The Three-Front War for URLTA (1964-1972) A History of Renters' Rights in Chicago, Part II

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“As the judge pronounced the sentence, which court officials said represented the first time in their memory that a landlord has been ordered jailed on housing code violation charges, a cheer went up from more than 50 Clifton Terrace tenants in the room.

Brown, who is yet to be tried for another 1200 violations at Clifton Terrace cited by housing inspectors, was visibly stunned by the sentence.

As he was led away to the court's basement cellblock, the landlord, his hands visibly shaking, did not appear to be the defendant who moments before had told the Judge from the witness box that the District government was responsible for the lack of heat at Clifton Terrace.

After remaining in the cell block for about 45 minutes, Brown's attorney, George E. C. Hayes, filed notice of appeal in the case and the landlord was released after posting $2000 bond.”
- Carl Bernstein, “Landlord Given Jail Term,” Washington Post, 1967.

On Monday we started a series on the history of the Chicago Residential Landlord-Tenant Ordinance. We covered an enormous span of time from medieval England to the early civil rights movement in the United States of the 1960s. We were introduced to the many issues that faced renters in the early 20th century and the methods used by the first tenants' rights pioneers to try and fight back.

When we left off, it was 1963 and Jesse Gray's rent strikes in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City were getting attention through violence, the civil rights act was up for debate in US Congress, and Chicago had just passed its first fair housing ordinance.

Over the next decade, the battle for tenants' rights would be joined on three fronts – in the White House, the courts and the streets.

The War on Poverty

Lyndon Johnson
Lyndon Johnson 1908-1973

36th president of the United States. Called for a War on Poverty in response to high poverty rates in 1964, and the creation of a national law protecting renters rights in 1969.

In 2016 we are looking at a national poverty rate of 14.5 percent – that's a reflection of how many Americans are currently living below the poverty line. At his inauguration in January of 1964 Lyndon Johnson was facing a nation still reeling from the loss of JFK in November of 1963, but he was also facing a poverty rate of 19%. His response was to create a national initiative called the “War on Poverty.”

There were numerous offshoots from Johnson's War on Poverty, including the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, Head Start, and expanded access to the food stamp program.

Another major development resulting directly from this initiative was the creation of legal clinics to help the poor in cities across the country. Until this time, there were very few lawyers willing to take on the cases of the poor, and next to none who would assist tenants in eviction court. The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, created as part of the War on Poverty, allowed law schools and public interest groups to delve into pro bono work that would lead to major overhauls of all kinds of laws. For the first time, tenants would have a say in how landlord-tenant law was interpreted.

In 1968 another piece of legislation also made huge strides towards fixing the housing pickle. The Fair Housing Act established national guidelines aimed at combating discrimination and segregation in real estate.

In 1969 LBJ instructed Attorney General Ramsey Clark to draft a law protecting the rights of renters as part of his War on Poverty. Clark delivered the first tentative draft of a “Model Residential Landlord-Tenant Code” for review by congress, local governments and attorneys across the country.

Legislators could have taken two different routes to improve the situation of renters. One route would have made it easier for renters to organize and thereby improve their bargaining power. The other route would have strengthened the enforcement of housing codes, thereby pushing landlords to provide better housing. The Model Code took the former route and was roundly panned by experts throughout the country. Renters would have to wait a few more years for a national bill of rights.

War in the Courts

Prior to the 1960s a handful of lawsuits had made some headway towards tenants' rights. As you might recall from the previous article, laws at the time were based on land contracts dating back to farms in feudal England. They made no connection between a tenants' responsibility to pay rent and the landlord's responsibility to maintain the property in good condition. The landlord made no guarantees that the property was fit for human occupancy.

The 1911 case of “Iowa Apartment House Co. v. Herschel” in the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia was the first time a landlord was found liable for injury caused to a tenant in their apartment. Herschel had been scalded by steam coming from an overloaded heating pipe.

A decade later a tenant was injured by a falling piece of ceiling in a New York tenement. The resulting case of “Altz v. Leiberson” found a landlord liable for making repairs to their property provided that tenants notified them of problems.

In 1956 Audrey Whetzel rented an apartment in Washington, DC for $75 per month. Four months later the bedroom ceiling fell on her head. Her case, “Whetzel v. Jess Fisher Management Co” found the landlord liable for those injuries as well.

All three of these cases made important points, but they were personal injury lawsuits, not evictions. It would be nearly 20 years before tenants could take a stand against terrible housing before someone got hurt.

In a standard eviction case, the tenant violates the contract by failing to pay rent. By the late 1960s the idea of a “constructive” eviction was spreading through the court system. In a constructive eviction, a tenant claims that the landlord has violated the contract by failing to keep the property in habitable condition.

