“This Was No Church” (1881-1963) A History of Renters' Rights in Chicago, Part I

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I made several visits to landlord-tenant court that summer [of 1966] as part of my work with the tenants. During one of my visits there, an event occurred that has stuck in my mind as a vivid tableau. The cases were being called by the clerk when a quite elderly, thin, white woman rose from her seat in response to hearing her name. Her gait was quite slow – stooped over, and supported by a wooden cane. She was dressed in a frilly, long white dress and a white hat with a veil. It struck me that she had picked out her finest clothes to wear that morning. Perhaps her generation thought it appropriate to dress up for a court appearance – like going to church. But this was no church. When she was about half way to the front of the court – even before she passed the bar – the judge impatiently asked, “Have you paid the rent?”

She looked up at him as best she could and began softly speaking. “No, but… .”

She was cut off in midsentence by the court, curtly saying, “Judgment for landlord. Call the next case.”

The woman continued to slowly approach the bench, raising her right hand – her left still resting on the cane – as if she was trying to get the judge’s attention. Her apparent desire to continue talking was stopped by the judge who without a hint of emotion said, “Maam, your case has been decided. You can go now.”

Crestfallen, she slowly turned and with small, careful steps, worked her way out the rear of the room. The next case was called and decided before she reached the courtroom door. A few tenants watched her sadly. Most people in the room paid her no attention as additional cases were called and quickly disposed of. I was stunned.
–Richard H. Chused, The Roots of Jack Spring v. Little, 40 J. Marshall L. Rev. 395 (2007)

The rights of tenants and landlords in Chicago are protected by numerous laws, but primarily by a single massive section of municipal code called the Chicago Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance (CRLTO). It’s 10,000 words long. It’s been called the “most tenant-friendly legislation of its kind in the United States.” It’s also been called notorious, harsh, overly-zealous, and a deterrent that discourages small landlords from investing in Chicago apartments.

As a company that focuses on tenant education, RentConfident has a vested interest in understanding the CRLTO – not only what it means, but the events that lead to its creation. This is the first of a multi-part series looking into the history of the Ordinance from medieval history to modern times that will run across the next several weeks. If you’d like to read more in depth about any of the topics covered in this series, a list of sources will be provided as part of the final article.

Political and judicial debates about rental housing call into question many of the most controversial divisions in American culture. While wealthy renters have made a case for apartments as disposable housing, renting has traditionally been the only option available for the lower economic classes. The division between owner and renter in the US has also traditionally been a division between rich and poor, between white and non-white. As is often the case with problems affecting the worst-off parts of society, it takes enormous momentum to prompt any sort of change. In the case of tenants’ rights, it took a perfect storm of major events and movements nationwide to get us to where we are now.

Late 19th Century: Let’s Get Medieval

Politicians and judges can chip away and refine a body of law, but they need some sort of existing law to start with. Nearly every modern American law was based on laws from other countries. However, in cases where those laws are governing anyone with a decent amount of cash on hand they get overhauled pretty quickly.

Apartments, however, were the domain of the poor. Their occupants worked around the clock and were often members of America’s then-voiceless minorities. As a result, renters’ rights remained largely unchanged for three centuries. At the height of the Tenant Movement in the 1960s, advocates for renters’ rights claimed that the last pro-tenant legislation was the Statute of Frauds, passed by the English House of Lords in 1677. It required any lease of 3 years or more to be in writing. Everything else was based on feudal English law, dating from between 700 and 1450 CE.

In the feudal era, farmers rented land from wealthy land owners. Those farmers might create their own housing. If not, any housing standing on that land was simple. One story, stone walls or basic wood frame construction, a few rooms, no appliances, no electricity. There was no polyfiber insulation, 120 amp circuit breakers, hot water heaters or elevators for the renters to inspect.

It wasn’t until the late 1800s that advances in architecture made any sort of more complex laws necessary. Chicago’s first building code came about in 1881. Skyscrapers started appearing in 1884. Electricity made it into homes between 1900 and 1920, coinciding with the era of two-flat construction in Chicago. With the advent of refrigerators in 1913 and zoning laws in 1919, things were starting to get much more complicated, but as is often the case with innovation, the laws were still way behind reality.

  • Tenants were expected to pay rent regardless of the condition of the property.
  • In eviction court, tenants could not claim flaws in an apartment as a reason why they didn’t pay the rent.
  • Landlords did not guarantee that an apartment would be in good condition. Even though high-density apartment buildings of the 1900s were far more complex than an English farmhouse from 1200 AD, it was still up to the tenant to inspect the property for flaws from top to bottom before renting.
  • Tenants were responsible for all but the most egregious of repairs, and no deductions from rent were guaranteed.
  • There was no protection against retaliatory evictions. If you were to rat out your landlord to the city for housing code violations, it was entirely reasonable for the landlord to turn around and throw you out.
  • It was entirely legal for a landlord to provide testimony in eviction court behalf of absent tenants.

Security deposits did not yet really exist. The issue of requiring 48 hour notice from a landlord before they entered your home was a long way away, as landlords were not responsible for maintenance of their apartments.

