Yet, despite this grim outlook, tenants’ fight against evictions does not have to end.
Historically, the failures and limitations of federal policies have inspired local activism even as they have foreclosed national possibilities. One such grass-roots campaign took place during and after World War I, when short-lived federal efforts to ameliorate a housing shortage gave way to a longer fight against rent increases and evictions in state legislatures, local courts and city streets. Tenants built on lawmakers’ incomplete efforts to make surprising gains.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, millions of Americans left rural areas to find war work in armories, shipyards and garment factories in major cities. An estimated 200,000 civilian workers migrated to Philadelphia, for example, then known as the “Workshop of the World.” At the same time, the federal government banned nearly all private residential construction, to ration materials for the war effort.
The workers flocking to Philadelphia arrived in a deeply segregated and unequal city where many working-class and Black tenants already struggled to find affordable housing. With the influx of war workers, the city’s housing inequities fueled an acute crisis.
Most policymakers viewed the provision of housing as the domain of private markets. But the scale of the shortage fueled concerns that government inaction would compromise military readiness or spur social unrest, especially after Bolshevik revolutionaries toppled the czarist government in Russia. Addressing the housing shortage would “do more than any one thing to prevent the industrial revolution which threatens our country,” claimed one proponent of federal intervention.
Congress agreed, appropriating $175 million to two newly created agencies, the Emergency Fleet Corp. and the U.S. Housing Corp. (USHC), for the construction of homes for war workers. Federal legislation also banned the eviction of service members and regulated rents in Washington, over which the federal government had control.
Yet, with construction delayed by bureaucratic setbacks and Black workers categorically excluded from federal housing, these actions still left millions of Americans struggling to hold on to their homes. In Philadelphia, war workers flooded the offices of local elected officials and federal agents posted in the city, demanding government assistance as evictions loomed.
Overwhelmed by tenant demands that far outpaced the rate of government home construction, federal agents with the USHC established committees across the country to regulate rents and forestall evictions. These committees lacked legal authority, but in a wartime context of heightened government control over civilian life, they were often able to persuade landlords to submit to regulation for the sake of the war effort.
Francis Lewis, a Philadelphia-based agent of the U.S. Fuel Administration, refused to supply landlords with coal if they raised rents excessively or evicted their tenants during the winter months. Tenants had protested that they could not comply with Lewis’s order to ration fuel by purchasing in bulk when an eviction notice might send them packing any day.
The episode illustrated a common dynamic during the war years. Tenants, left behind by official policy but aware that federal agents pledged to address the housing shortage, demanded action. Those agents, given broad powers to aid the war effort, often met their demands.
But when the war ended in 1918, Congress moved quickly to terminate many wartime policies and programs. Conservative opponents of public housing argued that any justification for it ended with the war and warned of the dangers of “socialism.” Congress launched an investigation of the USHC’s supposedly wasteful spending, sold off many of the war workers’ housing projects and withdrew federal agents from their posts. Later, the Supreme Court overturned the legislation controlling rents in Washington.
Predicting that rents would fall once the ban on residential construction was lifted and migration rates subsided, the influential National Association of Real Estate Boards (NAREB) declared that the housing emergency was over.
It was wrong. Instead, shortages of capital, labor and materials still tied up in the war effort kept residential construction rates low even as urban populations continued to rise. Philadelphia’s United Tenants Protective Association, a group that claimed to represent 30,000 of the city’s tenants, insisted that the housing shortage was far from over. “Our boys won the war,” read one placard hung on the door of an apartment in the working-class Kensington neighborhood. “Let Americans also win this war against rent sharks.” “Casualty lists” were distributed bearing the names of Philadelphians evicted from their homes, as well as the names of the landlords responsible.
Even when residential construction rates finally did pick up in the mid-1920s, housing remained unaffordable for many working-class tenants, especially Black Americans. Segregation intensified in the 1920s as NAREB encouraged its members to use racially restrictive covenants. Philadelphia’s Black press and the Armstrong Association, a local civil rights group, defined the ongoing fight against evictions as a matter of racial justice. The Philadelphia Tribune reported that restrictive covenants barred Black Americans from buying or leasing any of the 35,000 homes constructed during 1924.
The postwar tenants movement faced significant obstacles. Philadelphia’s local real estate lobby launched a press campaign that sought to distinguish what the industry today calls “mom-and-pop landlords” from the popularly vilified “rent profiteers.” These tactics helped persuade the Pennsylvania legislature to reject rent-control bills in 1919, 1921 and 1923, with one representative conceding that rents were unacceptably high but remaining reluctant to place a burden on “reputable landlords.” Tenant advocates were more successful in passing legislation in New York state, which regulated rents through 1929.
State legislators also took no action against racially restrictive covenants, which the Supreme Court upheld in 1926.
Still, Philadelphia tenants scored a number of victories. More than 200 tenants who rented homes from wealthy coal merchant William Bryant refused to pay increased rents. After a protracted court battle, Bryant gave way. Under pressure from tenants, Philadelphia’s real estate association agreed to a new standard lease form, and a local judge refused to issue eviction writs. Warehouse workers closed their doors to constables who sought to remove tenants’ furniture after evictions, and plumbers restored tenants’ water when landlords shut it off.
The city’s tenants also won support from the Philadelphia Housing Association, the Philadelphia Legal Aid Bureau, several state senators and much of the press. Activists helped convince their new allies that housing markets required government intervention even in peacetime, setting the stage for the establishment of permanent public housing programs and other reforms in years to come.
While federal policies have often failed to curb and even exacerbated inequality and segregation, historians have shown that limited government action has also served as a springboard for activists.
Thanks in part to the demands of struggling tenants, rent controls during World War II were more widespread and lasted longer. Black women in postwar Baltimore and Philadelphia compelled local and federal authorities to make government housing projects in their cities safer, more affordable and more inclusive. When the passage of fair-housing legislation in the 1960s not only failed to desegregate the real estate market but encouraged investors to prey on Black homeowners, those homeowners waged legal battles against the Department of Housing and Urban Development and won.
Today, housing activists are regrouping in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling. They are organizing rent strikes, making sure tenants know about the rights they still have under state and local laws and advancing legislation to expand access to affordable housing. Their efforts will come too late for the hundreds of thousands of tenants already evicted during the pandemic, but they may yet lead to more-lasting change.
Tenants’ fight won’t end with the eviction moratorium. After all, it didn’t start with it.