Average New York City rents jumped to $3,049 per month last quarter, three times the national average. Soaring rents are at the heart of Democratic Mayor-Elect Bill de Blasio's contention that New York is a tale of two cities, one rich, one poor. Yet the origins of the city's landlord-tenant tensions go much further back, to the years after World War I, when a severe housing shortage encouraged landlords to raise rents to unprecedented levels, prompting the Republican state legislature to impose rent controls for the first time. It's a story recounted by historian Robert Fogelson in his compelling if sometimes overly detailed "The Great Rent Wars: New York, 1917-1929."
New York state had begun the 20th century with a momentous piece of legislation: The Tenement House Act of 1901 banned the construction of dark, unventilated tenements and mandated a host of safety measures and amenities. Opponents argued that the law would increase building costs, deter residential construction and exacerbate the housing shortage. Yet in 1903, as Mr. Fogelson writes, "a building boom got under way the likes of which New Yorkers had never seen." By the time the boom ended in late 1916, developers had built nearly 27,000 apartment houses holding some 400,000 units.