Construction was by no means terrible. Many “vintage” Chicago apartment buildings date back to the era from 1880-1927. However, I highly doubt that many modern renters would be able to perform the maintenance or thorough inspections that were expected of the original inhabitants of their apartments a century ago.

1907, New York City. A Glimmer of Hope

“Landlord rights are established in court.” – Arthur Mohl, Chicago Property Manager, 1969.
“Tenant rights are established in the streets.” – Kay Cleaves, RentConfident, 2016.
Pauline Newman
Pauline Newman 1887-1986

Lithuanian immigrant. Labor organizer and suffragette. Organized a major rent strike in lower Manhattan at the age of sixteen. First female general organizer of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.

Wealthy landlords can afford make their laws in the courtroom. Poor renters, other other hand, must rally in numbers to make their case heard by anyone at all. The push for tenants’ rights required a critical mass of low income workers to gain strength – the type of numbers only seen in cities like Chicago and New York.

The dam finally broke in 1907 in lower Manhattan. Rents in city tenements had jumped from $15 to $20 per month in the span of a year. These apartments were primarily occupied by immigrants working low-paying factory jobs throughout the city.

While rent strikes had happened in Europe before, the first big case of US tenants organizing in protest of anything was courtesy of 16-year old Pauline Newman. Laid off from her factory job, she focused her attention on the plight of her neighbors. Even after she went back to work, she spent every minute of her free time rallying the ladies of the area to her cause.

Newman used a network of housewives to spread the word of her strike through the neighborhood. (Way to go, stay at home moms!) The ensuing rent strike was massive, although it lasted for only a couple of weeks. 10,000 families abruptly refused to pay rent unless landlords capped it at 18-20% of their income.

Newman herself was praised by the New York Times as a new Joan of Arc. She went on to become one of the main organizers of the early labor movement and affected the welfare of the US working class in areas ranging from child labor to workplace safety to gay rights. Fallout from her rent strike eventually resulted in the the creation of New York’s infamous rent control programs in the 1930s.

1915-45, Chicago: Segregation Enshrined

Homer Hoyt
Homer Hoyt 1895-1984
Frederick Babcock (Not pictured) 1898-1983

Appraisers for the Federal Home Administration. In the 1930s these two were largely responsible for creating land value analysis methods that divided Chicago by race and economic class, as it has remained ever since. Hoyt later partially redeemed himself by founding the Homer Hoyt Institute for real estate research in 1967.

Nathan MacChesney
Gen. Wm. Nathan MacChesney 1878-1954

Chicago lawyer, Northwestern University trustee, and special assistant attorney general of the United States and veteran of three wars. As attorney for the Chicago Real Estate Board, drafted some of the most racist contract language in the history of real estate.

Now all of this may sound like a nightmare for renters, but it actually got worse before it got better. In 1915 the Great Migration began, driving blacks from the southern part of the country to Chicago in huge numbers. The white population of Chicago was not pleased – by 1919 massive race riots were occurring in the city.

Between World War I, the Depression and World War II, the government had a large say in population shifts across the country. Chicago became a testing ground for methods that the government would use for decades to determine the value of property. The FHA was the source of a lot of the money used by Americans used to buy their homes during this era, in the form of mortgages.

The methods used in Chicago by the FHA to determine the value of a house or land was based on some revolutionary ideas for the time as generated by real estate appraiser Frederick Babcock in his 1924 book The Appraisal of Real Estate. Babcock considered the presence of mixed races to be a large contributing factor in the loss of property value. His ideal Chicago concentrated high density slums (read: apartments) near the center of the city, to be occupied by the poor and mixed races. Wealth increased while density and skin pigmentation decreased as you moved from the Loop to the city borders.

Any wacko with a copy of “SimCity” can redesign Chicago to suit their perverse racist fantasies, but Babcock was a wacko with clout. His views were adopted by the FHA to determine which neighborhoods were worthy of mortgages. White buyers in white neighborhoods were allowed to borrow government money at low interest rates to buy their houses. Whites looking to buy in mixed-race neighborhoods would have to pay much higher interest rates. Many minorities couldn’t get mortgages at all.

The Chicago Real Estate Board (predecessor to today’s Chicago Association of Realtors) responded to the FHA by taking steps to protect white homeowners. They hired attorney W. Nathan MacChesney in 1924 to amend their code of ethics. The new addition prohibited Realtors from introducing new races into neighborhoods where their presence would harm property values.

Three years later in 1927, Mr. MacChesney made it even easier for homeowners to discriminate. Land owners in the US are permitted to restrict the usage of their land and home for all subsequent buyers. Doing so is called putting a “restrictive covenant” on a property. MacChesney drafted a standard fill in the blank form that Chicago land owners could use to ensure that their home would never be sold or rented to a black person. You can find a copy of this horrible form here.

