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Recalling the Great Depression’s anti-eviction struggles

Published Feb 14, 2008 8:44 PM

U.S. workers are encouraged to aspire toward the American Dream—combine fiscal discipline with a solid work ethic to lift yourself up, purchase your own home and retire with a sense of dignity and security. For every worker forced out of their home by the companies that abused them with racist, predatory lending tactics, the American Dream has been exposed as just that—a dream, pedaled by those with power to ensure those without are busy competing with each other in pursuit of an illusory promised land.

Economists and industry experts are predicting that foreclosures and unemployment will increase into 2009. The mortgage crisis has spread to other areas of the economy and now threatens the stability of global markets. Recession is the latest buzzword among economists, the media and politicians. The multinational working class is always the worst hit by economic downturns as it is left to fend for itself while Washington busies itself with the task of bailing out the corporations that manufactured the crisis.

The plight of workers facing foreclosure on their homes is reminiscent of the Depression-era struggle against housing evictions led by unemployed workers.

Great Depression woes

The 1920s were a decade of incredible wealth for the U.S. ruling class. National income rose from $60 billion in 1922 to $87 billion in 1929. The index of industrial production reached a record high in June of 1929.

Despite the strong economy, it was clear that U.S. capitalism was not designed to benefit the workers on whom it depended. The increase in profit and productivity did not prompt businesses to expand their workforce. Depressed farm prices pushed millions of farmers into the cities to look for work. Unprecedented prosperity and high unemployment existed side by side throughout the decade.

The fact that such little wealth had trickled down to the workers who actually produced it did not deter economists and journalists from trumpeting the 1920s economy as proof that capitalism had overcome the cyclical crises and depressions that had besieged it over the last century.

Yet in 1929, the production index suddenly declined from its June record, and on Oct. 24 the stock market crashed on infamous “Black Thursday.” Unemployment immediately shot up. The number of workers laid off or fired rose to 2.5 million within two weeks. Official estimates on the number of unemployed show an increase from 429,000 in 1929 to 4,065,000 in January 1930. The number reached 12 million by 1932.

Cities such as Toledo, Ohio, were ravaged as the unemployment rate for males hovered around 40 percent. Fifty percent of Cleveland’s industrial workforce was unemployed and at some points only 10 percent of New York garment workers were employed. Black workers suffered disproportionately, with an unemployment rate around 66 percent for most of the depression.

Personal loan companies discovered that as much as half of their outstanding loans were to workers forced into unemployment. The severity of the high unemployment rates diminished workers’ ability to pay for basic necessities like food and housing.

A wave of evictions hit the country as millions of jobless workers were forced into the streets by the landlords who had happily profited off their rent payments before the stock market crash. More than 200,000 evictions occurred in 1930 in New York City alone. Millions more would occur throughout the country over the next decade.

Workers fight back

Politicians in Washington and around the country refused to act as the stock market crash took an increasing toll on the livelihood of average workers. Instead of using the United States’ vast treasury to feed, clothe and house the millions of unemployed, the capitalist politicians resorted to vain tokenism and extolled “upright” citizens to donate to local charities and show sympathy toward the poor.

The Communist Party USA, whose program then included struggling for a socialist revolution, spearheaded an effort to organize the unemployed and fight back against the injustices incurred during the depression. Communists organized Unemployed Councils and led a vigorous struggle for a moratorium on evictions and direct aid to the dispossessed. The councils called marches and rallies and frequently occupied the offices of government agencies.

Two of the most effective tactics employed by the councils were eviction resistance and rent strikes. Rent strikes required a high degree of organization among tenants to secure widespread participation and to form committees to articulate demands and negotiate with landlords. Seven rent strikes were successfully organized in New York City during the last nine months of 1931 and many more occurred in New York and around the country throughout the decade.

Eviction resistance involved council militants physically moving the furniture of evicted tenants back into their apartments. Crowds would often gather and, under the direction of the Communist-led Unemployed Councils, workers would battle the police dispatched to enforce the eviction. Thousands of organized incidents of eviction resistance occurred throughout the Great Depression.

The Great Rent Strike War of 1932

One such incident to gain notoriety was the Battle of the Bronx and is detailed in Mark Naison’s “From eviction resistance to rent control: tenant activism in the Great Depression” (in “The Tenant Movement in New York City, 1904-1984”).

