In continuing our exploration of public housing last time, I mentioned the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), created by Congress in 1932 with a whole slew of mandates that included providing loans for low-income housing. This was really the first federal involvement in affordable housing of any kind (pre-dating the First Houses, the first public housing built in the country) and it turns out its first loan went to somebody we’ve mentioned before – Frederick French. So a connection! I love a connection (and in fact last time I talked about Fred French it was kind of all about how I love a connection) so of course I gotta dive right in. Don’t worry, this also fits with our whole exploration of the large housing complexes of the Lower East Side too, so we’re really batting 1.000 today. As I mentioned, the RFC was created to deal with a lot more than affordable housing financing; it was essentially an attempt to combat the effects of the Great Depression by stimulating lending. The RFC had a mandate to provide financial aid to state and local governments and to make loans to banks, railroads, and yes, private real estate developers.
There was a catch of course: the private developer had to build affordable housing. The goal was two-fold: to increase the supply of low-income housing and to help stimulate the construction industry. Except there was another requirement, that any new construction be part of slum clearance; that is, the new “affordable” housing had to replace “slums.” This would become pretty standard housing policy for the federal government and it seems that it was baked in pretty early. The outcome essentially (whether it was truly the intention) was that there would be no net increase in the number of affordable units – you tore some down and replaced them with some new ones. And in fact those new ones were often more expensive than the old (just like now! so hey, this tactic isn’t so new after all). That was the case with Knickerbocker Village at least.
In fact the story goes that Fred French originally purchased tracts of existing tenements in the Lower East Side with the idea of tearing some down and putting up a high-end development for junior Wall Street executives. But this was during the Depression (1931) and there was no credit to be had. So when the RFC was created Fred French took a different tack. He chose the worst parcels in his holding – the so called “Lung Block” for its high prevalence of tuberculosis – and proposed it to the RFC as a worthy place for slum clearance. They agreed – ultimately lending somewhere between 85%-97% of the total $10 million cost to build. Some 650 families were evicted and their homes torn down, replaced by twelve 13-story buildings surrounding 2 court-yards. Despite the low-interest loan it was still a seemingly expensive project; to keep the monthly rents low the tax assessment on Knickerbocker Village had to be reduced by 2/3. This made the monthly rent $12.50 per room (as required by the RFC); the buildings that they replaced, by comparison, had rented for about $5 per room. So most of those evicted families weren’t coming back (but hey, that’s why we were soon to build public housing right? For the poorest of the poor?).
It was instead largely middle-class professionals who moved into Knickerbocker Village. But when they did (in 1934) they found the development essentially unfinished – things like no working elevators or fixtures in the bathrooms and kitchens, and none of the promised public facilities, such as laundry rooms or play rooms, in working order. Their complaints to the Fred French Company fell on deaf (and apparently rude and dismissive) ears. French and co may have forgotten that they weren’t dealing with the poorest of the poor here – a large number of Knickerbocker Village tenants were lawyers and journalists – and within weeks they’d joined together to form a rent strike and a highly visible political and press campaign against the building. It was a campaign they won, with management agreeing to repairs and reimbursements (some $25,000 in total) within 6 weeks of the rent strike. The successful tenants were emboldened to form a permanent Knickerbocker Village Tenants Association, to undertake a program of cultural and educational activities within the development (albeit with an activist tilt). The Fred French Company wasn’t impressed and fought back through various methods – denying meeting space, starting a rival tenants association, and ultimately declining to renew the lease of a number of tenant association leaders. The association sued to force renewal of the leases and though they lost the court case, the move by the Fred French Company backfired – the “eviction” of these tenants caused so much sympathy that the tenants association grew to over a thousand members. Leaders of the group would go on to help form the Citywide Tenants Council in the late 1930s – a group we’ll hopefully explore more a little later.
Because as always there’s too much to follow in one sitting here. Knickerbocker Village was also where Julius and Ethel Rosenberg lived, before they were arrested and executed as alleged Soviet spies in the early 1950s (see what happens when you start a tenants association?). Knickerbocker Village was also home to numerous members of the Bonanno Crime Family, including Benjamin Ruggiero, portrayed by Al Pacino in the movie Donnie Brasco (see what happens when you start a tenants association?). And today (and for some time) Knickerbocker Village has been part of the Mitchell-Lama program, which is something I definitely want to write about someday. And then there’s all the other things of course that don’t even have to do with housing! I know I tend to end too many of these with exclamation points, but why not? It’s spring again! It’s in the 60s! Okay, okay, calm down. I’m gonna end this one with a semicolon. ; Damn. ;