Lilac Philly

Reviving Rent Control

By Michelle Crouch, May 21, 2021
Rent Control Collage
Rent Control Collage

Reviving Rent Control

At 48th and Pine, Verna’s rent has gone up over 10% in the last year. It’s the same for Judi at 37th and Spring Garden. At 20th and Chestnut, Barry’s rent has increased by a whopping 33%. Frances, who lives on Rowan Street just off Germantown Ave, has mailed in her copy of the rent control petition, signing her support for a three year rent freeze and a cap of 3% increases after that. Organizers disrupt a City Council meeting, accusing the politicians of letting a rent control bill languish in committee.

Soon after, in the Sunday edition of the Inquirer, an ominous brick of text warns readers not to “let the dead hand of rent control fall upon the city of Philadelphia.” The real estate lobbying groups that placed the ad encourage citizens to testify in front of City Council, arguing that rent control is an “exercise in defying the immutable laws of life.”

The fate of the rent control bill introduced by a newly elected member of City Council is undecided -- will it die in committee or advance to a full vote?

These events all took place in 1975. But you could be forgiven for thinking that this housing crisis, and the landlords’ stubborn devotion to the “immutable” free market, sounds remarkably current. Then as now, Black residents bear the brunt of evictions and displacement.

The factors driving today’s shortage of affordable rental housing differ from those in the 1970s: back then, high inflation meant that rent increases outpaced spending power, high interest rates meant mortgages were difficult to obtain, and Philadelphia was losing residents. Blight and abandonment of housing were the big fears. Now interest rates are low, the city’s property market is “white hot,” and Philadelphia’s population has been increasing since 2010. Today tenants are more likely to worry that their landlord will sell the property for a tidy profit than abandon it -- and that the new owners will either refuse to renew their lease or hike the rent to unaffordable levels. And that’s before we add in the pandemic and the looming wave of evictions it promises to bring.

In June 2020, Councilmember Kendra Brooks introduced a set of six bills known as the Emergency Housing Protection Act, which included a waiver of late fees and the popular Eviction Diversion Program. Five of the bills passed. The bill that failed would have prevented landlords from raising rents during the pandemic, but it didn’t receive enough votes from housing committee members to move forward (bills must first receive a majority of affirmative votes in committee, and then nine votes from the full Council. If the mayor vetoes the bill, it goes back to Council, where it must receive at least twelve votes to override the veto). In November 2020, measures that would have extended these protections for a longer period of time also died in committee -- councilmembers simply dropped off the conference call before it could even be voted on, meaning there was no way to move forward.

The temporary rent control bill initially included in the Emergency Housing Protection Act, and the “Good Cause” eviction legislation passed in December 2018, signaled that the movement for rent control has breached the chambers of City Hall for the first time in decades. Good Cause laws are sometimes included within rent control legislation, and close an important loophole that landlords could potentially exploit. With this legislation in place, landlords can’t evict tenants, or refuse to renew their lease, without a specific reason for doing so. Currently in Philadelphia it covers leases under one year, but advocates want to expand the law to cover all leases. It’s an important tenant protection on its own, but it’s especially important when rent control is in place -- otherwise landlords might evict tenants in hopes of being able to raise the rent for a new occupant (whether or not this is allowed depends on the specifics of the rent control policy).

As Council continues its skirmishes over the city budget and then takes a summer recess, it’s a good time to reflect on the history of the tenant rights movement in Philadelphia, and especially the three different rent control bills that were in play between 1974 and 1979. The main grassroots organization advocating for them was the Tenants Action Group (TAG). Though the rent control bills didn’t pass, TAG accomplished other important wins -- they pushed Council to establish landlord-tenant court, and to pass bills including one that allowed renters to make repairs and deduct the cost from their rent, and one that prevented landlords from turning away potential tenants on the basis of family make-up, an especially important victory for single mothers.

