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Tracing The Earliest Roots Of New York's Rent Control Laws

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New York's rent control program was formally enacted exactly seven decades ago, in 1943. In a short excerpt from his new book, The Great Rent Wars: New York, 1917-1929, MIT professor of history and urban studies Robert Fogelson explores the early groundwork—namely, the social and political historical context—of what would later become the city's rent control laws. Fogelson looks back as early as 1917 to examine post-World War I housing shortages, the abusive tactics many landlords employed during this time (i.e. raising rents by 100 percent with little notice), the organized rent strikes the ensued, and, finally, the regulatory measures that emerged in response. Today, New York's are among the strongest extant laws in the country—and a subject of much debate even a century after their fledgling origins. Read on for a history lesson.

The book excerpt starts now:

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 do otherwise, the legislators dealt with bills to hold down the rising rents in much the same way that they dealt with bills to alleviate the coal shortage: they shelved them.

A bill introduced by Socialist assemblyman Charles B. Garfinkel of the Bronx would have prevented the landlords from raising the rent for a year after the tenants moved in—or, if they had already moved in, until May 1, 1919. If the landlords wanted to raise the rent thereafter, they would have to give the tenants thirty days' notice. Another bill, introduced by Socialist assemblyman William N. Feigenbaum of Brooklyn, would have created a housing commission and empowered it to acquire land, erect dwellings, and rent them for only enough to cover the cost of upkeep. Neither bill made it out of committee.1

With the conspicuous exception of the 10 Socialist assemblymen, all of whom came from New York City, most legislators, Democrats and Republicans alike, did not view rent profiteering as a serious statewide problem. Although rents were going up in New York City, they were not rising at an alarming rate. Nor were they going up anywhere as rapidly in New York as in Detroit, Cleveland, and other cities. and even if rent profiteering was a source of concern in New York City, it was not much of an issue upstate, where most local officials felt "they had the housing situation well in hand."

Senator Peter A. Abeles, a Bronx Republican, recalled that when he arrived in Albany in January to start his first (and, it turned out, only) term, most of his colleagues believed that rent profiteering was not widespread in the city, much less the state. He therefore took it upon himself to persuade them that "the situation was growing more intolerable daily and that nothing could make for unrest more than the Legislature's indifference."2

Even the few state legislators who regarded rising rents as a serious problem were not sure it was up to them to try to solve it. Like most Americans, they were aware that the problem was a national, even an international one. To deal with it Britain, France, and other European countries had already imposed rent control. It was time for the United States to follow suit, said many Americans, among them the leaders of the American Federation of Labor and the Greater New York Tenants League.

Under the Soldiers' and Sailors' Civil Relief act, which was passed in March 1918, Congress had protected U.S. servicemen and their dependents from profiteering landlords. It should now offer the same protection to all Americans, many of whom were contributing to the war effort in other ways. Under the Saulsbury Resolution, which was adopted in May 1918, Congress had acted to stop rent profiteering in Washington, D.C. It should now take steps to stop it in other cities.

Although Congress shelved two nationwide rent control bills in June 1918, there was still reason to believe it would do something about rent profiteering before long.3 Like other Americans, most New York State legislators were also confident that the problem would soon be resolved even if Congress did nothing. Once the war was over residential construction would surge, easing the housing shortage and ending most rent profiteering.

During the first half of 1919, however, the plight of New York City's tenants emerged as a matter of a growing of concern in Albany. As the housing shortage became acute, most New York landlords raised the rents, often by substantial amounts, and then in many cases raised them again. Contrary to expectations, rents in New York went up more rapidly after the war than during the war. They also went up more rapidly in New York than in most other big cities. Moreover, the housing shortage was no longer confined to New York City. As John Alan Hamilton, a lawyer from upstate and also the president of the Erie County Bar association, pointed out, the problem had spread not only to Buffalo, Hamilton's home town, but also to Rochester, Syracuse, and Albany.

By mid-1919 it was becoming clear that despite the growing furor over the high cost of living, Congress was not going to do anything to curb rent profiteering. It came close in late August [of that year], when the House of Representatives voted by a narrow margin to put landlords under the Lever act, which had been passed in 1917 to curb profiteering by coal dealers, retail grocers, and other businessmen; but under pressure from Republicans, the bill was shelved.4 It was also becoming clear that notwithstanding the law of supply and demand, the housing problem was not going to solve itself: residential construction, far from picking up after the war, was still stuck in the doldrums and would probably stay there for the foreseeable future.

