Greener Pastures – Natasha Bajema

Greener Pastures

Columbia Heights

The balcony at my Columbia Heights Apartment overlooking the parking area and alley


Chapter 2 – Greener Pastures

My quest for greener pastures began in 2011 when I was compelled to leave Chinatown, the only home I knew in Washington D.C. I was forced to move due to rapidly increasing rent prices, $400 per month in just 2 1/2 years. In 2011, I was spending about 40% of my income on rent and utilities. Things were tight. Given my student loan payments and higher costs for everything else as a resident of DC, the cost of rent did not leave much room for travel, entertainment or anything else that was unnecessary to basic living. Thus, I began long journey of chasing lower rent and seeking a higher standard of living…along with everyone else it would seem.

As of 2015, over 1 in 4 DC residents spent more than 50% of their income on rent and utilities. It should come as no surprise that DC is among the top five most expensive rental markets in the United States (after San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and Boston). The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recommends that rental costs not exceed 30% of total household income. Well, that’s not possible in DC. For years, the cost of housing has been rising faster than incomes for most residents in DC, with low and middle income households experiencing the most disparity. Low income households have seen zero growth in income between 2002 and 2013, but experienced increases in the cost of rent from 14-35%. For those households, this means spending less money on necessities such as food and clothing. A recent study suggests that households need to make more than $119,000 to afford a two-bedroom apartment in DC. Thankfully, DC boasts one of the nation’s highest median household incomes at $71,648 in 2014. Oops! That leaves most households literally out in the cold.

In DC, the search for lower rent prices often sends young professionals into neighborhoods considered to be in transition. In such neighborhoods, the lower rent typically comes with higher crime and less amenities. Eventually, transient young professionals making higher incomes displace longtime citizens of DC, transforming the character of the community as a whole, which is often referred to as gentrification. As new amenities such as dog parks and coffee shops creep into lower income, working class neighborhoods, the price of rent and nearby goods surges forcing their longtime residents who rent to find more affordable housing and longtime homeowners to reevaluate their cost-benefit calculation of staying put. Higher home values tend to lead homeowners to cash in early and bank the profit for the future. Meanwhile, the increase in home sales in a neighborhood leads to higher real estate prices, leading to overall increases in the cost of housing and making the housing crisis even worse.

When I first moved to DC in 2008, I took the metro out to Columbia Heights to see if the neighborhood might be a possibility for me. I decided to check it out because the rent was lower than other neighborhoods. I didn’t know what to expect but in 2008 it looked a bit rough compared to my hometown nestled in “Dutch” West Michigan. Most of the first floor windows and doors still had bars on them, a possible sign of crime in the area. Near the metro station, it had some new amenities, but the neighborhood still looked rather rundown and unfriendly (at least on first glance). According to DC police, the crime levels were still quite high. The neighborhood also had a reputation for drugs and gangs. In any case, I didn’t know enough about DC to test any boundaries of my comfort level. After all, I was moving from the idyllic town of Grand Rapids, Michigan to a city notorious for its crime level.

If you dig a bit deeper, Columbia Heights has a rather sinuous and interesting history. Located in the NW quadrant of DC (20010 zip code), Columbia Heights was once owned by Senator John Sherman (hence, a main route is called Sherman Ave). The land hosted the Columbian College, which moved downtown to the Foggy Bottom area in 1905 and was later renamed George Washington University (now considered one of the most expensive universities in America). The move cleared the way for Sherman to develop the neighborhood into housing for some of the wealthiest and most influential people. The town houses were ornately designed and spacious (still evident now). In 1914, four street car lines served as public transportation for a quick hop downtown. The upscale Tivole Theatre movie house was completed in 1924 providing an entertainment venue for Washington’s elite.

In the 1940s, the demographics of the neighborhood began to change slowly, and it evolved into a thriving middle class African American community along with the U Street and Shaw neighborhoods. In the late 1960s, however, Columbia Heights began a steep decline. The neighborhood was one of several destroyed during the riots that swept across DC in 1968 following Martin Luther King Jr.‘s assassination. Many middle class residents moved away to find quieter pastures in the suburbs. This mass exit led to business closures, vacant lots, crime, drugs and lower rent. Offering low cost housing close to downtown, many Latino, Ethiopian and Vietnamese immigrants settled in the neighborhood leading it to become DC’s most diverse neighborhood today.

The prospects for the community changed again in 1999 when the Columbia Heights metro station on the green line. It would take several years, however, before investors would flock to the now trendy and hipster neighborhood. An early pioneer, Sticky Fingers, a vegan bakery, set up shop in 2002. The bakery must have had a crystal ball to anticipate the massive influx of potential clientele by 2010 (or maybe the rent was just low). In January 2005, the GALA Hispanic Theatre moved into the renovated Tivoli Theatre, reflecting the dominant Latino population in the area. The theatre had stood vacant since 1976. By 2008, developers finished renovating the Giant supermarket and opened the DC USA shopping center featuring the city’s only Target, Best Buy and Bed Bath and Beyond. In recent years, other retailers such as Petco and DSW have moved also into the space. In addition to chains, a number of new restaurants had settled down in the neighborhood. On the corner of Park and 11 St NW, Red Rock Firebrick Pizzeria was established in 2007 in a house formerly occupied by squatters who lived here without running water. Across the street, Meridian Pint, offering American bistro cuisine and American craft beer, took root in 2010.

When I finally moved to Columbia Heights in 2011, the neighborhood could be considered up and coming. By that time, it was the tenth fastest gentrifying zip code in the country. I moved into a second floor condo in building on the corner of Park Ave and 11th NW just a couple doors down from Meridian Pint (which became my watering hole) and kitty corner from Red Rock’s pizza (my Friday night treat). The building housed only six units and was recently renovated. It used to be a crackhouse according to my landlord.

Columbia Heights 2

The two bedroom condo was spacious and had hardwood floors, exposed brick, up-to-date appliances and a balcony overlooking the parking area and alleys (ok, so not exactly green). Finally, I felt that I had arrived. I had found a place that I would love to call home for a while. What’s the catch? Well, the rent for the two-bedroom condo was $2900 per month. So, I had to get a roommate to afford it. I didn’t think that I would have to live with strangers again at my old age…but it was the sacrifice that had to be made in order to live large and pay less rent. My share of the rent (bigger bedroom and balcony) came to $1,600 per month. Sounds like a lot? Well, it was $600 less per month than the rent at my Chinatown apartment. And I would experience savings on utilities as well. All in all, this offered me a huge jump in my standard of living (minus roommate drama). Surely, my landlords would not raise the rent on me in a year?

This post belongs to a series I am writing entitled A Crisis of its Own Making. You can read the first chapter “My Journey to Chinatown”.  Stay tuned for Chapter 3 “Living on the Edge” where I discuss my move to H Street NE in 2012…before it became trendy and hip.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.



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