A History Still in the Making: 50 Years of Philadelphia Tenant Organizing

by Tommy McGlone
Featured image: Aftermath of the Columbia Avenue Riot, August 29, 1964. Joseph Wiedelman/Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. Courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia.

*The archival research for this project was conducted from January-May 2021 at the Temple University Special Collections Research Center.*

The history of tenant organizing in Philadelphia is undoubtedly as old as tenancy in the city itself. However, the current state of tenant organizing in Philadelphia can trace many of its roots to the boom of tenant organizations in the late 1960s, at the height of the period’s left political radicalism. During this time, a number of tenants’ groups, including the North Philadelphia Tenants Union, the City-Wide Tenants Union, the East Broad Street Tenants Union, and the Northwest Tenants Organization all rose to prominence. This growth was related to the overall organizing spirit of the era, and some tenant organizations had ties to larger organizing groups like the Philadelphia Urban Coalition. A 1968 Inquirer article noted that at a protest led by the Northwest Tenants Organization, supporters of the demonstrators flashed peace signs—while more conservative critics threw fruit and eggs at the demonstrators.

Most of these tenant groups, though related to the movements of the time, were not radical in the sense socialists might associate with the term. Their organizing was issues-based, and while tenant organizers worked with activists in other left political organizations, their main goal was the welfare of tenants throughout the city. One of the several Philadelphia tenant groups of the period, the City-Wide Tenants Union, was in fact founded in coalition with the Welfare Rights Organization to focus on the lack of enforcement of code regulations by the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections and the increasing need for low-income housing. The group won some concessions during the mayoral administration of James Tate. However, many groups of the period, including the City-Wide Tenants Union, were a flash in the pan. By the early 1970s, most tenant groups had either disbanded or merged into one or another city activist organization.

One group which survived past this early period was the Northwest Tenants Organization, founded out of the City-Wide Tenants Union amid growing protests of poor building conditions in the Germantown area. The Northwest Tenants Organization would remain a prominent force in tenant organizing for years after the City-Wide Tenants Union was defunct, and many of its members would go on to profoundly impact the political landscape of Philadelphia, including co-founder and community activist Rudy Tolbert, lawyer and community activist Stan Shapiro, and Eva Gladstein, the eventual director of the Tenants Action Group and current Deputy Managing Director for Health and Human Services for the City of Philadelphia.

In 1972, Gladstein and others collectively founded the Tenants Information Service, a group providing advice and basic resources to tenants in the city. In early 1974, Tolbert, Gladstein, and others from the local scene, including organizer Maisha Jackson, officially formed the Tenant Action Group, a citywide organization that aimed to expand the organizational scope of the Northwest Tenants Organization and the Tenants Information Service. Alongside the Northwest Tenants Organization and the Housing Association of the Delaware Valley, the Tenant Action Group quickly became the most prominent tenant organizing group in the area, run primarily in its early years by Gladstein and Jackson, both staffed employees of the organization during the 1970s. At least one of their names is on practically every TAG document in the Temple TAG archives from this period.

Logo of the Tenant Action Group (TAG), founded 1974. Courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia.

Rent control was a central goal for TAG, especially in its early days. Rather than reiterate this history at length, I refer the reader to Michelle Crouch’s excellent recent article on tenant organizing and rent control in Philadelphia. This piece covers TAG’s efforts to pass rent control, detailing how multiple versions of a rent control bill were brought before City Council. Some versions had considerable support, with a 1975 vote knocking down rent control only by 7 votes to 6. Even after this defeat, TAG continued to press city government for a Tenants’ Bill of Rights, which would have included rent control along with a number of provisions to ensure tenants weren’t financially gouged or subject to inhumane housing conditions. As Crouch relates, one part of the Bill of Rights was passed in 1980, a Fair Housing Ordinance which protected women and children from housing discrimination. This was an important tenants’ rights and feminist gain which Gladstein mentioned as one of TAG’s most significant achievements when I interviewed her in the summer of 2021. 