TAG morphed over the years into more of a social and legal services organization, processing intake calls and providing educational workshops on tenants’ rights. Since 2005, it's been known as Tenant Union Representative Network (TURN), a familiar player in the housing landscape for anyone who keeps track. The group’s earliest and most militant years, however, are documented extensively at Temple University’s Special Collections Research Center.

Many of the names referenced in the TAG archives have become part of Philadelphia’s physical landscape in the decades since the manuscript boxes were donated. Temple’s Charles Library, which houses the collection, sits close to the Howard Gittis Student Center -- Gittis was counsel for the Home Builders Association of Philadelphia and Suburban Counties (one of the sponsors of the “dead hand” ad), a buddy of Frank Rizzo, and one of the chief foes of rent control. And of course it’s near Cecil B. Moore Avenue, the east-west stretch of road renamed in 1987 for the city councilmember who was sometimes a friend and sometimes an impediment to the housing advocates (TAG steering committee minutes note that he supported many of their proposed reforms but called rent control “communistic” [1]). Dr. Ethel Allen School honors the Republican councilmember who introduced the first of three 1970s rent control bills.

Other names in the files haven’t been memorialized in concrete or on street signs. Stan Shapiro, Maisha Jackson, and Eva Gladstein are all still living and working in Philadelphia, and I talked to each in early 2020, before the pandemic permanently shifted our lives, and at least temporarily changed the focus of Philadelphia’s housing conversation to eviction moratoriums, rent cancellation, and the rights of unhoused people living in encampment settings like Camp JTD on the Parkway.

[1] This quote, along with many others throughout the article, come from documents in Series 1 and 2 of the Tenant Action Group (Philadelphia, Pa.) Records, Acc. 580, Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Assembling the Tenant Action Group

In 1969, Shapiro arrived in Philadelphia as a newly-minted movement lawyer. “That was a wonderful era,” he told me, “in which everybody was engaged in organizing, including the lawyers, who viewed representing organizations in movement as really the key way to protect low income people.” He joined the staff of Community Legal Services, a non-profit founded in 1966 to provide legal services to the poor.

Shapiro soon found himself in the thick of housing work -- in part because his direct supervisor was fired for insubordination just eight days after he started the job. He learned he would be representing not just individuals but groups, including the City Wide Tenants Council.

The tenants movement in Philadelphia had emerged to fight deteriorating conditions and the slumlords who let buildings fall into total disrepair. People organized their buildings to go on rent strike, which in some cases led to mass evictions, then appeals contesting the evictions, and then to collective bargaining agreements with landlords. But some leaders began to look for ways to change the system rather than taking on landlords one by one. City Wide Tenants Council had a legal victory in pressuring City Council to pass a landlord registration bill -- the reason why landlords in Philadelphia are required to have a rental license today, which (in theory) can be revoked if L&I finds that the landlord isn’t maintaining a habitable residence.

It was through City Wide Tenants Council that Shapiro met Rudy Tolbert. Tolbert was a Harrisburg native who moved to Philadelphia in 1966, after serving in Vietnam. He became the first Black person in Boeing’s Electronics Quality Control division. Outside of the workplace, he became deeply involved in his community in Philadelphia. Shapiro saw that Tolbert was someone who could mobilize community members and also understood the city’s power brokers -- a truly effective organizer. After some internal conflict (another historical constant), Tolbert left the City Wide Tenants Council and formed the Northwest Tenants Organization.

CLS wasn’t officially representing the Northwest Tenants Organization; Shapiro was warned to stop working with Tolbert. “And I tried to not work with Rudy, but I failed,” Shapiro said. He left CLS and joined Tolbert at the Northwest Tenants Organization. There was no money to pay him -- Shapiro was able to live off of money he’d saved, but the bigger question was the draft board. If he wasn’t officially employed, he was eligible to be drafted for the Vietnam war. But Tolbert helped to drum up letters of support for Shapiro, who went home to the Bronx and appealed to the draft board -- he was doing the exact same work he’d been doing at CLS, just for an organization that couldn’t currently pay him. He won the appeal, Northwest Tenants Organization found funding, and continued leading rent strikes in Germantown and Mt. Airy.