Joy Cooper signed a five year lease for a basement office in Hackensack, NJ starting in 1958. Over the next few years she found that the office would flood every time it rained. Her lease said she was responsible for keeping her rented space in good repair. She spoke with the owner about fixing the bad driveway that caused the flooding and he said he'd do something about it. Unfortunately the owner died in 1961 without making the repairs. The new landlord ignored Cooper's requests, so she stopped paying rent. Her claim that she had been constructively evicted by the landlord was validated by the case of “Reste Realty Co. v. Cooper,” in March of 1969.

Henry Lemle rented a vacation home in Hawaii in 1964. When he arrived, he discovered the house was infested with rodents. The case of “Lemle v. Breeden” found that the Lemle family was entitled to a refund of their deposit and rent as the landlord had not provided a habitable property.

We were getting closer to helping renters in apartment housing but we weren't quite there yet. Reste v. Cooper involved a business, not living space. Lemle dealt with short-term vacation rentals. But a case was in the works that would not only tie all of these cases together in the name of tenants' rights, but also cause sit-ins, rioting, and a revitalization of a downtrodden DC neighborhood.

"Javins v. First National Realty"

The apartment building at 1308-1350 Clifton Street NW in the Columbia Heights area of Washington DC was constructed in 1914 when the neighborhood was booming. It had 275 apartments, mostly occupied by middle-class white renters. By the 1960s, the neighborhood had completely changed. By the time Sidney Brown bought the building in 1963 it was a predominantly black neighborhood in the grip of extreme poverty. The number of overcrowded units in the area had doubled. Most apartments didn't have functional plumbing, even though 80% of Americans already did. Things got so rough at Clifton Terrace that in 1965 one of the law clinics for the poor created by the War on Poverty opened on the ground floor.

Clifton Terrace in 2004, courtesy of Georgetown Law Library
The tenants of Clifton Terrace

Ethel Javins, Rudolph Saunders, Stanley Gross and Gladys Grant were Washington D.C. residents who withheld rent because their apartments were not fit to live in. Their eviction case resulted in a court ruling that landlords have a responsibility to keep their properties in habitable condition.

In 1965, Pat Garris walked into the law clinic office to say she'd had enough of the conditions in the building. She encountered attorney Gene Fleming and took him upstairs for a look around. He took one look at the mess and agreed to support her and her neighbors in a rent strike. 29 tenants of Clifton Terrace originally participated, but many were intimidated away from the case by Brown. By the time Brown's eviction case against the strikers it reached the courts for the first time in 1966 only 4 defendants remained: Rudolph Saunders, Stanley Gross, Gladys Grant and Ethel Javins. The tenants tried to raise all of the violations as a reasonable defense for why they hadn't been paying rent, but the laws still did not connect rent payments with the condition of the property. The court found in the favor of the landlord and evicted them all. They appealed.

In 1967 as the appeal was winding its way through the court system, conditions at Clifton Terrace had continued to decline. Carl Bernstein, who would later break the Watergate case for the Washington Post, covered the horrible state of the building in what would become front page news. In November of 1967 over 1200 code violations were found at the building. Even the mayor came to view the disaster. Broken glass covered the sidewalks, grounds and hallways. Lobby windows were boarded up. 18 apartments had collapsed ceilings and buckled floors from water damage. The faulty furnace was going through 13 tons of coal every day and broke at least once a month in the winter. On Thanksgiving Day in 1967, 60% of the apartments had no heat.

Tenants held sit-ins at government offices protesting the initial eviction ruling. Brown was sentenced to 60 days in jail the heating code violations. Although he only spent 45 minutes behind bars before he was bailed out, it was a major moment and the first time a landlord had been found criminally liable for allowing slum conditions to continue. Brown turned over responsibility for the building to the government in December of 1967.

It took until mid-1968 for the first appeal to make it to court. By then the government had taken the building away from Brown and was trying to rehabilitate it. Of the four defendants only Gladys Grant still lived in the building. Even the law clinic had to move out after it too faced a collapsed ceiling. As the appeal was being considered, all hell broke loose in DC. Martin Luther King's assassination sparked riots throughout the city, with destruction hitting particularly hard in the Columbia Heights neighborhood. The only bright spot in the area was the effort to tear down and rebuild the worst parts of Clifton Terrace.

J. Skelly Wright
The Hon. J. Skelly Wright 1911-1988

Judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington D.C. Segregation opponent and school integrator. His decision in a major housing case assigned landlords responsibility to provide housing fit to live in.

The government effort to rebuild Clifton Terrace was a great boost to the residents of Columbia Heights. The agencies involved required a majority of workers to be from the immediate area, but also was required to use union labor. Black residents of the area joined the unions en masse, increasing their skill levels and their ability to be hired for other work across the city. Although the project would later have issues with graft and corruption, the immediate effect on the neighborhood was quite positive.

