The Depression-Era Lessons That Can Solve Today’s Evictions Crisis

tags: housing, New Deal, Economic Policy, Protest, COVID-19, evictions

Anya Jabour is Regents professor of history at the University of Montana and the author of Sophonisba Breckinridge: Championing Women’s Activism in Modern America.

With the threat of a coronavirus-fueled eviction crisis looming, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a sweeping ban on evictions, although it is unclear what its impact will be. Yet the need to address the problem is urgent. Housing policy experts warn that “the United States may be facing the most severe housing crisis in its history.” As many as 40,000 Americans — up to 43 percent of renter households — risk eviction by the end of 2020. African American and Hispanic households are especially vulnerable to lost wages and eviction notices.

The potential “homeless pandemic” threatens both economic security and public health. And yet, the country has faced this type of crisis before — and made significant strides in ensuring social welfare as a result.

During the Great Depression, social scientists Sophonisba Breckinridge and Edith Abbott launched a study of the Chicago Renters’ Court. Established to hear cases in which tenants were subject to immediate eviction for nonpayment of rent, the court was busy during the Depression; from 1931 to 1933, total evictions in the city doubled.

Their research showed that a sharp decline in regular employment caused tenants to fall behind in rent payments. While no demographic group was immune, immigrants and African Americans were especially hard-hit by the economic downtown. Indeed, the study commenced in 1932, a year after a rent riot in the predominantly African American South Side prompted the court to seek rental assistance from charitable agencies before enforcing eviction notices.


Breckinridge and Abbott used evidence from this study to advocate for federal relief for impoverished Americans. In her memoirs, Abbott maintained that Colorado Sen. Edward Costigan’s inspiration for the nation’s first federal relief bill was a conversation he had with her about homelessness in Chicago in the summer of 1931.

Breckinridge gave Costigan evidence that he presented in Senate hearings on proposed relief legislation to fund public work projects and provide direct assistance to destitute citizens. Abbott also testified on behalf of Costigan’s proposed legislation. The Federal Emergency Relief Act was passed in 1933. It provided federal funding for both work-relief programs and direct financial assistance for needy Americans.

Abbott and Breckinridge did not stop there. Both women were long-standing advocates of a “national minimum” standard of living guaranteed by the federal government. With Franklin Roosevelt in office, Breckinridge and Abbott had powerful allies in a network of female New Dealers that included first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, Democratic Party leader Mary W. Dewson and U.S. Children’s Bureau Chief Grace Abbott (Edith Abbott’s sister).

Read entire article at Made By History at The Washington Post

comments powered by Disqus