing off the reformers with a few half-hearted and largely ineffective measures, the state legislature finally bowed to their pressure and adopted the Tenement House Act of 1901. The most important law in the history of tenement housing in the United States, it was designed to regulate future construction in ways that would reduce congestion and improve sanitary conditions. Opponents argued that the law would increase building costs, deter residential construction, and thereby exacerbate the housing shortage. When construction slowed down in the year or so after the law was enacted, it seemed they might be right. But the slowdown was short-lived. Starting in 1903, a building boom got under way the likes of which New Yorkers had never seen. With labor plentiful, building materials relatively inexpensive, and, most important of all, capital readily available, builders erected everything from posh high-rise apartment houses on Manhattan's East and West sides to modest five-and six-story walk-ups in Brooklyn and the Bronx. As one observer wrote in the middle of the boom, "It is doubtful if New York City, or indeed any other city of the world, ever before witnessed the expenditure of so many millions of dollars in the construction of tenement houses during a similar period."

By the time the boom came to an end in late 1916, the builders had transformed much of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. In less than a decade and a half they had erected nearly 27,000 apartment houses with close to 400,000 units. To put it another way, more than 40 percent of all the apartments in New York in 1916 had been built since 1903. The new construction was enough to house the population of every American city except Chicago. Even more noteworthy, it was enough to offset the steady growth of New York, whose population rose by well over a million in the decade before the United States entered World War I. It was also much more than enough to offset the loss of about six thousand old-law tenements, with roughly forty thousand apartments, which were demolished to make way for parks, schools, roads, and commercial buildings, chief among them the new Pennsylvania Railroad Station. With supply running well ahead of demand, the number of vacant apartments soared, reaching more than 67,000 in 1909, or enough to house the population of Washington, D.C. So did the vacancy rate, which was compiled by the city's Tenement House Department. By early 1909 it had reached 8.1 percent, which was unheard of in New York. And in early 1916, by which time the boom was winding down, it still stood at 5.6 percent, which was nearly twice as high as normal, according to Tenement House Commissioner Frank Mann.

For the many New Yorkers who had long been hard-pressed to find a decent apartment at a reasonable rent, the soaring vacancy rate provided a golden opportunity. And they seized it, noted Abram I. Elkus, a close ally of Governor Alfred E. Smith. Thousands of families moved out of old-law tenements on the Lower East Side and into new-law tenements in Brooklyn and the Bronx, where they found "much better apartments," with plenty of light and air and even hot water, toilets, and bathtubs. Often they moved not once but many times. They "moved from one apartment to another upon the slightest inducement," said one real estate man. They moved so often, remarked another, that New Yorkers maintained their reputation as "the most restless population in the world." Knowing they had "the upper hand," as one real estate man put it, prospective tenants drove a hard bargain. Said another, they "could pick, choose, demand and dictate to the limit and no man 19 could say them nay. This condition existed for ten long, weary years." Current tenants drove a hard bargain too. As Jacob Leitner, a Manhattan landlord, later recalled, tenants would come to him and say, "Mr. Leitner, if you don't give us a month's free rent in July we are going to store our furniture [and move] to the country for July and August. You give us that month's retn [sic] free, we agree to stay. [Otherwise we] won[']t sign any lease."

Desperate to fill their apartments, New York's landlords went to great lengths to get tenants and hold them. They not only made repairs, but also painted and otherwise "decorated" the apartments—often, lamented one real estate man, "according to the whim and caprice of the tenants." Some even attempted to attract new tenants by offering to pay their moving expenses and to give them a ton of coal. Perhaps the most striking sign of the landlords' desperation was their willingness to grant "concessions," free rent for a month or two—and occasionally even longer. Although some real estate men deplored this practice, many landlords found the logic of concessions irresistible. Most tenements, perhaps as many as 90 percent, were erected not by long-term investors, but by speculative builders, who were anxious to sell the buildings as soon as they were finished, pay off the first and maybe second and third mortgages, and then begin work on another building. Their problem was that the value of the property depended above all on its rent roll—not its rental income. The higher the rolls, the higher the value. Among real estate men, the rule of thumb was that the value of an apartment house was eight to ten times the rent roll. By employing concessions, not to mention fraudulent leases, builders conveyed what Jared N. Day calls "the illusion of high rental returns," which was vital to landlords who were attempting to unload their holdings.