By 1933 at the height of the depression, another appraiser at the FHA by the name of Homer Hoyt had engineered an even more racially-biased grading system for Chicago neighborhoods. A class “A” neighborhood had “no residents of a race other than white” and buyers in those areas could obtain long-term fixed rate loans. At the opposite end of the spectrum were class “D” neighborhoods with mixed races. No loans were available at all for Class D property.

Thanks to MacChesney, Babcock, Hoyt, the Chicago Real Estate Board and their colleagues, Chicago evolved into a city where poor black residents rented in the south-central neighborhoods while wealthy white residents owned houses further out from downtown. This division of race and class persists today despite decades of attempts to undo the damage.

1945-1948: Shelley v. Kraemer

JD and Ethel Shelley
J.D. and Ethel Shelley with Family 1907-1997

This St. Louis, MO family was sued for buying a house in a neighborhood where black residents were banned by restrictive covenant. They took their case to the US Supreme Court, where the covenant and all similar to it across the country were found to be unconstitutional.

The saga of J.D. and Ethel Shelley began in 1911, when a neighborhood surrounding Labadie Ave in St. Louis, Missouri enacted an area-wide restrictive covenant against purchase by blacks and Asians. This ban was to run with the land for the next 50 years, regardless of property transfers. In 1945 the Shelleys, who were black, moved from Mississippi to St. Louis in an attempt to get away from white supremacist persecution. They bought a house on Labadie Ave. Their neighbor, Louis Kraemer, filed a lawsuit to keep the Shelleys from moving in.

The suit continued back and forth for three years. “Shelley v. Kraemer” went all the way to the US Supreme Court, where it was combined with another similar case from Detroit, MI called “McGhee v Sipes.” The black McGhee family was represented by a promising attorney named Thurgood Marshall, who would go on to become the first black SCOTUS justice two decades later.

In 1948, the Supreme Court of the United States found racially-based restrictive covenants were found be in violation of the 14th amendment to the US Constitution. The Shelleys and McGhees could keep their homes. Shelley v. Kraemer was an early victory in the civil rights movement and the first of many courtroom battles in the quest for tenants’ rights.

A glance at the neighborhood on Google Street View shows that the area near the Shelley house now has a lot of black residents, but it’s also rife with boarded up buildings and empty lots. However, their house still stands as a historic monument with a plaque in the yard. “Shelley v. Kraemer” is probably the most well-known case we’ll cover in this history of the CRLTO. If you’d like to know more, check out the TV movie “The Color of Courage,” which covers the McGhee case. It airs now and then on BET.

1950-1963: The Rise of Jesse Gray and the Tenant Movement

By 1950 the poverty of inner city renters had been compounded by decades of institutional racism, war, migration and depression. In city slums the housing was exorbitantly priced, falling apart, unsanitary, full of roaches and mice. Minority renters, banned from other neighborhoods due to racial blockades, piled into low income neighborhoods like Harlem in NYC and Lawndale in Chicago where high population density allowed their rage to build to staggering levels.

Jesse Gray
Jesse Gray 1923-1988

Harlem civil rights activist and founder of the National Tenant Organization. Organized rent strikes and violent protests in the name of poor renters in the 1960s. In the 1970s he served for two years in the New York state assembly.

Civil rights activist Jesse Gray started working for the rights of renters in the New York slums in the 1950s. His tactics became progressively more extreme and violent over the course of the next decade, leading protests and organizing guerilla efforts get attention from those who could improve the situation.

In 1963 the advocates for equal rights for the poor got a shot in the arm as the civil rights act came up for debate in the US Congress. The Kennedy presidency was mere months from its sudden end. Gray organized a massive rent strike in Harlem protesting the terrible living conditions in the slums. His efforts and those of his collaborators were called the “Tenant Movement” and it eventually spread across the country.

In Chicago “open occupancy” was the buzzword as the city passed its first fair housing ordinance, preventing discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin and ancestry.” The city’s ordinance predated the national fair housing law by 5 years.

That same year, the state of Illinois passed the Retaliatory Eviction act, the first Illinois state statute to address tenants rights in any form. The act banned landlords from evicting tenants who reported them to the government for housing code violations.

The next decade would see battles waged in courtrooms, state houses, boardrooms, bedrooms and the streets as renters of all races rode the momentum of the civil rights movement to secure their right to safe housing. We’ll be back this Friday to cover the epic decade of 1963-1972.

RentConfident is a Chicago startup that provides renters with the in-depth information they need to choose safe apartments. Help us reach more renters! Like, Share and Retweet us!

Check out all of the articles in the "History of Renters' Rights in Chicago" series!

Part 1: “This Was No Church” (1881-1963)
Part 2: The Three-Front War for URLTA (1964-1972)
Part 3: The Sovereign State of Chicago (1972-1981)
Part 4: Highly Questionable if not Substantially Inadvisable (1978-1986)
Part 5: From Rights to Revenge (1986-2016)

Want to find out more? Check out the list of all 140+ research sources used to create this series.

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Kay Cleaves

Founder and owner of RentConfident. She's the primary developer of the website and research engine code. She's spent over 10 years working in the Chicago rental industry and has assisted with over 1200 leases.