Yates: Housing Organizing for the Long Haul

Contents | Introduction | 1933-48 | 1949-65 | 1960s | 1971-88 | 1988-93 | 1990s | Summary/Analysis | References/Notes/Bio

I. 1933-1948 -- Undeniable Need -- and Organizing -- Put Housing on the National Policy Agenda

The Housing Situation of the Period

One aspect of the Great Depression was a massive housing crisis. The incoming Roosevelt Administration estimated there were 1,000 home foreclosures each day in 1933. (Fish 1979, p. 195) In 1932, evictions occurred in New York City at two to three times pre-Depression levels, vacancy rates in some low-income neighborhoods rose to 15 percent, and "hundreds of thousands of people left their apartments for smaller ones, fell into the status of lodgers, or became part of the army of homeless that slept on streets, lived in Hoovervilles, or rode the rails." (Lawson 1986, p. 100) Nationally, while other prices fell with the failing economy, rents lagged about a year behind, reflecting the desire of landlords to keep meeting mortgage payments and the difficulties tenants had in moving. Thus low-income tenants, already hard pressed, "were having to pay a rising share of their falling income." (Stone 1993, P. 100)

Meanwhile, farm foreclosures and abandonments drove 60 percent of the population from the Dust Bowl region of the Midwest and Southwest.(Foner and Garraty, 1991, p. 303) In these and other rural areas, when farmers lost their farms, farm workers their jobs, or sharecroppers the use of the land they sharecropped, they usually also lost their homes.

All economic activity dependent on housing, from construction to lending, was also devastated. Housing starts in 1933 were one-tenth of those in 1925 (Wright 1981, p. 240), and approximately half of the outstanding home mortgage debt was in default. (Fish 1979, p. 186)

The Government Response

Housing programs were part of the New Deal package from the beginning. As participants in the settlement house movement of the early twentieth century, key New Deal decision-makers, including Harry Hopkins, Frances Perkins, and Eleanor Roosevelt, had a longstanding commitment to housing reform as part of a larger social justice agenda. (Foner and Garraty, 1991, p. 984) However, the largest New Deal housing program, the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC), was no "do-gooder" program. HOLC refinanced housing loans for lenders, and in the process set uniform national standards that allowed longer-term mortgages. Its work had much more to do with lenders, real estate and construction than with the needs of low-income people. The HOLC's Chairman reported that "more than 90% of this money has gone to the commercial banks, savings banks, insurance companies, building and loan associations and mortgage companies..." (Hill 1935, p. 12) By 1935, the HOLC had lent $3.1 billion, and "1 out of 5 mortgaged dwellings [had] received HOLC refinancing aid." (Fish, 1979, p. 189)

It was as true in the New Deal as it is in reform efforts today that unless strategic organizing intervenes, "the interests, perspective and style of those who are middle-class, white and/or male tend to predominate, and the existing relationships of power get reproduced." (Stone 1993, p. 277) Such mortgage programs did not meet the most serious housing needs of a nation whose majority still were tenants. The new low-cost rental public housing program was more relevant. But even Harold Ickes, Administrator of the Public Works Administration, the original federal public housing agency, stated that "funds available for housing were far short of the amount necessary to eliminate more than a small percentage of the vast areas of social decay disgracing every large city." (Ickes 1936, p. 14)

The Activist Response

Housing organizing was a key focus of the Communist Party and other progressive groups throughout the Depression and New Deal period. The National Unemployed Councils, formed in 1930 at the call of the Communist Party, took on "the organization of resistance to evictions. Squads of neighbors were organized to bar the way to the dispossessing officers. Whole neighborhoods were frequently mobilized to take part in this mutual assistance.." (Winter, 1969, p. 61) In New York City alone, "hundreds, possibly thousands, of such incidents occurred during the early depression years," (Lawson 1986, p. 101) and the tactic was also widely used throughout the urban Midwest.

Another housing tactic, with greater long-term impact, was the rent strike. Even before the Depression, Party cadres tried to organize a rent strike in Harlem in 1929. In 1932 and 1933, the two tactics came together in New York City, as evictions of rent strike leaders brought as many as 4,000 people into the streets in pitched battles with the police. (Lawson 1986, P. 104-105)

In the deep South, Communist Party organizers sought to organize the Sharecroppers Union and reported from rural Alabama in 1933 that the Union had successfully blocked evictions and forced plantation owners to cancel the debts of sharecroppers. (Winter 1969, p. 75)

Such direct action led to a real but limited federal commitment to housing those most in need. A contemporary commentator described President Roosevelt as "having no enthusiasm for any bona fide housing program" because it would require "a lavish outlay of federal funds" and bring "severe damage to the private real-estate-mortgage structure of the country." (Ward, 1936, p. 635) Nevertheless, the New Deal and war years saw the creation of new housing agencies. Until the New Deal, low-income people in the United States had had no federal housing assistance. The Farm Security Agency and the United States Housing Authority (both established in 1937) laid the groundwork for today's rural and urban housing programs, and local public housing authorities were established across the nation.