The work of TAG wasn’t restricted to pushing for rent control, however. The day-to-day of TAG organizing also involved interacting with tenants themselves: providing advice, helping to organize tenant councils, and referring tenants to Community Legal Services when landlords blatantly violated leases. For many years TAG operated a Repair Action Group which focused especially on helping tenants when landlords refused to make repairs, ignored random gas outages, and generally neglected tenants.

During this time, TAG tried to pressure the Department of Licenses and Inspections to actually enforce existing codes on some of the most negligent and hostile landlords in the city, which the office was reluctant to do without outside pressure. This effort continued throughout TAG’s entire existence, and remains a serious issue for tenants in the city today. The multiple boxes of records of phone calls from tenants in the TAG archives shows how important the group was for helping lower and middle-class tenants during this period, despite its meager funding and small staff. 

In these early years, coalition work was common. TAG contributed to organizing a march to protest the effects of growing inflation in the fall of 1974 alongside unions and other local organizing groups. Ties to other organizations would remain crucial, and Gladstein noted in our interview that TAG was essential for linking tenant organizing to “welfare rights movements and public housing movements,” while the group’s work on the Fair Housing Ordinance (and later joining Women’s Way) “clearly articulat[ed] that the folks most often oppressed by the landlord-tenant system are low-income women of color with children.” 

TAG continued to press city government for a Tenants’ Bill of Rights, which would have included rent control along with a number of provisions to ensure tenants weren’t financially gouged or subject to inhumane housing conditions.

Even in these early days, TAG’s coalition work seeped into electoral politics. The group had an electoral politics committee, and in 1975, they endorsed Charles Bowser, a longtime presence in the left-liberal organizing scene, in his run for mayor. The organizing relationships established during this period would prove influential for TAG’s development in the coming decades, as it became more integrated into city government.

Notably, many of the tactics used through the 1970s were similar to those employed by more radical tenants groups today. In fact, TAG’s April 1975 interruption of a City Council meeting, which involved 50 members, bears a striking resemblance to a similar interruption just over 40 years later by members of the Philadelphia Tenants Union, who in 2018 packed a Law and Government Committee meeting in support of passing Good Cause eviction legislation (a fight which was eventually won). TAG’s militancy in the 1970s was at least partially an outgrowth of the protest culture of the 1960s; government interruptions like the 1975 incident harkened back to a well-documented sit-in held by the Coalition Against Slum Housing in 1971, and earlier protests by groups like the City-Wide Tenants Union and the Northwest Tenants Organization.

Throughout the group’s first decade, the TAG staff and steering committee struggled with a number of organizing challenges: burnout, low meeting attendance, difficulty coordinating projects, and fundraising struggles. TAG minutes and records from the late 1970s show that Gladstein and Jackson, occasionally along with one or two short-term staff members and a small group of college student volunteers, were repeatedly forced to take point on organizing initiatives, as the group’s steering committee vacillated in attendance and makeup. Sometimes other individual organizers would take on large portions of the work as well, but were often forced to drop out due to the overwhelming scope of the work. A grant from the Whitney Foundation covered the vast majority of expenses during this time, and though fundraising from paper memberships helped, TAG was frequently spread thin in the early years, financially and organizationally.

One particular story jumped out to me in the archives as a particular low point for TAG’s financial woes. In 1977, the steering committee stumbled across a possible opportunity to put on a fundraising performance featuring, among others, Richard Pryor. A supposed representative for Pryor confirmed that the comedian could play the gig, and TAG put down a deposit. However, after the rep became increasingly cagey and failed to provide proof of commitment, it eventually became clear that he was not actually a representative for Pryor at all. TAG filed suit against the man, and while they won the judgment, they were not fully compensated for the scam for over a year.

This story is extremely indicative of the gravity of TAG’s early financial stresses. Even a seemingly minor absurdity like the Pryor fiasco struck a major financial blow to the group. Some members even provided personal loans to the organization to cover the loss, loans which were not recovered until the summer of 1978.

