The Rent is Too Damn High in Washington, DC. How the Hell are People Affording It?
A few years ago, the Washington Post dropped a story that still makes the rounds on the internets even today about just how much it costs to live comfortably in the District of Columbia. Their suggestion: Roughly $108,000 per year. This was their household “happiness” estimate. According to that same article, DC has the third most number of households making over $150k a year in cities with a population over 500,000. To further the “we rich, bitch” pathos, apparently Maryland has the most millionaires per capita in the nation, Virginia ranks number 6 on that list, and Washington, DC, ranks 10th.
The entire point of that first paragraph was to illustrate how “rich” the DC area is to people who don’t live here. For people that do live here, most of that is old hat, old news, and it’s made ever more clear by the amount of new construction happening in our nation’s capital and the insane costs for apartments in DC. According to RentJungle.com, in April 2017, the average price for a one-bedroom apartment in DC is $2,081, and the average price for a two-bedroom apartment in DC is $2,741. In summation, if you live in DC and are renting an apartment, you better literally think that you’re Big Meech or Larry Hoover, because you will be blowin’ money fast.
According to another Washington Post article, based on U.S. Census data, the average median household income in Washington, DC, in 2015 (I’m assuming this is the latest data available that’s been parsed) was $75,628. The average national median was $56,500. But that’s a household. So how does personal/individual income fare? Glad you asked. According to BizJournals, in 2012 (I know, it’s old as fuck at this point), the average per capita income in DC was $74,733 (before taxes, etc.). I think we can only assume this number has gone up. Not too shabby since the national per capita income average back then, when you didn’t want me, was around $43k.
DC, again, is rich as fuck. Though we do also have a hefty poverty rate, and people who live along the stops of Metro’s Green Line, also known as the Soul Train, have the lowest household income in the area. Clearly everybody ain’t rich, which should come as no surprise to anybody.
Let’s switch gears for a minute. I live in southeast D.C., east of the river (DC code for Black and less well off) in a neighborhood called Congress Heights. I live in the poorest of the city’s eight wards (I live in Ward 8), and all of the TWO grocery stores located east of the river (the Anacostia River if you’re asking), are located within a mile of my home. It’s a high crime, high poverty area, and doubles as the city’s most affordable housing market. For now. Since I bought my house in 2012, my value has increased as you-know-who comes looking for affordable housing.
As a point of contrast, in 2012 (this is about to get real personal), I paid $299,900, for a three story, 3 bedroom, 2.5 bath, roughly 2k (a lot for DC) square feet, new construction townhouse in the city’s poorest area. Let that sink in. Ask anybody in DC, and they’ll tell you that’s cheap. My daughter goes to a private school in Alexandria, Virginia. On our drive in in the mornings I always take note of the houses that are for sale. I couldn’t afford any of them if I wanted to, but I like to see what housing prices look in general.
There is a house for sale along the route to her school that is going for $674,900, that has 816 square feet, 2 bedrooms, 1 bathroom, that was built in 1956, and according to the pictures, the only upgrades to the entire house SINCE then are the kitchen, because you cannot demand that kind of money without a new kitchen. That house was more than TWICE the price of my house with less than half the space. But location, location, location. Assuming a 20 percent downpayment of $135k (who the fuck has that just sitting around), the mortgage on that house would be about $3,400/month, MORE THAN DOUBLE my mortgage.
On my way home from work everyday, I drive by Nationals Park, the home of our Major League Baseball team, the Washington Nationals, in the Navy Yards area and neighborhood. This area used to be terrible and now includes a destination in the city, Yards Park. Yards Park is surrounded, now, by SEVERAL high-end new apartment buildings, similar to those popping up all over DC. One of these new buildings is called Dock79, located literally across the street from Nationals Park.
As I watched Dock79 be built, I wondered just how much would it cost for a one- or two-bedroom apartment in such a location with such nice views. Keep in mind, this building is LITERALLY across the bridge that separates most of DC from the “east of the river” DC. I can see my daughter’s old charter school from this building and that school was in what felt like a war zone at times. It’s as close as you can get to the water without swimming in it. The most inexpensive unit is a studio with 500+ square feet going for $1,875 (more than my actual mortgage). The most expensive, at least according to the site, is about $4,100, for a 2BR/2BA with 1200+ square feet. This is more per month than the tiny house for sale in Alexandria, which doesn’t even have the best school system in the area. Bang for the buck, eh?