How does the housing organizing of this period fare when assessed by the contemporary Sidney Hill benchmarks?

1) Resident Self-Defense

New York City's Depression era resident self-defense was so strong that it was institutionalized in the city's political life. The Depression years created a "a new form of citywide tenant federation that employed a uniquely effective 'mix' of tactics: expert legal representation....reinforced by rent withholding and picketing; careful research on housing issues, which led to legislation projecting a 'tenant perspective'; and aggressive lobbying for tenant interests in cooperation with liberal and left wing organizations" (Lawson 1986, P. 95) -- a progressive framework that has survived, and continues to be effective, into the late 1990s. At its core, one writer found, have been "working-class Jewish women associated with the Communist Party who kept landlords on the defensive for three generations," (Lawson 1986, P. 7) and who continue to do so today. During the Depression, resident self-defense like this was common in many communities, but in most communities it did not last into the post-war period.

2) Technical Assistance

The New Deal created a cadre of professionals in local and national housing agencies, who founded professional organizations still active today, including the National Housing Conference (founded as the National Public Housing Conference), whose modern core membership consists of for-profit developers of subsidized housing.(3) The National Association of Housing Officials was the ancestor of today's National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials. (Fish 1979, P. 212) Not then (or now) accountable to grassroots communities, these groups work with opinion leaders to get and keep housing programs. During this period, technical housing expertise grew, but diverged from grassroots organizing.

3) Progressive Agenda

New Deal housing activism was carried on by a broad informal liberal and progressive alliance, including liberal officials. In 1937 Tenement House Commissioner Langdon Post told New York City's City-Wide Tenants Council that "Nothing was ever gotten in this country except when the people forced it." (Lawson 1986, P. 95) Even Harry Hopkins said at the opening of New York's first public housing, "Private capital .... has never spent a dime to build a house for the poor person." (Lawson 1986, P. 94) The Democratic Party, in its 1936 platform, stated that "our people are entitled to decent, adequate housing at a price they can afford." (Commager 1963)

As much as in any other period, housing organizers of this period succeeded in integrating housing organizing into a larger political agenda.

4) Right to Housing

As the New Deal continued, local activists increasingly focussed on local battles for housing, paralleling the labor movement, the major social justice movement of the New Deal period, which continued to grow after World War II, but became more focussed on consolidating its gains and creating an institutional structure. Mobilization for a national right to housing, never a major force, decreased.

5) Anti-Racism

The New Deal emerged during a period of heightened racism. The decade after World War I saw tremendous setbacks for racial justice, including unchecked mob attacks and lynchings directed against African-Americans, the heyday of the Ku Klux Klan and of nativist activism that led to Asian immigration restrictions and other repressive laws. Jim Crow had ruled the South for sixty years, and housing segregation was increasing across the nation, reinforced by the professionalization of real estate.

A "Black and White Unite and Fight" anti-racism, though based on a superficial analysis of race, was key to moving the labor movement forward. However, few white organizers saw anti-racist action as strategically central to their organizing. African-Americans and other people of color saw little if any improvement in their position relative to whites during this period, but did gain experience critical to their next steps towards justice.

As the modern housing policy framework was created, racial segregation was an essentially unquestioned part of it. This fact, effectively unchallenged by New Deal housing organizing, had enormous consequences.

The Depression brought housing need to the forefront of political decision-making in a way that engaged hundreds of thousands of people, at least briefly, in major struggles around housing issues. While most of these struggles were at best defensive, the inclusion of housing demands in a larger progressive agenda led to a fundamental step forward in how the United States government dealt with housing. However, the emergence of a body of housing experts with no accountability to communities, and the lack of a sophisticated anti-racist perspective, set the stage for future setbacks, especially for low-income people and those in communities of color.

Contents | Introduction | 1933-48 | 1949-65 | 1960s | 1971-88 | 1988-93 | 1990s | Summary/Analysis | References/Notes/Bio