Coalition Against Slum Lord Housing (CASH) sit-in, March 17, 1971. Joshua Bernstein/Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. Courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia.

Not all of TAG’s difficulties during this period were financial, of course. Many complications were political or strategic in nature. According to meeting minutes in the TAG archives, internal debate during this period was rich. A concern raised at a 1977 meeting about a lack of tenant council involvement in the steering committee was representative of tensions within the group’s operations—legislative campaigns, attempts to organize tenant councils in buildings throughout the city, and fundraising stresses pulled the group’s small core in many different directions. By 1979, many organizational and financial stresses had become less severe, but the precarity of these difficult and ambitious years was still fresh.

It was with these stresses barely in the rearview that TAG entered the 1980s, barreling headfirst into the Reagan years with the Fair Housing Ordinance under its belt and many lessons learned. TAG’s situation had stabilized considerably by the early 1980s. In part this was due to a diversification of funding sources, which allowed the group to hire more staff and to increase their organizational capacity. The most noteworthy funding addition came from TAG’s 1981 decision to accept government funds, which Gladstein highlighted as a turning point during our interview. The decision allowed TAG to start a number of new counseling programs for tenants directly funded by the city and allowed for expansions in staffing and materials. By the late 1980s, TAG offices had moved from Germantown to Center City.

The acceptance of government spending contributed to a tamping down of TAG’s more radical organizing tactics. The changes in the group were slow, and as late as 1982 Belinda Mayo, a TAG leader since the late 1970s, was arrested for simple assault and malicious mischief when she and other TAG members demanded an audience with a housing court judge and confronted the police. Still, events like this were exceptional. TAG records from this era show Gladstein describing TAG as a “non-profit agency” in correspondence, and this was an honest representation of the group’s status at the time.

TAG provided more comprehensive aid to tenants in the 1980s than it had in the previous decade. Gladstein emphasized that the decision to accept government funding had made it much easier to link tenants to one another. “That was actually our first housing counseling contract,” Gladstein recalled, “and we actually tried to use that to make sure we understood changing issues and conditions. We also used it as an organizing tool, because the way we provided services was through groups, so we were introducing tenants to each other to identify common problems and to connect to each other for mutual aid and support”.

Organizers with TAG continued to fight for local and state benefits for tenants, called attention to unlivable conditions, facilitated relations between small groups of tenants and the city government, and ran numerous programs for tenants throughout the city. Frequent calls to TAG from tenants continued with urgency throughout the 1980s, as city conditions increasingly subjected tenants to regular abuses from landlords, along with Philadelphia Housing Authority rent hikes and renter restrictions. TAG had achieved stability while expanding its ability to reach tenants.

Despite the fact that TAG had undeniably improved its organizing capacities in some ways, it met criticism as the 1980s wore on. Acel Moore, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Philadelphia journalist, wrote a searing Inquirer editorial in 1986 titled “Where are All the Housing Activists Now?” In the piece, he criticized what he viewed as the assimilation of housing organizers into city government following the election of Mayor W. Wilson Goode, calling out TAG leaders by name. Noting the squandering of housing funds and the overall failure of the mayoral administration, Moore pointedly noted, “What is most interesting is that during the three years of the Goode administration most if not all of the housing activists have been silent.”

Notably, many of the tactics used through the 1970s were similar to those employed by more radical tenants groups today. In fact, TAG’s April 1975 interruption of a City Council meeting, which involved 50 members, bears a striking resemblance to a similar interruption just over 40 years later by members of the Philadelphia Tenants Union, who in 2018 packed a Law and Government Committee meeting in support of passing Good Cause eviction legislation.

Ironically, given his decisive role in the barbaric MOVE bombing, Goode initially rose to office with the support of local left-leaning activists who played key and supporting roles in his administration after his election. Goode, the first Black mayor of Philadelphia, had himself helped with Charles Bowser’s 1975 presidential campaign, which TAG had endorsed. Maisha Jackson, who along with Gladstein and a few other key organizers had carried TAG through the 1970s, joined the PHA staff under Goode’s administration.

