Most of the vast literature written on Black struggles for equality in the 1960s has prioritized campaigns for “open” or “fair” housing, creating the impression that neighborhood integration was the focus of struggles against housing inequality. But the prolificacy of substandard housing in African American communities spurred political activism aimed at improving living conditions and giving Black tenants and homeowners greater input and control over the spaces where they already lived—building community where they were rather than seeking integration as a primary goal. This article looks at the range of political responses to the slum conditions across Black Chicago: the formation of tenant unions, rent strikes and resistance to evictions and foreclosures. This is not to say that fighting for fair housing was unimportant, but the struggle against racial discrimination in urban housing took multiple forms. While these struggles unfolded in many urban communities, their development in Chicago is of particular importance for two reasons. One is that Chicago is one of the few cities where there has been an attempt to analyze the relationship between substandard housing conditions and social movements. The center of this focus has been on the Chicago Freedom Movement (CFM) and the Reverend Martin Luther King’s 1966 campaign against slum conditions in Chicago. The second reason to focus on Chicago is that beyond King and the Chicago Freedom Movement, Chicago became a robust center of tenant activism in the late 1960s—a history that has been obscured by debates over the success or failure of King’s involvement in the movement here. This is of historical significance but it also elevates important models of activism that are of particular importance today, as Chicago remains wracked by residential segregation and disproportionate levels of inferior and substandard housing in African American communities. A nascent movement of housing activists is grappling with the challenge to rebuild a movement for housing justice that can not only empower tenants and renters as people who have a right to housing but can also succeed in its demands for housing equality and justice.
Chicago’s tenant rights movement became one of the most visible in the country when Rev. King made Chicago the site of his Northern campaign to highlight racism and discrimination outside the South. King worked with activists in the Chicago Freedom Movement, who debated whether to focus on job discrimination or racism in the public schools. Eventually, organizers from King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), King himself, and local activists agreed on a target: slum conditions in housing on the West Side of Chicago. They concluded that the problems in housing were closely tied to problems of access to jobs and good schools. One important feature of campaigns against urban housing conditions emerged in the form of a tenants’ rights movement. In cities as disparate as Cleveland, Providence, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York City, tenants began withholding their rent to protest the conditions of their apartments. This was a risky move: up until this point, across the country, laws governing rental arrangements between landlords and tenants were greatly weighted in the landlord’s favor. Moreover, with municipalities unwilling to enforce code violations, there was almost no leverage for tenants. Withholding rent, rent strikes and the formation of tenants’ unions became strategies to shift the balance in the direction of tenants. The withholding of rent is believed to have started in Chicago as early as 1961 when welfare recipients, with the approval of the director of public aid in Cook County, began withholding their rent payments as a way to protest slum conditions. The welfare department calculated that it was paying out more than $5 million a month on rent and that $1 million of those payments made the County “unwillingly the largest subsidizer of slums in the community.” The City of Chicago formed a task force to investigate the landlords in what were deemed the worst buildings in the city. Usually taking landlords to court over building conditions, at the very best, resulted in a small fine, but in the cases the city involved itself with, slumlords lost their property to either demolition or liens because of their hazardous conditions. By 1963, “74 buildings ha[d] felt the pinch, 691 welfare recipient cases ha[d] been involved for an average monthly rent withholding of $42, 814.” As a result, one Cook County official described withholding rent as “the most effective weapon in dealing with the slum landlord.”1 In the summer of 1966, King addressed more than 50,000 mostly African Americans in Chicago’s Soldier Field to outline the plans of the CFM. In his speech, King said:
This day, we must declare our own Emancipation Proclamation. This day, we must commit ourselves to make any sacrifice necessary to change Chicago. This day, we must decide to fill up the jails of Chicago, if necessary, in order to end slums. This day, we must decide to register every Negro in Chicago of voting age before the municipal election. This day, we must decide that our votes will determine who will be the mayor of Chicago next year… This day, we must continue our already successful efforts to organize, in every area of Chicago, unions to end slums. Together, we must withhold rent from landlords that force us to live in subhuman conditions. And let me say, here and now, that we are not going to tolerate moves that are now being made in subtle manners to intimidate, harass and penalize Negro landlords who may own one or two buildings, while ignoring the fact that slums are really perpetuated by the huge real estate agencies, mortgage and banking institutions and city, state and federal governments.
