Place  /  Dispatch

Inside the St. Louis Rent Strike of 1969

Led by African American women, the strike inspired legislation that affected the entire nation.

We know they are broke,” Ed Roy Harris told reporters in late December, 1968, referring to the St. Louis Housing Authority. Harris lived in the Blumeyer Village public housing high-rises in near North City. “But we’ve gone to the state before. We’ve written letters. We’ve called—it didn’t work,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Politicians seem to respond to action.”

Two weeks prior, Harris and other public housing tenants delivered a list of demands to city officials. Their demands countered a flurry of recent hikes in rents and were simple: lower the rent and treat us as human beings. Between 1965 and 1967, rent increases for public housing in St. Louis had ranged from sixteen percent to thirty-two percent, depending on the project and the room count.

And Harris was right; the St. Louis Housing Authority was bottoming out. During the 1967-1968 fiscal year, the Authority recorded a deficit of well over $300,000. It had been a long time coming. Public housing projects across the country had been built with federal dollars, then left to be maintained by local rents. This financial structure, codified as law through the Federal Housing Act of 1937, often proved to be an ill fit for local implementation.

According to their 1968 budget, the St. Louis Housing Authority had a $54.16 allowance per unit, but operating costs totaled $57.38 per unit. This gap, stretched out over time and across the city’s approximately eight thousand units, resulted in progressive underfunding and widespread deterioration of the housing units. The Housing Authority’s deficit was compounded by increasing vacancy rates, themselves brought on in part by the deteriorating conditions of the units.

Tenants complained of rodent infestation, broken windows, lack of heating, and lack of repairs. Despite the substandard conditions, public housing tenants in St. Louis were at risk of being priced out of the city—out of their homes—by the rent increases.

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