Skip to content

A People’s History Of The New Boston: The Tenants’ Movement & Rent Control

May 11, 2022

(One in a series of posts on Jim Vrabel’s 2014 book, A People’s History Of The New Boston.)

There are all sorts of ways for people to organize. Many of the stories in A People’s History are of people organizing by geography (i.e., neighborhood). The tenants’ movement took a different approach: organizing by economic status/relationship. In this case what mattered is that people rented their living space and paid money to a landlord.

The “first major rent strike of its kind in Boston” started on May 1, 1964 with 20 or so families, supported by the Boston CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) chapter, on Waumbeck St. in Roxbury. Their actions created a template of tactics for tenants across the city.

“The tenants hadn’t wanted to take such drastic action. Previously they had gotten city inspectors to come out to their buildings and write up more than 150 sanitation, building, and fire code violations. Then they had met with their landlord, Joel Rubin, to try to get him to address the complaints. Only when he refused did they begin to deposit their rent checks in an escrow set up by the Reverend James Breeden (St. James Episcopal Church). And only after that did they begin picketing outside their landlord’s office on Warren Street….” (pp. 131-132)

In 1968 Ted Parrish, a youth worker at United South End Settlements (USES) helped organize the South End Tenant Council (SETC) among the residents of 40+ buildings owned by the Mindick brothers (Joseph, Israel, and Raphael). Following by now well-established tactics, “They got city inspectors to come out and write up hundreds of housing code violations. They began to hold demonstrations, first outside the Mindicks’ office and then outside their homes.” And then SETC got creative, setting off a chain of unlikely events that resulted in their own Tenant Development Corporation (TDC) winning control of 56 buildings which they renovated into 285 affordable apartments. (p. 132, 133)

“…it wasn’t until SETC planned to hold a demonstration outside the Dorchester synagogue where one of the brothers was a cantor that it got results. When Rabbi Judea Miller, chairman of the Social Action Committee of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis, heard about the plan, he went out to see some of the Mindicks’ properties for himself and found them ‘disgusting.’ Instead of demonstrating outside the synagogue, Miller suggested the tenants take their grievances to…the local Rabbinical Court of Justice.” (p. 132)

It was the first time a US Rabbinical Court had taken on such an issue, and after three months of negotiations, “the court brokered an agreement that spelled out the responsibilities of both the tenants and their landlords”, and both side signed it. When the Mindicks failed to keep their end of the bargain, the Court fined them, provoking the brothers to sell their buildings to the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) which in turn eventually turned them over to the tenants. (pp. 132-133)

One reason SETC turned to the Rabbinical Court is that the regular courts “were unable to handle the mountain of housing complaints they were receiving from tenants in neighborhoods across the city.” After years of organizing, tenants and their allies won passage in the state legislature of a law creating the state’s first housing court. “In its first year, the Boston Housing Court heard 3,400 cases”, four times as many as the city’s housing inspection commissioner had projected. “By its second year, it was on a pace to hear five times that number, a clear indication that the court was much needed and long overdue.” (p. 134)

A 1968 survey by the Brighton-Allston Area Planning Action Council “found that 85% of the tenants in the neighborhood had recently received increases of more than 20%, and that some elderly resident were being forced to pay as much as 60% of their fixed incomes on rent.” (p. 134)

There followed a multi-year campaign to win passage of a state law legalizing rent control and then fighting for a rent control ordinance in Boston that had teeth. “1971 was a mayoral election year and tenants made up the largest voting block in Boston…. Although he had not taken a stand on the issue previously, (Mayor Kevin White) suddenly became a champion for stronger tenant protections and put up campaign billboards all over the city that read, ‘When Landlords Raise Rents, Mayor White Raises Hell.’ Thanks to a strong turnout by tenants, not only was White reelected, but three rent control supporters were newly elected to the city council as well.” With a new pro-tenant majority on the city council, tenants won—at least for a time—strong rent control protections for residents of 140,000 apartments (60% of all rental units in the city). (pp. 137-138)

Other posts in this series:

A People’s History Of The New Boston: Introduction

A People’s History Of The New Boston: What Was Wrong With The Old Boston?

A People’s History Of The New Boston: To Hell With Urban Renewal

A People’s History Of The New Boston: Community Organizers & Advocacy Planners

A People’s History Of The New Boston: A Rekindled Civil Rights Movement

A People’s History Of The New Boston: School Reform & Desegregation

A People’s History Of The New Boston: The Conflict Over The Vietnam Conflict

A People’s History Of The New Boston: The Media & The Protest Movements

A People’s History Of The New Boston: Mothers For Adequate Welfare

A People’s History Of The New Boston: The Illusion Of Inclusion & Assault By Acronyms

A People’s History Of The New Boston: Gentrification & The South End

A People’s History Of The New Boston: Do-It-Yourself Community Development

A People’s History Of The New Boston: Public Housing On Trial

A People’s History Of The New Boston: People Before Highways

A People’s History Of The New Boston: The Mothers Of Maverick Street

A People’s History Of The New Boston: Shadow Boxing In The Public Garden

A People’s History Of The New Boston: Boston Jobs For Boston Residents

A People’s History Of The New Boston: The Battle Over Busing

A People’s History Of The New Boston: Fighting For A Fair Share

A People’s History Of The New Boston: A Downturn In Activism

A People’s History Of The New Boston: Back To The Neighborhoods

A People’s History Of The New Boston: Boston Today

From → Books, City Life, History

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: