Teaching the Article
Exercise 3

Postwar Citizens and the Role of Government

Any tenant who reported a rent violation or substandard conditions did so with an expectation that a government investigator would visit the house, record the evidence, and confront the landlord about his or her offense. Even if tenants did not understand the intricacies of federal rent law, most knew enough to recognize a rent crime and to realize that regulators could hold an owner accountable. Landlords and building managers could and did report tenants for their violations, such as having illegal subtenants, and they, too, expected federal officials to mete out punishment. The records from Chicago’s rent control office show thousands of cases of owners, managers, and tenants leaning on government regulators to resolve their clashes over the economics of urban demobilization. As exercise 2 revealed, these quarrels were often about the particulars of life inside the apartment. But the details should not distract us from understanding the larger political question at stake: Should the federal government intervene to cushion the economic blows of demobilization?

Federal rent control was initially part of a larger system that included price controls on clothing, food, automobiles, and many other consumer items, but as controls on those commodities began to disappear, controls on rent remained in American cities for years after the war. In Chicago, federal rent control lasted until 1953—to the end of the next war, in Korea. While tenants hailed rent control’s resiliency, landlords and building managers began to resist—individually and collectively. This exercise pulls back from the gritty stories inside the buildings to understand broader political meanings of this disagreement. Essentially, owners, managers, and tenants were fighting over the size, scope, and power of the federal government. If the New Deal and World War II had expanded the presence of government in people’s lives, then what should the relationship be between state and citizen in the absence of an economic or military crisis? Should demobilization mean the revival of the free market, or did the government owe its citizens some support as they reestablished themselves in a new peacetime economy?

Looking first at the testimonies from landlords, try to analyze their financial situation at the end of the war. Keep in mind that they may have owned the buildings through the Great Depression, when rents were low, and then through the war, when rents were controlled. What do you learn about their predicaments? How does George Mercurio, for example, describe his postwar needs and aspirations? What sense do you get of Mary Miyashita's financial situation from her letter? What are her frustrations with the Office of the Housing Expediter? Next, examine the statement of Mrs. Long, a building manager responding to a tenant complaint about dilapidated furniture. What do you learn about her circumstances as a “hired landlord”? How might her situation compare with that of the La Dolces?

Landlords individually resisted rent regulations, but they also tried to organize coalitions so that they could lobby Congress more effectively. The next document offers a critique of rent control from the perspective of property owners. What are the principal arguments against rent control? How do these owners link their hostility toward rent control to larger grievances about government power? What kind of society do they see emerging if rent control remains? Why do you think they mention communism and socialism in their attack?

After reading the article and the testimonies of tenants and landlords, construct a debate for and against price controls. Did tenants have the right to expect their government to provide a safety net as they navigated the economic challenges of demobilization? Did property owners and building managers have the right to expect their government to stay out of the housing market? Should there be any government restriction on the use of or profit from private property? What about during a war? Do you see links between the rent control controversy and the national debates about government assistance for displaced homeowners in the wake of Hurricane Katrina? Can and should the federal government provide economic padding when people fall through the cracks during national emergencies?

*Note: Some of these examples take us outside the Near North Side, but they exemplify issues in that and other neighborhoods across the city.


A. Petition...Relating to Eviction, George Mercurio, January 22, 1947

B. Letter, Mary Miyashita to the Office of the Housing Expediter, January 3, 1952

C. Letter, Mrs. K. Long to Office of the Housing Expediter, July 24, 1948

D. An Open Letter to Congress, National Home and Property Owners Foundation, March 1, 1949