In 1974, Tolbert wrote to an organizer in Cambridge, Massachusetts about a plan to convene a group of tenant leaders, first from the tenant councils that had formed in the northwest and then from all sections of the city: the Tenants Action Group. “We have not been able to produce a situation in which the tenant’s activities proceed from one level of struggle to another level of struggle,” he wrote. “In order to do direct action or political work, we have to create an entity outside of Northwest, because of the nature of our funding […] We would like to revive some of the techniques Northwest used in 1968-1971, including “direct action” around landlords.”

In July of 1974, the TAG steering committee held its first meeting. Maisha Jackson (also referred to as Brenda Jefferson and Brenda Jackson in news reports of the time) became the spokesperson of the new group, and one of the most visible faces of the rent control movement. In pictures in the Daily News and the Inquirer, she stares down council members with an even gaze, whether testifying or disrupting the session. She was also active with Operation Fight Back, a group advocating for price controls, cutting military spending, and funding human services and jobs programs.

Jackson didn’t come to TAG out of a desire to work on policy or legal minutiae. “I didn’t come at it from the housing perspective,” she told me. “I came at it from the political perspective.” She had been a movement organizer for years by then. The goal was to move oppressed people toward organizing themselves, becoming politically active, registering to vote, and advocating for what they needed. And one of the things that nearly everyone had in common was the need for better housing.

Eva Gladstein was another early TAG member who would be with the group through its fight for rent control and for a number of years after. She first came to Philadelphia as a college student, intending to stay just for a semester while getting hands-on work experience in housing issues. She too met Tolbert and grew so engaged in the work that she stayed for a second semester, then transferred to Temple from the University of Michigan and completed her degree in Urban Studies.

One thing Gladstein remarked on to me was the strength that came from the economic diversity of the coalition for rent control. Many tenants organizing against slum conditions were poor or working class. But there were middle-income tenants on rent strike as well, including in apartment buildings along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Middle class renters had more time and resources to volunteer -- and better connections with elected officials.

It’s important to note, too, that rent control would not have seemed radical to residents who had lived in the city for 20 years or more. In 1942, the Office of Price Administration, a wartime creation that handled rationing and price controls, began establishing “defense rental areas” in populous parts of the country, including Philadelphia. In these areas, rents were frozen at 1942 levels. Federal rent controls were relaxed in 1947. Citizens immediately complained, and City Council passed a rent control ordinance, creating the City Housing Rent Commission, which -- many name changes later -- lives on as the Fair Housing Commission. The municipal rent control ordinance lasted until 1955, when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declared it void. When free market advocates act as if regulating the rental market would be unheard of in Philadelphia, we might remind them that it was the norm for 13 years.

Bill 1657: The Model (1974-75)

Shortly after that first TAG meetings in the summer of 1974, a committee, including Shapiro, formed to draft their dream rent control bill: a rollback of rents to the previous year’s levels, a freeze at that level for the next three years, and no more than a 3% annual increase allowed after that. They knew it was unlikely to get through Council without major amendments, but “the strategy was to ‘shoot for the moon’ and settle for something reasonable.”

In December, the committee learned that a councilmember already had plans to introduce her own rent control bill: Dr. Ethel Allen, who had joined council in ‘72. Hastily, TAG members arranged a meeting with Allen in order to persuade her to use their moonshot bill instead of drafting something new.

Allen was an unusual figure at City Hall, worthy of a deep-dive profile in her own right. She was the first Black woman elected to Council; she was also the last Republican elected to council who hailed from anywhere other than the conservative stronghold of Northeast Philadelphia. She was a newbie to politics. After finishing medical school, she’d become what she called a “ghetto practitioner,” making housecalls to patients living in poverty in North Philadelphia. She brought a gun with her on these visits, and at least once fended off an attempted robbery.