An especially sympathetic reader might argue that these trade-offs were necessary to get results. In some ways this is true, and TAG’s results during the 1980s were often impressive. However, not all of the wins of the period had positive consequences. One of the major aims of the group since the 1970s had been the establishment of a housing court that would allow for tenants to have a chance to plead their cases. In 1981, their organizing efforts paid off, and the Housing Court was created. By 1983, TAG was already criticizing the Court for bias against tenants and failing to inform tenants of their rights. While a housing court in theory could provide an arena for tenants to raise objections to negligent slumlords, judicial action in the actual Housing Court often harmed tenants more than landlords. While the Court put forth some positives, including a mediation program, it had not been the means of dealing with Licenses and Inspections that TAG activists had desired. 

It’s tempting to simply ascribe TAG’s move away from more radical tactics and oppositional politics to the group’s decision to accept city funding. In truth, TAG was one of many groups which chose to ally themselves with liberal local politicians in order to push back against the most extreme harms of the Reagan era. Especially in the wake of the financial and organizational difficulties that racked TAG in the late 1970s, it isn’t difficult to understand why the group’s leadership made the decisions it did. 

From a socialist perspective, we can and should be critical of this co-optation—but it is important to keep in mind the dire organizing conditions of the 1980s and that TAG, radical as some of its earlier actions might have been, wasn’t seeking a socialist future. Their goal was improving the quality of life for tenants in Philadelphia.  A form of tenant organizing with more explicitly radical roots emerged after the long 1990s and early 2000s, when the financial crisis of 2008, Occupy Wall Street in 2011, and the first Black Lives Matter protests in 2013 rocked liberal activists. 

With that said, some of the changes which define the contemporary tenant organizing landscape began as early as the 1980s. Many high-rise housing projects and privately owned buildings with dozens of units were abandoned or demolished in favor of single and multi-family units, a trend that had already begun on a much smaller scale in the early 1970s. TAG’s 1970s organizing model had relied heavily on forming tenant councils in large, multi-unit buildings or on unified city blocks, though the former was more common. Single-building rent strikes became difficult as the tenant council model deteriorated through the 1990s and 2000s. 

Rising housing costs during this period did little to help. In TAG’s early years, Philadelphia had many densely populated apartment buildings, both large complexes and high-rises. A significant number of these buildings, many of them public housing, have since been demolished, with twenty-three PHA high-rises brought down between 1994 and 2014. This was not without good reason, as many units were small, dilapidated, and disliked by tenants.  However, the tenant council model was challenged immensely by the diminishing of high-rise housing, and the influx of new renters with few local ties into gentrification hotspots made it more difficult to establish lasting organizational relationships. The cultural and local unity which had made organizing tenant councils in West Philadelphia viable in the 1970s was fractured.

Coalition Against Slum Lord Housing (CASH) sit-in, March 17, 1971. Joshua Bernstein/Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. Courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia.

In 2005, TAG was reorganized as TURN, the Tenant Union Representative Network. In an interview last spring, Phil Lord, TURN’s current director, spoke to me about the challenges of organizing tenants after the decline of the tenant council and building rent strike model. “TAG would go into buildings, organize them, and then make demands, that was the modus operandi,” Lord said. “Tenants are [now] much more vulnerable, in a rent strike context, to retaliation.” While advances in communications have made city-wide mobilization easier in some contexts, Lord made it clear that the decline of the rent strike has presented new challenges for organizing tenants.

When the Philadelphia Tenants Union was founded in 2014, it had to confront all of these challenges. Drawing on a basebuilding strategy, the PTU began to organize tenants and embarked on a campaign to pass a bill enshrining Good Cause protections in the law. In the process, the PTU had to establish links to existing organizations, including TURN.