Naison points to a quiet section of the Bronx as the starting point for the Great Rent Strike War of 1932. There the Unemployed Councils led rent strikes at three different large apartment buildings in the early part of January.

The majority of tenants in each building withheld their rent and demanded a moratorium on evictions, reductions in rent prices and recognition of the tenants’ committee for bargaining purposes. Landlords responded with widespread evictions, especially targeted toward those leading the strike. Judges quickly approved the eviction notices.

The evictions were met with strong resistance when police and marshals attempted to force tenants from the buildings. Hundreds of protestors fought the police hand-to-hand and with sticks and stones when the officers would attempt to remove furniture from the buildings.

The outnumbered police barely held their line while waiting for reinforcements as the crowds battled them under the direction of Communist Party organizers. Reports from the New York Times indicate the women, who outnumbered the men, were the most militant, were more likely to battle the police and took the most arrests. In each case, huge numbers of foot and mounted police, marshals and moving men had to be dispatched. The capitalist court system assisted the landlords in attempting to break the strike by approving mass evictions and ordering injunctions against picketing.

The landlords’ counteroffensive won them a temporary reprieve, but by the winter of 1932-1933 the communists had strengthened the Unemployed Councils and a new firestorm of rent strikes spread across New York City and around the country. Organizers called hunger marches and sit-ins at state capitols, town halls, relief bureaus and on Washington.

The strikes, eviction battles and hunger marches proved a stunning success for unemployed workers. Landlords often agreed to significant reductions in rent and to slow the pace of evictions. Agencies such as the Home Relief Bureau were forced by the sit-ins and hunger strikes to dispense funds to the protestors for rent payment.

Rent control and public housing: a lasting legacy

The unemployed workers’ movement had a lasting impact beyond the temporary victories obtained from landlords and relief agencies. The Unemployed Councils’ militancy forced the national and state governments to enact serious housing reforms, the twin pillars of which were rent control and public housing.

After almost a decade of rent strikes and eviction resistance, Congress passed the United States Housing Act of 1937. The act established a public housing program under the direction of the U.S. Housing Authority to provide loans to local agencies for the construction of low-rent housing. The USHA was the predecessor of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is supposed to ensure affordable housing today.

Rent controls were another response forced on the government by the militant demands for affordable housing. In 1942 Franklin Roosevelt signed the Emergency Price Control Act into law. The act established a countrywide price control system including limits on the amount of rent landlords could charge for apartments. When the act was allowed to expire in 1947, various states and municipalities around the country stepped in to keep some form of rent controls in place.

Right-wing attacks on these programs have been consistent throughout the decades. In the 1980s a vociferous conservative assault on progressive welfare programs ensued in the U.S. under the Reagan regime. As a result, many of the progressive elements of the housing legislation were watered down or removed.

Workers today are much more vulnerable to the whims of the market than when the legislation was first passed following a decade of communist-inspired rebellion against capitalism’s housing crisis. The existence of these programs today, even in their more modest and scaled back versions, is a testament to the lasting legacy of the depression-era struggles.

Housing battles continue today

Clarence Darrow, a progressive trial lawyer famous for defending Eugene Debs and John Scopes, is alleged to have once quipped, “History repeats itself. That is one of the things wrong with history.” This is certainly true as long as capitalism exists as the dominant force in history. Today’s mortgage crisis threatens to nullify the hard work and aspirations of millions of workers.

However, there are signs that it is not just the crisis in capitalism that is repeating itself, but also the struggle against its inhumane tendency to force millions of families into homelessness during economic downturns.

In Massachusetts, a movement to stop evictions began in earnest at the start of the new year. Tenant activists, trade unionists, anti-war organizers and progressive local politicians joined together and successfully faced down a constable sent to enforce the eviction of a mother and children from their home.

In Detroit, the Michigan Emergency Committee Against War and Injustice, Detroit City Task Force and the United Community Housing Coalition have embarked on a campaign for a moratorium on new home foreclosures. Protestors rallied on Jan. 29 to pressure Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm during her annual State of the State Address.

As the mortgage crisis spreads, so will the movement for a moratorium. If this movement gains the sense of urgency, militancy and mass support that the Unemployed Councils of the 1930s did, then people’s history can repeat itself too.