Another landmark tenants' rights case was being heard Washington along with the first appeal of the Clifton Terrace case. Yvonne Edwards had complained to the city about health code violations in her apartment and was subsequently evicted by her landlord, Nathan Habib. For the first time, a residential tenant had mounted a successful defense against an eviction for reasons other than improper accounting. Unfortunately, the appeal court handling the Clifton Terrace case went in the opposite direction of “Edwards v. Habib.” They upheld the eviction of Saunders, Javins, Gross and Grant. The renters had one more chance for an appeal and took it, moving out of the municipal courts and into the federal system.

The final appeal of “Javins v. First National Realty Corp” lasted from 1968 to 1970. It was heard by three judges. Heading the group was J. Skelly Wright, known for his liberal views. Judges at the time tended to view renters with disdain. It was sheer luck that put Wright in charge of the Javins decision.

Wright ruled that the condition of an apartment was a valid defense in an eviction lawsuit. City housing had become too complicated for laws dating back to medieval England to still be effective. Tenants could not be expected to inspect and understand every nook and cranny of their housing before they moved in. They had good reason to expect that if a landlord were offering a property for rent that it was in habitable condition. The case, much like “Shelley v. Kraemer”, had sweeping effects on landlord-tenant law throughout the country. A similar case to “Javins” was “Marini v. Ireland,” heard in the Supreme Court of New Jersey. The ruling was nearly identical and appeared mere weeks after the Javins decision. The message was clear – landlords were responsible for maintaining their properties and tenants had a right to stop paying without fear if eviction if their landlords slacked off.

War in the Streets

Martin Luther King, Jr.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 1929-1968

During the Chicago Freedom Movement (1965-67), Dr. King drew attention to the housing segregation and economic oppression of Chicago's black residents through non-violent “open housing” marches, picketing organizations that endorsed racist lending policies, and organizing rent strikes against slumlords.

In 1964, Jesse Gray's Harlem rent strike turned into riots when the protesting renters saw no response from the city government.

Gray received a telegram from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who had been working for civil rights in the southern half of the country for over a decade. The telegram stated that Gray had King's full support even though his tactics were quite different from King's non-violent approach.

In 1965, the crusade civil rights exploded in Los Angeles, when the Watts neighborhood saw six days of violence that required intervention from the National Guard to extinguish. Dr. King went to Watts to help find a solution. However, when it came time to move own efforts into the northern half of the country he set his sights on neither New York or California. He came to Chicago.

In Chicago, the Property Owners Coordinating Committee had been trying its best to dismantle the city's controversial Fair Housing Ordinance of 1963. They filed petitions, staged protests, and vociferously protested in the name of white property owners. The Chicago Real Estate Board made their own attempt by filing a lawsuit against the ordinance. They found that responsibility for enforcing the fair housing fell too heavily on the shoulders of real estate agents. They lost their case and the law remained on the books. Even so, it was clear that Dr. King would have his hands full with Chicago.

The full force of the Chicago Freedom Movement hit the city when Dr. King moved into a slum apartment at 1550 S Hamlin in Lawndale in 1966. Although he could have afforded better, he chose to pay $90 a month to live in a “typical ghetto apartment” in order to show solidarity with the community. The city had found violations at the site in the previous month but they had been repaired by the time Dr. King moved in. Although the apartment was supposed to be furnished, those furnishings were sparse. The Tribune reported that it was a dismal place with an unwashed kitchen, cracked bathroom floors and a dirty, stained bathtub.

The actions of the Chicago Freedom Movement have been covered extensively elsewhere. It was a major undertaking. King held speeches. He made demands of the local government. He helped renters organize to fight back against horrible buildings across the city. He recognized the massive amount of power in the hands of the first Mayor Daley, and focused his efforts on getting Daley to change racist practices pervasive throughout all areas of life.

Marches and protests led by King and the race riots that followed them forced the Daley administration and local real estate boards to the bargaining table. Housing projects were addressed, with the CHA promising to stop building them quite so large and dense. Mortgage lenders were forced to stop using race to determine whether or not they would lend in a given neighborhood.

Dorothy Gautreaux and the Rise of the Security Deposit

Dorothy Gautreaux
Dorothy Gautreaux 1927-1978

Community organizer and civil/tenants' rights activist. Voice for Chicago Housing Authority tenants in the Chicago Freedom Movement. Plaintiff in class-action suit finding CHA responsible for discriminatory housing practices and intentional segregation.

