Anti-Rent Wars, Then and Now
In August, as I traveled through the Catskills, a small roadside sign in Andes, New York, caught my attention. It announced that the Anti-Rent Wars had reached their fever pitch at the grassy spot I was driving past. In 1844, impoverished farmers in the area, facing lease fees they couldn’t afford, staged protests and rent strikes. From 1839 to about 1845, 25,000 people signed Anti-Rent petitions challenging the landlords, while roughly twice that number identified as Anti-Renters. Some of these dissenters were farmers who wore outlandish “Calico Indian” costumes and blew tin horns to get attention, looking like prototypes of Bread and Puppet performers.
Theatrics aside, the struggle was mostly nonviolent. They posted signs on the sides of pubs and barns and home windows that had sayings like “Attention! Anti-Renters! Awake! Arouse!” and “The land is mine saith the Lord.” They chased off collection agents and tried to renegotiate their leases. And some hit back with lawsuits against landlords and their land titles. There were also a few incidents of more violent resistance. Rebellious farmers tarred and feathered sheriffs and deputy sheriffs who tried to serve them writs. And finally, in Andes, in August of 1845, an outlying moment of tragedy: tenant farmers exchanged gunfire with officers of the law who had been going to extremes to get back the landlords’ land, and killed an undersheriff named Osman Steele.
The Anti-Renters were an early iteration of tenant activists we see today. They were so successful overall that the New York Constitution of 1846 provided for tenants’ rights by getting rid of the quasi-feudal system of tenures, as well as leases of more than twelve years. That battle, more than 175 years ago, has its legacy in the quieter war many Americans are fighting today against skyrocketing rents, eviction, housing scarcity, and homelessness. The form this activism has taken—sometimes dramatic, as when a group led by Representative Cori Bush, Democrat of Missouri, recently protested the end of the eviction moratorium by sleeping for three nights on the steps of the D.C. Capitol with signs reading “Cancel Rent”—also recalls aspects of the way the Anti-Renters, who used the slogan “Down with the Rent,” fought for their homes so long ago.
There are some crucial differences, of course. Rensselaerswyck—as the Dutch patroonship, or estate, that later gave its name to Rensselaer County in New York—was an anomaly even then, in maintaining certain aspects of feudal land tenure. The patroon in question, Stephen Van Rensselaer III—America’s richest landowner at the time—had coined, with Alexander Hamilton’s help, the concept of a “durable lease” that bound his tenants to his manor forever. Tenants on his estate, and those like it, paid an annual rent of, say, twenty bushels of winter wheat for their acreage. One 274-acre farm listed in Van Rensselaer’s records owed those twenty bushels plus four fat hens, and a day’s service “with carriage and horses.” In total, the manor comprising at least 720,000 acres was landlord to some 80,000 tenants with perpetual leases. Thanks to this system of tenure, by the time of Stephen Van Rensselaers’s death, he had accumulated a fortune of $10 million, estimated to be equivalent to $116 billion in today’s money. One Anti-Renter would later describe his landlord as liking to “swill his wine, loll on his cushions.”
What sparked the original Anti-Rent Wars was the redoubled effort by Van Rensselaer’s two heirs to collect back rent owed to the manor following his death in 1839, a sum that amounted to $400,000, which they saw as their inheritance. They ordered sheriffs to collect rent or seize property instead. But with the economy in the 1840s seeing a historic downturn, many tenants simply couldn’t pay.
Much as we’ve seen in today’s eviction proceedings, law enforcement stepped in with drastic action: tenant farmers’ livestock was seized and sold off to settle arrears. In 1845, after Undersheriff Steele’s death—reportedly killed while selling animals that had been taken in lieu of a tenant’s debt—the New York authorities arrested hundreds of Anti-Renters, charging them with offenses ranging from rioting to murder; in 1845, three of the activists were sentenced to life in prison and two to death. (According to some sources, the two death sentences were later commuted to life sentences.) The arrests, often made by police that rounded people up without due process or proper evidence, were “straight-up political repression,” Reeve Huston, a historian at Duke University and author of a book on the subject, Land and Freedom: Rural Society, Popular Protest, and Party Politics in Antebellum New York (2000), told me.
Today, those with an interest in squeezing tenants are of a different stripe to Van Rensselaer: hard cash is their currency, not wheat or chickens. The enemies of tenants comprise an expanding cadre of corporate landlords and investment firms that have been buying up single family homes from small landlords. Nevertheless, the imbalance of power is similar.
In our time, this inequity has led millions of tenants to the brink of bankruptcy and homelessness during the pandemic. Thankfully, a groundswell of anti-eviction activism was on the move even before Covid-19 arrived, which was partly why the federal government delivered on rent assistance. Federal eviction moratoriums started with the 2020 CARES Act. The American Rescue Plan Congress passed on March 10, 2021, set aside $46.5 billion to address housing needs and homelessness, including distribution to states to cover people’s rent arrears; in many Republican-led states, though, little if any of that aid has reached desperate tenants. In August, National Public Radio estimated that while 7 million people were still behind on rent due to the pandemic-related shutdowns, the CDC moratorium has led to 1.5 million fewer eviction cases than in ordinary times. In other words, it succeeded in keeping a remarkable number of people in their homes. The original federal moratorium was extended several times, with the most recent prolongation coming in early August after Bush’s sleeping bag protest, which rallied activists to the cause.