Barry Thompson, the former president of the PTU, related some of the difficulties of the PTU during these early days when I interviewed him last winter. “[TURN] was a little hesitant. It took some work, it took some sincereness and commitment from us to show that we were on the right page and we were willing to work with other organizations and nonprofits to get where we needed to get.” Thompson and other organizers in the PTU were intent on demonstrating that the PTU was a distinct organization with its own aims and radical organizing practices, but they recognized the importance of allying with TURN and other veteran groups in tenant struggles, like Community Legal Services. “We knew that we needed other coalition organizations to get involved. Our main thing was to build some relationships – one of them was TURN, who we needed to have a relationship with to get where we needed to be.”

These relationships got results only a few years after the PTU’s founding, when the PTU, with the support of TURN and CLS, successfully organized Good Cause protections for renters in Philadelphia. The struggle for Good Cause, which was covered previously by the Philadelphia Partisan, took just over two years to be passed by the City Council. The campaign employed tactics similar to those of the early days of TAG: filling City Hall, working with coalitions, and allying themselves with sympathetic sponsors on the council. What was distinct was, of course, the PTU’s roots in Philly Socialists and the group’s overall commitment to socialism. This commitment has played a major role in the rise in tenant organizing nationwide, from local struggles in cities like Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. as well as broader coordination across the country.

TAG’s militancy in the 1970s was at least partially an outgrowth of the protest culture of the 1960s; government interruptions like the 1975 incident harkened back to a well-documented sit-in held by the Coalition Against Slum Housing in 1971, and earlier protests by groups like the City-Wide Tenants Union and the Northwest Tenants Organization.

Maddie Rose, an organizer with the PTU, emphasized the importance of the group’s embrace of radical tactics to me in a recent email exchange. They pointed out that “radical tactics on a small level have been the backbone of PTU—Good Cause was won up against a city council with zero supporters by both routine hassling at their events, and the simultaneous organizing of tenants in their districts. A focus too heavily on legislation loses this crucial element—tenants protesting horrible conditions or eviction in their own district either makes [council members] look bad, or makes them look like a hero if they have the opportunity to support legislation […] directly. The two work together in an important way that concerns over risking a relationship with a politician, or not having a real base in their district, slow down.”

Thompson, Gladstein, and Lord all noted possible strengths and difficulties for tenant organizing in the present and the future in our interviews. Gladstein spoke optimistically about many of the emergency renter protections instituted in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, expressing hopes that they would stick around (some have, some have not). She also highlighted some of the benefits and problems of organizing through social media, and highlighted the importance of recent advancements in relating tenant struggles to antiracist work.

Lord too mentioned the internet as an organizing strength: “I think there’s much more capacity to do things citywide and nationally, so that’s a really impressive change.” However, he lamented that landlords can use the internet as a tool to investigate tenants, too, noting that this has made life more difficult for tenants who may have had conflicts with prior landlords. He also repeatedly emphasized the importance of different tenant groups working together to achieve their aims, a sentiment echoed by Thompson.

Thompson spoke highly of the PTU and TURN, noting that TURN had been essential for winning Good Cause while also emphasizing the importance of distinguishing the politics of the two groups. While he has since redirected his organizing energies into the Philly Tenant Support Organization, Thompson foregrounded the achievements of the PTU, especially in its early years. At the same time, he criticized the pitfalls of organizing amid gentrification, pointing out that often young, white tenant organizers new to the city—who only remain in their neighborhoods for short periods of time—make establishing lasting organizational relationships more difficult. Overall, however, Thompson returned again and again to the importance of the work itself and the obligation organizers have to fellow tenants, remarking that, “If you’re not reaching out to tenants and you’re just sitting at home waiting for things to happen, then you’re leaving tenants out in the cold, all alone, fighting for themselves, wondering where they can turn to.”

All of these assessments speak to challenges and goals for the future of Philadelphia tenant organizing, many of which have recurred throughout the history of tenant organizing in the Delaware Valley. Stories of burnout and organizational struggle, as well as of sweet, tangible victories, are important touchstones, whether they’re five or fifty years old. As tenants continue to face unjust conditions, struggles for rent control and against landlords remain a necessary part of socialist politics. The history of these struggles has yet to be completed, but it is to our benefit to learn this history so far, if only to get some idea of where it might be going.

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