Allen had challenged the incumbent Democrat Thomas McIntosh for the City Council spot representing the 5th district. “Neighborhood people” had asked her to run, she said, in a 1973 Inquirer article. They felt McIntosh, who was white, ignored most of the constituents in his district, which was 60% Black. They “probably thought I wouldn’t win but would scare him into activity,” Allen said. Running on a commitment to address drugs, gang violence, and housing conditions, she won by about 4,000 votes. She also told voters that she disagreed with everything that Mayor Rizzo stood for.

It might seem odd today for a Republican to have introduced the bill, but Allen's political idol was Harry Truman, who had supported rent control at the federal level. And during the Rizzo administration, Democratic party affiliation was no guarantee of progressive politics (Rizzo was a Democrat until 1986, when he switched to the Republican party). And so Dr. Allen introduced not just any rent control bill, but a forceful one designed by tenant organizers, in December 1974. She collected six co-sponsors, and TAG held a city-wide rally and multiple public forums.

The first sign, though, that things weren’t going as well as they might appear was when Council President George X. Schwartz assigned the bill to the Law and Government Committee, chaired by a councilmember who was also a landlord, rather than Public Health & Welfare. Suddenly, the chances of the bill getting out of committee looked much lower. Furthermore, the City Solicitor announced that he considered the bill itself unconstitutional. TAG realized too late that they had alienated powerful members of Council by not meeting with them and getting buy-in before Allen introduced the bill.

In April 1975, TAG organizers disrupted the City Council meeting, accusing members of dragging their feet and letting the bill languish in committee without a vote, even though TAG had proposed amendments to pacify the City Solicitor. Finally, Schwartz agreed to speak at one of TAG’s rent control forums in Wynnefield. He promised that he himself would introduce a new rent control bill -- a fair one, he said. Any hope of passing the model bill was gone.

Bill 1982: The Compromise (1975)

President Schwartz enlisted an attorney for City Council to draft his bill -- one Lynn Abraham, who would later become a notoriously punitive District Attorney. TAG found this moderate bill disappointing on many levels -- it excluded subsidized housing and didn’t feature the rent rollback. It would have frozen rent at the current level, and landlords would have to petition the Fair Housing Commission to raise or lower rents. The Commission would also have had the power to make individual or “general” adjustments, and there was no stated cap on the increases the Commission would allow. But the organizers still threw their support behind it, hoping to get sympathetic Council members to strengthen the bill with amendments during the legislative process.

Schwartz introduced the bill in July, 1975; there were more hearings in August. Rather than send it to a standing committee, Schwartz held hearings before a “Committee of the Whole” -- the entire Council. Several Council members had resigned in hopes of running for mayor, so the group had shrunk from its 17 normal members to only 13. TAG would need seven votes in favor of the bill for it to pass to the next stage.

Shapiro remembers the decisive vote. For the most part, council members’ votes could be predicted based on whether they were allied with Mayor Rizzo or with President Schwartz (Schwartz and Rizzo were both Democrats, but represented dueling factions of the local party machinery). But there was one wild card -- a new at-large council member. “Nobody understood how he’d gotten elected in the first place. He was completely unknown. And he got elected for one term,” Shapiro said. People chalked it up to a lucky ballot position. In fact, the Councilmember was so unknown that Shapiro can’t recall his name. (Reviewing a list of council members, it appears to have been Francis D. O’Donnell, the only at-large council member who served a single term -- although O’Donnell was notable for at least one thing, which was that he technically got re-elected for a second term in November 1975, despite having died of a heart attack in October.)

Although this councilmember had expressed no interest in the finer points of the bill, and had no amendments to suggest, he announced that he could not support the bill since it was too lenient on landlords. And so it failed to pass out of the Committee of the Whole -- six in favor, seven against.

Gladstein cautioned against reading the closeness of this vote as a near victory. For one thing, a council member’s vote is not necessarily an indication of their true ideals. It is a political calculation. It’s much easier to cast a vote in favor of a bill your constituents support but your major donors don’t when the bill has no chance of ultimately passing. Had the rent control bill crossed Major Rizzo’s desk, he would undoubtedly have vetoed it, and it would have returned to council in need of twelve votes. The twelve votes weren’t there. Schwartz and his allies got to have it both ways -- appear to support rent control, while assuaging the real estate lobby’s fears that nothing would actually change.