After the speech, more than 35,000 Chicagoans, most of them Black, marched to City Hall, where King nailed a list of demands related to housing, education and jobs. Part of the CFM’s goal was to highlight the unequal living conditions in African American communities created by the existence of slum conditions. To dramatize the point, King moved into a slum apartment on the city’s segregated West Side. The other element of the plan was to organize Unions to End Slums across the city. This was part of a collaborative effort between the AFL-CIO and SCLC to use the “union model” to organize tenants and expose conditions of poverty in cities across the country.
The Unions to End Slums took off in Black communities across Chicago. From 1966 through 1969, tenant unions sprang up on both the West Side and South Side. They challenged high rents and miserable building conditions, and forced landlords and owners to sign collective bargaining agreements that linked payment of rent to apartment conditions. Through a combination of picketing, sit-ins, rallies and rent strikes, the Chicago tenants movement publicized the slum conditions that were ubiquitous in poor Black neighborhoods across the city and landlords frequently bowed to the pressure.
Tenant unions typically formed when activists surveyed residents in their buildings about which conditions bothered them most. These surveys became the basis of the bargaining agreements with landlords. Tenant activists also held hearings about building conditions and invited landlords to defend themselves against charges of being slumlords. As early as 1966, the East Garfield Park Union to End Slums was successful in compelling West Side slumlords to sign a collective bargaining agreement that allowed 1,500 tenants to withhold rent and named the union as their sole bargaining agent. This one-year agreement was the first of its kind in Chicago. In August 1967, when it was time to renew the agreement, the landlords decided to sell the building rather than sign a new contract with reduced rent. The new owners quickly signed the contract for fear of a rent strike. The landlords agreed that rent payments would be tied to building conditions and that tenants would have the right to withhold payment if the building went into disrepair.
Another dramatic struggle over tenant rights occurred in 1966 when the Tenants Action Council (TAC) formed to fight landlord conduct in a housing complex in the Chicago neighborhood of Old Town. Black and white tenant-members of TAC were determined to resist their landlord, who used the common tactic of allowing building conditions to deteriorate so that white tenants would leave and be replaced by Black tenants paying higher rents. When the landlord attempted a mass eviction, TAC initiated a rent strike, leading to a highly publicized confrontation in September 1966. According to the Chicago Tribune, hundreds of protestors and tenants faced off against 80 police officers. While crowds jousted with the police outside of the building, TAC members inside chained themselves to radiators and refused to leave, often taking shifts with other tenant-members. Wherever the Cook County Sherriff ’s deputies succeeded in removing the possessions of some tenants, TAC members and supporters gathered their belongings and returned them to the emptied apartment. After about a week of these confrontations, building owners relented and agreed to sell the building to a buyer, who would sign TAC’s collective bargaining agreement. The deal that ended the rent strike and protest included an agreement to stop all litigation against tenants who had participated in the strike.
These battles represent just a fraction of the tenant union and rent strike activity of that era. From 1966 to 1969, the Chicago Tribune published more than 100 articles about tenant unions, rent strikes and the conditions that produced them. In 1969, the Chicago Defender reported on a survey showing that in the first eight months of that year, tenant organizations “took action 67 times in 23 cities” against slum conditions and the absence of rights for tenants.
Maintaining the tenant unions was difficult. Landlords brazenly used the lack of rights for tenants to simply evict renters who withheld rent. Moreover, because of slum conditions, there was high turnover in the housing as people moved out of their buildings quickly, thus creating instability and turnover in the tenant unions. Because of the turnover, and because the goal of desegregation was familiar, appealed to mainstream liberals and media and had been successful in the South, the SCLC changed the focus of Unions to End Slums from “slum conditions” to “fair” and “open” housing as an alternative. While tenant unions focused on conditions in the inner cities and the buildings where Black people already lived, the focus on fair and open housing looked to dismantle the barriers that kept African Americans out of white suburban areas and white neighborhoods in the cities. To that end, the CFM organized marches into hostile white neighborhoods. While these actions received a lot of publicity from the media and political detractors, the marches were never very big—most Black Chicagoans were not interested in living in neighborhoods where whites wanted to kill them. Moreover, the shift to focus on fair housing all but ignored the issues of rampant racial discrimination in African American neighborhoods on the South and West Sides of Chicago. On the heels of the tenant movement in Black communities, Black homeowners on the West Side of Chicago would organize themselves as the Contract Buyers League and challenged the decades long practice of banks and Savings and Loans Associations of excluding Blacks from access to conventional mortgages. This organizing also went largely unheralded because it was not about the movement out of Black spaces into white spaces; rather it was focused on access to capital and the desire of African Americans to stay in and develop the communities they already lived in. These are still the important questions that shape the movement for housing justice today. ◊