On Aug. 26, the Supreme Court overturned a national moratorium on evictions imposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The ruling on the moratorium, already unevenly enforced, has left millions of Americans who are behind on their rent facing the loss of their homes. Congressional Democrats have pledged to find legislative remedies, but the odds of passing a new lifeline are slim. Meanwhile, billions of dollars of rental assistance is languishing in state and city coffers.
Yet, despite this grim outlook, tenants’ fight against evictions does not have to end.
Historically, the failures and limitations of federal policies have inspired local activism even as they have foreclosed national possibilities. One such grass-roots campaign took place during and after World War I, when short-lived federal efforts to ameliorate a housing shortage gave way to a longer fight against rent increases and evictions in state legislatures, local courts and city streets. Tenants built on lawmakers’ incomplete efforts to make surprising gains.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, millions of Americans left rural areas to find war work in armories, shipyards and garment factories in major cities. An estimated 200,000 civilian workers migrated to Philadelphia, for example, then known as the “Workshop of the World.” At the same time, the federal government banned nearly all private residential construction, to ration materials for the war effort.
The workers flocking to Philadelphia arrived in a deeply segregated and unequal city where many working-class and Black tenants already struggled to find affordable housing. With the influx of war workers, the city’s housing inequities fueled an acute crisis.
Most policymakers viewed the provision of housing as the domain of private markets. But the scale of the shortage fueled concerns that government inaction would compromise military readiness or spur social unrest, especially after Bolshevik revolutionaries toppled the czarist government in Russia. Addressing the housing shortage would “do more than any one thing to prevent the industrial revolution which threatens our country,” claimed one proponent of federal intervention.
Congress agreed, appropriating $175 million to two newly created agencies, the Emergency Fleet Corp. and the U.S. Housing Corp. (USHC), for the construction of homes for war workers. Federal legislation also banned the eviction of service members and regulated rents in Washington, over which the federal government had control.
Yet, with construction delayed by bureaucratic setbacks and Black workers categorically excluded from federal housing, these actions still left millions of Americans struggling to hold on to their homes. In Philadelphia, war workers flooded the offices of local elected officials and federal agents posted in the city, demanding government assistance as evictions loomed.
Overwhelmed by tenant demands that far outpaced the rate of government home construction, federal agents with the USHC established committees across the country to regulate rents and forestall evictions. These committees lacked legal authority, but in a wartime context of heightened government control over civilian life, they were often able to persuade landlords to submit to regulation for the sake of the war effort.