Given a choice, most landlords preferred to grant concessions rather than reduce rents (and thereby drive down rent rolls). But during the prewar years they often had no choice. As Elkus put it, they had to take "whatever rent they could get." There were so many apartments available that one Manhattan landlord had to drop his rent to $3.50 per room per month even though the economic rent—the rent needed to cover his costs and yield a 6 percent return—was $7.50 per room per month. So many landlords followed suit that rents fell all over New York, especially in Washington Heights, which had been wildly overbuilt during the boom and where, according to a prominent real estate lawyer, they dropped by fully one-third. The situation was so grim, said a broker who specialized in Greenwich Village and Washington Square properties, that an apartment house that brought in 6 percent "was [a] particularly good investment." Indeed, to most landlords 6 percent would have been a godsend. Said one broker whose firm handled more than one hundred buildings with two to three thousand apartments, his best properties brought in 4 percent. Most landlords were lucky to earn 3 to 3.5 percent, which was less than the interest paid on savings accounts, said another real estate man. In many cases, wrote a special committee of the Washington Heights Taxpayers' Association, landlords "did well if they were able to secure sufficient income from their properties to pay taxes, water rents, insurance, and the mortgage interest, without any return whatever on their equities."

Fed up with years of what the head of a major real estate firm called "abnormally low" rents, some landlords gave up and watched as banks and other mortgagees foreclosed on their properties. In the hope that conditions would improve, others held on, doing what they could to stay a step ahead of their creditors, sometimes even digging into savings to pay interest, taxes, and other charges. Starting in early 1917, however, there were signs that things might be looking up. At long last, demand was catching up with supply. "Practically every desirable building is booked to its capacity," the Times wrote in January. Even new apartment houses still under construction were half rented. By April one real estate man predicted that unless the price of building materials declined, which was highly unlikely, "there is going to be a scarcity of apartments." Before long, landlords stopped offering concessions and for the first time in years began raising rents. Although the rent hikes were modest—a dollar or two in working-class neighborhoods, 10 to 15 percent in middle-and upper-middle-class districts—they were the largest in years. By mid-summer New York's Real Estate Record and Builders Guide, the industry's leading trade publication, wrote, "Apartment houses are now on a splendid paying basis, and the owner has cause for encouragement. He has had much to contend with during the past few years, but the wheel seems to have turned in his favor."

By the time the fall rental season arrived, most landlords and brokers were euphoric. "The apartment house situation has never been more promising," said Roland P. Elliman of Douglas L. Elliman & Co. It has been a good year, declared W. H. Dolson, another prominent broker, and next year "ought to be [even better]." Apartments were renting fast at all prices, said a West Side broker, "and we expect to be 100 per cent. rented by September 1." Other brokers were just as optimistic. By mid-winter one agent reported that he had only one vacancy among the two thousand apartments under his management and "several hundred applicants for it." Another agent said he had no vacancies at all. With so few vacant apartments—fewer, remarked Arthur K. Mack of the Real Estate Record and Builders Guide, than at any other time in the city's history—one landlord saw no point in spending money on advertising. With "nothing to offer" the dozens of applicants who came to his office every day, one broker stopped putting their names on his waiting list. Finding an apartment was as hard as finding "the needle in the haystack," another broker pointed out. And it would not get easier. "Remain in your apartments," he and other brokers advised tenants late in 1917, "and be satisfied to meet even slight advances in rent, because next year you may be unable to obtain a new apartment in Manhattan at any price."

It was good advice. As the Call wrote in September 1917, the landlords had the tenants "at their mercy." Whether they lived in Manhattan or the outer boroughs, most tenants would soon be paying more for housing. The Times agreed. "Practically every resident of New York, from the poorest tenement house dweller to the occupant of the most elaborate Fifth Avenue apartment, will pay more [next 21 year] for [the] privilege of being a New Yorker," it predicted. And pay more many did. Some landlords had already raised the rent as of October 1, one of the two days, the other being May 1, on which annual leases usually expired. During the fall others hiked the rent of monthly tenants and tenants without a lease as well. To the dismay of many tenants, especially those who had no heat and hot water, some landlords even raised the rent during the coal shortage. Often they said that they needed the increase to cover the soaring price of fuel. Although the price fell in the spring of 1918, rents continued to rise. By April, wrote the Call, they had reached an "UNBEARABLE POINT." Many landlords raised the rent during the summer and fall too. By the end of the year many tenants had seen the rent go up not once, but two, three, and even four times. As one whose family had moved into a six-room apartment in the East Bronx in 1906 testified, the landlord raised the rent twice in 1918, twice in 1919, and once in early 1920, even though the building was "in very bad condition" and the bedrooms were so small "you have to come out [to] dress yourself."

