The Rent is Too Darned High

Today’s post is written by M Marie Maxwell, an Archives Specialist in Textual Processing who works at Archives I, in Washington, DC. 

Recently I rehoused a few series, moving documents from old boxes and folders into newer, archival quality folders and boxes. In doing so I encountered the letters from District of Columbia residents of the past almost all complaining that their rent was too high. This reminded me of a small New York City political party based on rising rent who inspired a meme a few years ago and inspired this post.

The series I processed are from a little used record group, Record Group 132 Records of the Rent Commission of the District of Columbia. The whole series is less than 8 cubic feet in size and quite small. The Rent Commission was established as an emergency agency by a 1919 Congressional act in response to rising rents after World War I.

RG 132 Entry 3 folder 1920J Letter
Letter From Charles Jenkins to Brigadier General I. W. Littell (NAID 34922747)

The title General Correspondence, 1920-1925 (NAID 2524363) does not truly reveal what is contained. A majority of the letters are from tenants appealing to the Rent Commission to complain that their landlords have raised the rent and their rent was too much. Sometimes letters come from supervisors or others on behalf of tenants as was the case with the Letter From Charles Jenkins to Brigadier General I. W. Littell (NAID 34922747), who in turn contacted the Commission. In an October 3, 1920 letter Jenkins wrote to Littell explaining that his rent at 1111 3rd St SW went from $19.50, then $22.50 and finally $25.00 in less than a year. In a previous August letter to Littell he complained about a leaking roof, falling plaster, a rotting porch and rising rents. The Commission responded October 14th requesting Mr. Jenkins to contact them directly.

In their letters to the Commission, tenants describe their living conditions and challenges, sometimes going into detail, which in turn give a sense of what life was like. In Ms. Annie Onley’s February 28, 1922 letter (Letter from Annie Onley to Commission, NAID 34922764) she describes the row of houses where she lives as having three presumably African American families and three white families. She claimed her neighbors were paying $13.30, and she $30.50 for a similar house. She mentions a small “Summer Kitchen” which could explain something about 19th century working class residential housing in the District of Columbia. Other letter writers go into multi-page detail regarding their rents, their living conditions, their landlords and other matters outside of the Commission’s purview.

Feb 28, 1922 handwritten letter
Letter from Annie Onley to the Commission (NAID 34922764). Front of letter.


Second and third parts of Letter from Annie Onley to the Commission (NAID 34922764)

The Rent Commission came to an end in 1925. The Commission experienced several legal challenges, particularly from the owners of large apartment buildings, such as the owners of the Chastleton– see Chastleton Case Files, 1923 – 1923 (NAID 2524366). The owners of the Chastleton appealed to the Supreme Court, and appears to have challenged the constitutionality of the Rent Commission. Others did too as well, with Karrick v Cantrill in the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia, which may be found in Cases Appealed to the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, 1923 – 1924 (NAID 2524365). According to the Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States, the Commission was abolished effective “May 22, 1925, as provided in final extension act, May 17, 1924.” Yet even in their last year residents were appealing to Commission to complain their rent was too darned high.

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