Government-owned public housing was created as part of the Housing Act of 1937 as an alternative to privately owned slums. The Chicago Housing Authority was created to handle the development of public housing in Chicago. Over the next few decades, massive projects sprung up across the inner city, including the Lathrop Homes (925 units), Cabrini-Green (3607 units), ABLA (3596 units), Stateway Gardens (1644 units) and the massive Robert Taylor Homes (about 4300 units).

In 1968 Dorothy Gautreaux with the help of the ACLU led a class action suit against the Chicago Housing Authority for consolidating public housing into ultra high density projects into areas that were already predominantly occupied by minorities. The US Supreme Court found the CHA's actions to be discriminatory. They could no longer build big high rise projects, and they couldn't build in poor, minority-dominated neighborhoods unless they first built new housing elsewhere. Gautreaux unfortunately died of cancer seven months before the final ruling in the historic case that bears her name.

Government subsidized renters were also placed in privately-owned apartments throughout the city and suburbs. Private landlords were worried about accepting tenants who weren't able to pay their own rent. The state began offering additional rent up front as collateral in case the state missed a payment. These were the first primitive security deposits. Other landlords saw this behavior and thought, “hey, that's a great idea!” While the idea of accepting subsidized renters was still unpopular, the security deposits that came with them caught on like wildfire and quickly spread to the general rental population.

By 1969 security deposits were no longer just financial incentives to persuade landlords to accept state-subsidized renters. They were now used as collateral against damages, and were required from 75% of non-subsidized renters across the city of Chicago. Local property managers were suddenly earning tens of thousands of dollars each year in security deposit interest alone. The debate over who actually owned the money became the subject of debate in the state capital. Bills were introduced mandating that landlords pay interest on retained deposits to tenants at an annual rate of 4%.

The security deposit matter was one of many tenants rights issues before Illinois state legislature in the late 1960s. Dr. King had left a legacy in the form of numerous civic support organizations to help the poorest renters of Chicago. Some of the Community Development Corporations he helped to start then still exist today. Meanwhile, Jesse Gray had taken his New York campaign to a national platform, founding the National Tenants Organization and moving his base of operations to Washington, DC. Tenant unions and advocacy groups were springing up across the nation.

Springfield, Illinois was overrun by activists who complained that the last laws to favor tenants dated back to the English Statute of Frauds in 1677. (It required all contracts of three years or more to be in writing.) The Chicago Real Estate Board attempted to create a new standard lease form using less legalese so that renters could understand what they signed. Among the new proposals in front of the state senators were the first protections for subleases and for families with young children. With responsibility for apartment maintenance shifting from the tenant to the landlord as a result of the Javins case, it was now necessary to define appropriate hours of entry and advance notice.

1972: At Long Last, URLTA

Julian Levi
Prof. Julian Levi 1909-1996

Professor Levi was active in Hyde Park and Kenwood for three decades starting in 1952 and his work still shows in those two neighborhoods' status as jewels of Chicago's south side. He was an expert in urban renewal and executive director of the South East Chicago Commission.

There is an organization in this country called the "National Conference of Commissioners of Uniform State Laws", or the "Uniform Law Commission" for short. It's been around since 1892. It isn't a government organization, but rather a non-profit think tank of attorneys from all 50 states, plus Washington, DC and Puerto Rico. All members are lawyers appointed by the governors of their home states. Its role is to draft sample laws that states can approve if they don't want to go to the trouble of writing their own. They've created over 300 “uniform acts,” although they aren't actually able to enact them. They recommend them to the states and it's then up to each state's legislature as to whether or not they want to adopt them as law. The NCCUSL happens to be based in Chicago.

Many esteemed attorneys, politicians and government administrators have volunteered their time for the NCCUSL. In fact, back in 1915 it was headed by a familiar face to readers of this series – General Wm. Nathan MacChesney of the infamously racist standard covenant.

By 1972 it was apparent that the Model Tenant Code suggested by Ramsey Clark was a flop. The NCCUSL met in San Francisco to take another stab at writing a universal set of laws to govern rental housing. They entrusted the drafting of the new nationwide landlord-tenant laws to Julian Levi. Levi was a University of Chicago professor and an advocate for urban renewal in Hyde Park and Kenwood. The outcome of this conference was a document called the Uniform Residential Landlord-Tenant Ordinance - “URLTA” for short.

URLTA took the route of enforcing building codes rather than empowering tenants. It was far more successful than the Model Code. By 1974 it had been approved for consideration as a national law by the American Bar Association and was submitted to the states for ratification. As of 2016, 21 states use URLTA it as their statewide landlord-tenant code.

Illinois is not one of them.

On Monday we'll march forward to 1981, looking at the separate path taken by Illinois as it created its own landlord-tenant laws. We'll also cover the fight for cities and towns to create their own rental laws, waged primarily in the great urban battleground of... Evanston.

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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.

Published by

Kay Cleaves

Jon Hoferle