In August, however, in a blow to Biden administration, the Supreme Court ruled against the latest extension of the CDC’s eviction moratorium, saying that the agency had exceeded its statutory authority. Landlords can now cast out tenants, and millions face possible eviction again. The growing urgency of the situation has led tenant activists to press their political candidates to make housing insecurity a priority. The political potency of the issue was apparent even before the pandemic, during the 2019 Democratic presidential primary season. Although the candidates doing the talking—notably, Bernie Sanders, Julián Castro, and Elizabeth Warren—did not win the nomination, the progressive wing of the party has exerted influence on more centrist Democrats since the 2020 election.
And polls showed there is clear momentum for reform on these issues, not least in New York. A recent one commissioned by the nonprofit research and education group Citizens Housing and Planning Council found that nearly half of New York City’s Democratic voters think the city isn’t building enough housing. According to another 2021 poll, 86 percent of New York City voters believe that the extreme shortage of affordable housing and the risk of eviction is a crucial issue for their mayor to address. These numbers underpin elected officials’ growing recognition of “housing justice” votes. New York Governor Kathy Hochul, in her first major act since taking office in late August after the resignation of Andrew Cuomo, signed an extension of a statewide eviction moratorium until January 15. She also admitted that “we should have done more with the New York City Housing Authority”; that agency, which is the largest public housing provider in North America but has long been troubled by poor maintenance and underinvestment, she said, is “one area where I would spend more public time and effort.”
The latter-day Anti-Renters have also taken their tactics beyond the regular avenues of electoral politics. In New York City, tenants suddenly unemployed during the pandemic lockdown stopped paying rent, or staged strikes to force deadbeat landlords to finally fix leaks or mitigate mold. But theatrical activism against evictions like Bush’s is also playing out—and having an effect—in places far from blue-state, multicultural coastal cities. In Kansas City, members of KC Tenants, an organization led by self-described poor and working-class people, chained themselves to the courthouse building and shackled the doors—closing the court for a day, and then going on to stage sit-ins to block subsequent eviction hearings. In tandem, they ran a social media campaign called “Slumlord Saturdays,” which involved publicizing delinquent landlords who were nonetheless pressing for evictions. In response to this pressure, in 2019, the City Council passed the Tenants Bill of Rights, which KC Tenants had helped draft. Recently, these Kansas City protesters also proposed setting up a People’s Housing Trust Fund, to be “established by city, county, or state governments that receive ongoing, dedicated sources of public funding” to provide affordable housing.
These are two ideas that could and should travel beyond Kansas City, for tenant activists and advocates are not just fighting evictions: in New York City, they are also trying to maintain the existing number of rent-stabilized apartments—their steady elimination over recent years has been a disaster for the city’s stock of affordable housing, as Michael Greenberg has reported for the Review. Campaigners have also worked to get legislation on the books that would keep landlords from evicting tenants who didn’t pay their rent when it was unfairly jacked up, and that would end brokers’ fees. The former measure became part of 2021’s Good Cause Eviction bill, which lawmakers in Albany passed in July. This legislation, following on from 2019’s Housing Stability and Tenant Protections Act, a landmark win for progressives, at least begins to address what has happened to renters who got breaks during the pandemic but are now getting tossed out because of punitive rent increases. (Brokers’ fees were addressed by the Housing Stability Act.) This bill, too, should be a template for national reforms.
A look back at the Anti-Renters shows us what can be accomplished when passionate and dispossessed people spend years organizing a highly creative and ultimately popular campaign. Their activism soon bore fruit: the Anti-Rent Party formed in 1844, and it soon exercised major influence in New York State politics into the next decade. The following year, thirteen Anti-Renters were elected to the state legislature, though over time, as Huston writes, the party’s power became based more on its ability to swing elections than win them on its account, as members of both mainstream parties, Whigs and Democrats, tried to claim the Anti-Renters’ cause as their own. More broadly, the Anti-Rent movement succeeded in changing public attitudes toward private property: tenants, Huston said, suddenly acquired “a notion that land is not created by human beings and they had a right to it.”
The Anti-Renters’ pressure led to the breakup of the colonial-era manors with their semi-indentured forms of tenure, as landlords—deprived of the old feudal-style extractive model—increasingly sold off their land. The movement’s influence only faded after a bipartisan bill designed to strike a new balance between landlords’ and tenants’ rights failed to get through the legislature in 1849. And by then, the struggle over rents was being eclipsed in the public eye by the growing national controversy over slavery and abolition.
The Anti-Rent Wars’ legacy nevertheless survived to help shape the Homestead Act of 1862, the largest giveaway of land for farming in America’s history, providing so many with free land to settle on out West—albeit often at a terrible cost to Indigenous peoples.
This is where, for me, the Anti-Renters’ story intersects with our own. As I stood on the hilly site where the tenants battled police officers that day, I pondered whether we, too, could forge an Anti-Eviction Party; and if we did, could we keep it from fading away as the Anti-Rent Party once did? The cause of housing justice surely faces many obstacles ahead—not least in the home of the Anti-Renters where the interests of Big Real Estate have dominated both city and state politics for decades. But like the tin horn-carrying, calico-wearing activists of the nineteenth century, today’s movement is finding fresh and inventive ways to keep people their homes.
Alissa Quart is the executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. She is the author of four nonfiction books, including Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America (2018), as well as two books of poetry. Her latest project is the podcast series Going for Broke with Ray Suarez. Her next book, Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream, is forthcoming in 2022.
Co-published with The New York Review of Books.