Many tenants charged that the rent hikes often amounted to gouging. A tenant at 725 Riverside Drive, a fashionable apartment house in Manhattan known as the "Tomahawk," complained that his landlord had raised the rent from $750 a year in 1916 to $900 in 1917 and $1,000 in 1918, an increase of 33 percent. (A few months later the landlord demanded an additional $300, prompting the irate tenants to say that the building, which had recently been renamed the "Beglad," ought to be called the "Besad.") Pancrazio Genovese, president of the Bronx Tenants Protective League, told the story of a New York City policeman who lived near Southern Boulevard, a working-class, largely Italian neighborhood, most of whose residents could not afford to pay more than seven to eight dollars a room per month. For a four-room apartment, which got heat, said Genovese, "when it pleases the landlord to give it," the rent was raised from $28 a month in 1916 to $32 in 1917 and $40 in 1918, an increase of over 40 percent. By 1920 it was up to $53. Rose Schneiderman, a Jewish immigrant from Poland who had emerged as one of New York's leading labor organizers and later as one of the city's most prominent tenant activists, claimed that rents had nearly doubled in some working-class neighborhoods. Other instances of alleged rent gouging appeared regularly in the city's newspapers. The Call, which was highly sympathetic to the plight of New York's working class, reported in the spring of 1918 that some landlords had raised rents by as much as 64 percent. And the Bronx Home News charged that some landlords had asked for increases of $100 to $300 a year, a sizable sum at a time when many New Yorkers earned less than $1,000 per annum.

Most landlords and real estate men dismissed the charges of gouging as groundless. Rents, they acknowledged, had gone up in the last year or two, but not very much. Where they went up, it was largely to cover operating costs, which had started to rise a year or two after the outbreak of World War I. And in most cases the rent hikes had not kept pace with these costs. Even though rents were rising, profits were falling. Some landlords "are lucky if they are able to keep their properties going at all," wrote the Real Estate Record and Builders Guide. A case in point was John P. Leo, a builder and landlord as well as chair of the Board of Standards and Appeals, which administered the city's zoning ordinance. "I own twelve apartment houses in Washington Heights," he said in June 1918, "and any man who will take them off my hands will forever have my gratitude." He had raised his rents the previous fall and expected to raise them again this fall, but not, he stressed, "to increase my profit," only "to keep down the deficit." Rents, real estate men also pointed out, were not going up "at anything like the same rate" as other commodities. They were not rising as fast as lumber, paint, bricks, and coal, not to mention sugar, meat, shoes, dresses, tables, and chairs. They were not even going up as fast as the price of newspapers, wrote Morris Morganstern. Annoyed by the many articles lambasting landlords for gouging tenants, he asked the editors of the New York Times, the price of which had just doubled, "Can you now purchase anything at the same price [at which it] was purchased heretofore?" Charles F. Noyes, a leading Manhattan broker, spoke for most real estate men when he pointed out that "rentals have always been and are the last commodity to increase in prices."

Excerpted from THE GREAT RENT WARS by Robert M. Fogelson. Copyright © 2013 Robert M. Fogelson. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Prologue....................     1     

PART ONE | FROM RENT HIKES TO RENT STRIKES....................          

1 The Postwar Housing Shortage....................     17     

2 Between a Rock and a Hard Place....................     40     

3 A Weighty Decision....................     62     

4 The Great Rent Strikes....................     85     

PART TWO | THE ROAD TO RENT CONTROL....................          

5 The Mayor's Committee on Rent Profiteering....................     109     

6 Enter the State Legislature....................     132     

7 The April Laws....................     153     

8 The September Laws....................     176     

PART THREE | CONSTITUTIONAL CHALLENGES....................          

9 The Battle in the State Courts....................     203     

10 The Fight in the Federal Courts....................     229     


11 A Question of Coverage....................     257     

12 A Reasonable Rent....................     282     

13 The Four Exceptions....................     309     

PART FIVE | THE POLITICS OF RENT CONTROL....................          

14 Landlords and Tenants in New York and Albany....................     333     

15 The Extension of Rent Control....................     360     

16 The Expiration of Rent Control....................     387     

Epilogue....................     415     

Notes....................     421     

Acknowledgments....................     475     

Index....................     477     

Illustrations appear following p. 214....................          

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