I checked rental costs for several other buildings in the area, especially those located adjacent to Yards Park and the costs varied but were largely similar. To live in DC, you’re paying out the ass.
Let’s do some income breakdowns because this is ultimately where the rubber meets the road. Let’s assume that we’re talking about a person who makes the DC area average per capita income, which in 2012 was about $74k. We’ll plus that up to account for inflation since then, so let’s say the average income is around $80k. I’m assuming, here, that we’re going to talk about a single person with no children since I’m guessing most people in this city with kids are moving out to the burbs leaving it to the rich people with kids where they paid $700k for a house and there is a stay at home parent, which, is insane.
Anyway, the take home pay on an $80k annual salary or $6,666 gross per month. is say, $4k NET per month (after accounting for taxes, benefits – assuming you pay them – and social security, plus some retirement). According to LendKey.com, here’s the rule of thumb on housing:
The general recommendation is to spend about 30% of your gross monthly income (before taxes) on rent. Therefore, if you’ll be making $4,000 per month, then your rent should be $4,000 x 0.3, or about $1,200. Another way to calculate this number is to divide your annual income by 40.
However, if you’re a college senior with student loans, you will want to factor your student loan payments into your calculations. The 30% rule doesn’t really account for a high debt load. Instead, consider using the 43% rule, which is borrowed from the mortgage lending world. With this rule, your monthly housing cost plus all monthly debt payments should not exceed 43% of your monthly income. If your student loan payments are very high, this might not leave much money left for rent.
So it’s recommended (by people that recommend shit) that you spend roughly $2,000 to $2,866 on housing, respectively, according to those figures. Hmmmm. We already know that the average one bedroom is over $2k, so you’re SO straight, right?! Wrong. Your net is looking at your gross like it’s stupid because who takes home their gross? After accounting for for (again) taxes, benefits – assuming you pay them – and social security, plus some retirement, your NET is (again) $4k per month. There’s a good chance that you’re going to end up paying more than half of your ACTUAL take home on housing. Now let’s assume that you have a roommate which would be helpful…on average.
If the average 2BR is almost $2,800, then you’re in much better shape. Except, $80k is the AVERAGE. Which means you have many people, especially young upstarts moving to DC in their early 20s making way less than that. It’s probably offset by lawyers coming into the city to work in lobbying jobs who are making way more than that but are also likely to not be living with anybody else because they don’t have to. And since most of those “affordable” 2BR apartments for less are probably in less than desirable locations in the city, I’d wager most people are finding ways to pay more to live in areas they’re happy with.
Of course, this also assumes that your only expense is housing. What if you have credit card debt, car loans, student loans, etc.? In a city full of so many working professionals and government employees – who get paid better than one might think, but are absolutely not raking in millions per year in salary – and non-governmental organization employees, and non-profits, how in the hell do people who make less than the average afford to live here? I mean, there’s only so many years you can reasonably live with somebody else in a roommate situation.
I look at these super expensive houses and these irrationally expensive apartments that somehow manage to get tenants and I wonder just who in the fuck lives in DC? What jobs are they taking? Are these all lawyers? OR are they already rich kids coming into DC to get some Capitol Hill experience and pad the political resume before they go back home to run for office and take over the family business? Do their parents have THAT much money?
I’ve been at my current job for well over 10 years. My salary is comfortable as hell and if I didn’t have any children or debt, I could easily afford one of those one bedroom apartments and not stress TOO much about the cost. But again, I’ve been at my job for more than a decade. My salary at this point has more than doubled and because of the nature of my job and because I had a Master’s degree when I started, my salary was significantly higher than I’d wager most folks coming to DC with a Bachelor’s degree.
Does everybody have a roommate? Is everybody rich? Is everybody rich and white? Who the fuck lives in DC right now? How is a city full of government workers and millennials trying to make a difference also full of apartments costed at a rate that would offend people who live in other places not named San Fran, LA, or NYC.
Just who the fuck lives in DC?