There's a World War II-era blueprint for the looming eviction crisis

A temporary moratorium is nothing compared to the federal government's backing of tenants in the past

An apartment building.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

In what has been described as a "sweeping" protection for renters, this month the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared a nationwide moratorium on evictions until the end of the year. Even so, experts and activists worry it is not enough to address the ongoing economic crisis created by the coronavirus pandemic. Non-profit Aspen Institute released new data in August that projected around 30 million Americans could be at risk for eviction by the end of 2020. The moratorium does not reduce these individuals' risk. It merely postpones it.

Congress is focused on passing another relief bill, but members have seemingly placed little emphasis on how to address the predicted evictions other than moratoriums, despite record high unemployment. The United States has, however, dealt with an affordable housing crisis before. A government agency of the past kept tenants in their homes and may be a guide for today.

In 1942, memories of the Great Depression, unemployment, and the post-World War I housing shortage remained fresh. In response, the Office of Price Administration (OPA), established by Executive Order 8875 in 1941 to ration goods and enact price and rent controls, declared 20 "defense rental areas" in 13 states. In these areas, not only could the OPA keep rents affordable, the office could also deny landlords' trying to evict tenants. Rents were rolled back to pre-inflation rates and offices were established within rental areas to investigate any attempted increases or abuses.

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The offices spread. Only five years after the first rental areas, there were more than 600 across the country.

Marques Vestal, an incoming professor of Critical Black Urbanism at UCLA, researches the types of complaints the rent office in Los Angeles handled. Vestal points out the simplicity of a rent office where working-class people without legal backgrounds could check rent ceilings and file complaints against landlords. OPA investigators "were aggressive with defending tenants as consumers of housing. Tenants saw [the rental office] as a space that was safe for them," he told The Week.

Vestal found one complaint filed by a Russian immigrant woman who complained about her landlord's whiskey consumption. Although the complaint was not strictly rent-related, Vestal said, "She believed in this new entity. She trusted them to intervene."

After adopting new regulations in 1942, the Federal Price Administrator, Leon Henderson, justified the decision by saying, "someone had to come to the defense of tenants." Today, even the eviction moratorium is framed as a defense against the spread of the novel coronavirus, not the rights of tenants.

In 1945, the OPA denied a landlord's request to raise the rent from $50 to $60 a month in a Flatbush, New York property. After the OPA advised the tenants to not pay a higher rent, the landlord cut the heat to the property, a move not dissimilar to tactics used by some of today's New York City landlords.

A study of Chicago by St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton from the same year describes tenants lining up to file complaints with the office. Historian Wendy Plotkin said attempted abuses were rampant in Chicago during that period, but the very existence of these offices, which required landlords to register their units, and their usage by tenants is an important reminder that evictions are not an inevitability.

Joshua Freeman, a labor historian at the City University of New York and author of Working-Class New York: Life and Labor since World War II, described the rent regulations as effective because it was not only the OPA working to uphold tenants' rights. "Political parties set up rent clinics where you could go complain. There were volunteer lawyers," he said. Non-governmental groups were committed to increasing access to OPA's rental offices.

The OPA's authorization ended in 1947, but state legislatures could adopt rental protections following the office's dissolution. Some areas, like New York, did incorporate rent control into their own laws, but with the passing of the OPA went much of tenants' recourse across the country. Even as an example of a city that adopted OPA protections, without the government agency and a strong network of unions, New York City eventually turned toward public-private partnerships and replaced rent control with rent stabilization laws.

Today, the CDC order and some extended local moratoriums may give renters the ability to postpone eviction proceedings, but accruing six month's back rent is a far cry from the protection the OPA provided.

Unexpectedly, many landlords and tenants have found themselves arguing for a similar solution: direct rental assistance. Back in August, Democratic nominee Joe Biden called on Trump to work with Congress to provide emergency housing support for Americans, but didn't elaborate on what the support should look like.

Progressive housing activists and Congresswoman Ilhan Omar are pushing for more: Cancel rent entirely. Landlords could receive federal assistance to cover their mortgages. These plans may allow government money to flow to landlords and halt evictions, but none have the regulatory power found in the OPA. Nor do the plans seek to redress the growing cost of housing.

In the past, the U.S. government used emergency powers to keep renters in their homes. Today, despite the very real emergency conditions, it seems the most the Trump administration will do is allow renters to become increasingly indebted.

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