Bill 1207: Tenants’ Bill of Rights (1977-78)

After the downfall of Bill 1982, TAG then turned its legislative focus to a broader vision: a Tenants’ Bill of Rights. They developed and printed a booklet describing an array of ideas to improve conditions for renters: not just rent control but fair leases, reforming security deposit practifces, improvements to the housing code, the right of tenants to make repairs and deduct the cost, ending discrimination against single parents and people on public assistance, and good cause eviction laws.

TAG staff and volunteers met with nearly all council members to get feedback and test the water for support of bills relating to the proposed tenants’ bill of rights. They developed four bills around model leases, rent control, fair housing for women and children, and repair and deduct. Then they asked for sponsors.

Allen and Lucien Blackwell were willing to sponsor three of the bills. Joe Coleman would come out for two of them; Charles Murray and Louis Johanson would put their names on fair housing only. But no one was willing to sponsor rent control. Hearings moved forward on the three bills in the fall of 1977, with the Women’s Law Project as a prominent supporter of the fair housing bill, lending it a more moderate image. The three bills were placed in the Rules Committee.

After continued meetings, TAG finally got an agreement to co-sponsor rent control from Allen, Coleman, Blackwell, and Cecil Moore. Bill 1207 was introduced in February, 1978. President Schwartz sent it to the Rules Committee with the other three bills. There were no hearings.

The TAG leaders faced a choice -- they could push for the most politically feasible bill, the one concerning fair housing, and put others on the backburner, or insist that the four bills be considered together at the risk of losing on all of them. To complicate matters, a statewide landlord/tenant reform bill was being debated in Harrisburg, and Rizzo was attempting to change the city charter by referendum so that he could run for a third term as mayor.

Ultimately, TAG made a tactical decision and pushed for the fair housing bill to move forward on its own. In June 1978, Jackson and Gladstein acknowledged in a letter to Schwartz that they didn’t have the administration’s support for the rent control bill, and would accept his decision to postpone any action regarding it -- why push now, and possibly lose fair housing, when they knew Rizzo would veto rent control anway? They might as well wait until they knew whether they would have a new mayor.

Even then, the fight for the fair housing bill wasn’t easy. It was finally enacted in July 1980 as a Fair Practices Ordinance. Shortly after it was signed into law, a young mother of two children who’d been denied an apartment filed the first complaint.

After this point, rent control is mentioned in TAG committee notes, but never develops into a full-fledged campaign again. And rent control was never the group’s only goal or reason for existence; in the 1980s, their campaigns broadened into unseating Municipal Court judges, organizing PHA residents, and sponsoring a public hearing on L&I’s notoriously lax code enforcement. The Rizzo era finally ended, but nationally, the Reagan era had begun. In the time of trickle-down economics and widespread deregulation, rent control seemed like a relic.

Looking at TAG today

Though the conditions driving Philadelphia’s housing crisis have changed, the landlord lobby’s arguments against rent control have not. Most rely on a simplistic Econ 101 “supply and demand” framing, claiming that the only way to reduce rental prices is to build more housing, and that landlords’ inability to extract ever-increasing profits will lead them to abandoning properties and reducing the supply of rental units further. But the housing market is more complex than that analysis allows - it’s not one market but a collection of submarkets, and people don’t have the option of not participating in it, in the same way a consumer can choose not to buy a car or an appliance. More recent and nuanced studies have shown the supposed ill effects of rent control are often myths, and when they have occurred are due to exploitable loopholes in the legislation.

Rent control has begun to seem, once again, like a mainstream idea. It’s part of the national Homes Guarantee campaign. Reports from PolicyLink and One PA and a panel convened by Pew Charitable Trusts all recommended some form of rent control for Philadelphia specifically. A report released by the city itself in 2016 cites rent control as a concern for residents. Meanwhile, an anti-rent control piece in the Inquirer from 2020 leans on an episode of the Freakonomics podcast and a tired anecdote about someone from New York City who has a “fabulous” apartment at an affordable price, which for some reason they don’t deserve.

