Over the past fifty years Met Council on Housing has employed a diverse array of strategies in pursuit of decent, integrated and affordable housing for the tenants of New York City. These tactics have included rallies, annual tenant lobbying trips to Albany, occupations or pickets of government agencies and homes of abusive landlords, supporting the squatter movement and educational events. Met Council on Housing has rejected formal paths to political power, instead relying on grassroots tenant organizing and mutual aid. The most striking examples of these tactics have been the rent strike and branch office educational activities.
Rent strikes have long been a central aspect of tenant activism in New York City. The first documented rent strikes in the city occurred on the Lower East Side in 1904, where the Jewish community organized to challenge rent increases in the densely populated immigrant neighborhood. In 1920 a well-publicized May Day rent strike was credited with pushing the city to approve the first rent control regulations. Rent strikes gradually transformed from short strikes in individual buildings to a strategy utilized collaboratively by multiple buildings for long periods of time. In 1970 two activist lawyers affiliated with Met Council on Housing created the rolling rent strike, in which tenants alternated which months they withheld their rent. This method successfully forced direct negotiations between landlords and tenants, and increased the bargaining power of rent strikers.
Met Council on Housing began as an informal coalition of tenant organizations from across the city, and over the course of the 1960s formalized its structure, introducing individual tenant memberships that have allowed the organization to remain independent from corporate or government funding. The Lower East Side Tenant Council, led by Esther Rand since the 1930s, became Met Council on Housing’s first neighborhood branch office. By the early 1980s there were thirteen branches located across the city, including East and West Harlem, Midtown, Central Brooklyn, Washington Heights, and West Queens.
These neighborhood branches became the focus of Met Council on Housing’s tenant mutual aid activities. Neighborhood branches held regular meetings and information sessions for tenants, providing general information on tenant rights, techniques for organizing buildings and getting repairs for rental units. Met Council on Housing also provided training in political organizing, such as workshops on how to write a press release or make a leaflet. Special meetings were held to discuss Met Council on Housing’s campaigns on rent control legislation or other citywide housing issues. Branches also provided rent clinics and hotlines, allowing tenants to get individual advice on their housing problems.