Whether this concern would lead to action remained to be seen. But there was good reason to believe that Albany might be more sympathetic to the plight of New York City's tenants in 1919 than in 1918. As a result of the November election, the Republicans lost seven seats in the Senate and four in the assembly, nearly all of them from New York City. Although the legislature was still "safely Republican," wrote the Times, the GOP's working majority was down to four in the upper house and seventeen in the lower house, which was not enough to override a gubernatorial veto. The Socialists fared even worse, losing all but two of their 10 seats in the assembly. By contrast, the Democrats did very well, gaining four seats in the Senate and 13 in the Assembly.

Even more stunning was the defeat of Republican governor Whitman, who was running for his third term against Alfred E. Smith, a Democrat and president of the New York City Board of Aldermen. A lackluster campaigner, Whitman tried hard to smear Smith by stressing his ties to Tammany Hall. "Shall Albany be run from Fourteenth Street [the site of Tammany's headquarters]?" he asked the voters. But Smith ran very well in New York City, where he was supported not only by Tammany, but also by anti-Tammany Democrats, insurgent Republicans, and other urban progressives, and pretty well in the heavily ethnic districts of several upstate cities. In the end he won by fewer than 15,000 (or less than 1 percent) of the more than 2 million votes cast. The vote was so close, writes one historian, that Whitman "spent a month in futile litigation to obtain a recount and prevent Smith from taking office."5

During the campaign Smith did not have much to say about the housing problem. Neither, for that matter, did Whitman. Only the Socialists made an issue of it. And Smith, who owed his political success to Tammany Hall, was not a Socialist—or a radical of any kind. At one point he even signed a bill making it a misdemeanor to display a red flag at any rally or parade. Yet Smith was a champion of working people. His father had been a workingman. And were it not for his political know-how and good fortune, he would probably have ended up one, too. (During the campaign he reminded voters, "When Whitman was an Amherst College student, I was working at the Fulton Fish Market.")

During his many years in the State Assembly, first as a member and then as a leader, he had shown a readiness to regulate private enterprise in the interest of working people. As a legislator with an expansive notion of the police power, he supported bills to enhance the safety of factory workers and to limit the hours of labor for women and children. He also backed workmen's compensation and a minimum wage, though again only for women and children.6

It was not clear how far he would go to solve the housing problem when he took office in January 1920. But even if he would not go as far as the Socialists, he would almost certainly go farther than Whitman. And as governor from 1919 to 1921—and again from 1923 to 1929—he would be tested as much by the housing problem as by any other issue. [Editor's note: A rent control measure was passed in 1920, and lasted till 1929. To tell how would give away the rest of the book. Here's a radio teaser.]

· The Great Rent Wars: New York, 1917-1929 [Amazon]
· All Rent Control coverage [Curbed]
· All Renters Week 2013 coverage [Curbed]


1. New York Times, November 8, 1917, February 24, 1918, March 30, 1947; Paula Eldot, Governor Alfred E. Smith: The Politician as Reformer (New York, 1983), p. 13; New York Call, March 12, September 29, 1920; Housing Betterment, May 1918, p. 45.

2. Preliminary Report of the Committee Appointed to Investigate Housing and Ice Conditions of the State [of New York] (Albany, 1920), p. 3; New York Times, March 16, April 13, 18, 19, 1919, September 13, 1952, September 22, 1958.

3. Edward L. Schaub, "The Regulation of Rentals During the War Period," Journal of Political Economy, January 1920, pp. 7â€"11, 19â€"25; Edith Berger Drellich and Andrée Emery, Rent Control in War and Peace (Washington, D.C., 1939), pp. 66â€"74; New York Call, May 29, June 7, 15, August 29, 1918.

4. Preliminary Report of the Committee To Investigate Housing, p. 3; New York Times, May 5, August 23, 1919; U.S. Bureau of the Census, Fourteenth Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1920, vol. 2: Population, 1920 (Washington, D.C., 1922), pp. 1280, 1286; New York Evening Mail, August 23, 1919, Lusk Committee Papers, New York State Archives, Albany.

5. New York Times, November 6, 7, 1918; Eldot, Governor Alfred E. Smith, p. 114;
Robert F. Wesser, A Response to Progressivism: The Democratic Party and New York Politics, 1902â€"1918 (New York, 1986), pp. 208â€"215.

6. Robert A. Slayton, Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith (New York, 2001), pp. 135â€"136; Wesser, A Response to Progressivism, pp. 208â€"215; Oscar Handlin, Al Smith and His America (Boston, 1958), pp. 53â€"61.