In the years since the rent control bills went before Council, Shapiro, Jackson, and Gladstein have all remained involved in Philadelphia politics. (Rudy Tolbert passed away in January 2020; he was active with a number of groups including the Germantown Community Council, Greater Germantown Alliance Jubilee, Northwest Interfaith Movement, Northwest Task Force on Abandoned Housing, Nidhamu Sasa (African Free School) and Metropolitan Collegiate Center and the Black Humanist Fellowship.) Shapiro returned to CLS briefly and then was hired as legal staff for city council in 1981, where he stayed for 22 years. In 2004, he co-founded neighborhood networks, a progressive political group that counts among its recent victories the passage of a public banking bill. Jackson works for State Senator Art Haywood. Gladstein left TAG to work on a political campaign for Lynn Yeakel, who challenged Arlen Specter for U.S. Senate in 1992 and lost narrowly. Then she went to the Pennsylvania Low Income Housing Coalition, then Community Builders (a non-profit affordable housing developer), and then into city government. She is currently the Deputy Managing Director of Health and Human Services, which oversees departments including the Office of Homeless Services (last summer, Gladstein was criticized by activists for the city’s repeated attempts to clear Camp JTD on the Parkway. Ultimately camp organizers and the City reached a deal involving a tiny house village and the transfer of properties to a community land trust, which has been written about extensively elsewhere).

Their paths are not uncommon -- a 2005 Shelterforce article interviewed tenant organizers from the 70s (Gladstein among them) and concluded that most had become integrated in the nonprofit world, merging in with broader affordable housing and community development efforts. The article has an elegiac tone to it, referring to tenant organizing in the past tense.

But even before COVID hit, tenant organizing was on the rise. The Philadelphia Tenants Union was founded in 2014. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote about how the pandemic had energized the movement further. Though it’s a far cry from World War II era rent controls, the CDC eviction moratorium is the closest thing we’ve had to federal protections for renters since the 1940s. Jackson told me how excited she felt when she saw PTU members at a meeting convened by Helen Gym on the eviction crisis. “I said, ‘Oh my god, we’re back!’”

At a recent Lilac general meeting, the opening reading came from Mariame Kemba’s We Do This Til We Free Us, a text on prison abolition. In it, Kemba shares the advice she gives to young and impatient organizers who reach out to her: “Your timeline is not the timeline on which movements occur. Your timeline is incidental. Your timeline is only for yourself to mark your growth and your living.”

Those of us who are fighting for rent control, and housing justice more broadly -- those of us who are fighting for any type of change -- are part of a larger timeline. It’s important to understand not only the movement ecology around us today, but the movement’s genealogies as well.

If the time has come -- and it appears to me that it has -- to seriously revive the fight for rent control, we can look to TAG and apply some lessons, ones that TAG members sketched out themselves in a 1978 document that reflected on the history of the three bills.

We must be careful about our timeline. Rushing a bill to be introduced too quickly can backfire. Election timelines matter too, and for many council members, pressure will be more useful around the primary than the general.

We must understand how power works, both in public and behind the scenes. Council members often vote in blocs, similar to the way the rent control votes broke along whether or not someone was aligned with Rizzo or Schwartz. It’s worth remembering, too, that Schwartz would be implicated in the “Abscam” sting -- he accepted a $30,000 bribe from undercover FBI agents in 1980, telling them he had enough sway with five or six council members that he could definitely get their hotel project approved. We may not be able to learn the details of every alliance through campaign donation data alone.

And we must not give up ownership of a bill to a lawyer who works for the city. Tenants need to be involved in the writing of and the hearings for any rent control legislation.

In the end, after all the research and analysis, the methodology of bringing about change remains the same, Jackson told me: people who are suffering need to be out front. "It's really simple," she said. We can work off the basic principle that “people in power won’t give it up.” Not unless we make them.