My Journey to Chinatown

ChinatownOnce in a while, I will use this blog to take on an issue of great importance and use my voice for those who have none. That time has come…this story is not really about me, though it is written through my own lens. I am writing on behalf of my good neighbors in Lamond Riggs, a family-oriented, working class neighborhood located near the Fort Totten metro in Northeast District of Columbia. I will speak for any resident of DC in similar circumstances in a series of posts over the summer. I know there are many…

If you ask me to name the single most important factor shaping my experience in Washington, DC over the past eight years, it would be without a doubt, the cost of housing. And I’m no stranger to expensive cities. I’ve lived for several years in both Manhattan and Boston have often paid 40-50% of my income toward housing. Nonetheless, there was a time when I thought I would be renting an apartment forever. It was so convenient. No lawn maintenance. No snow shoveling. No fixing things. No muss, no fuss. The Landlord takes care of everything and assumes all the risk if the dishwasher breaks down or the roof caves in. Sure, I was not building any equity toward my future, but I was also not paying for new HVAC systems and replacing lead pipes. Plus, there was no way that I could practically afford to pay DC rent, pay off my student loans and save for a house downpayment. So, the American dream of homeownership was not something I considered seriously. Unless something significant changed in my status (like winning the lottery), I was destined to rent…forever.

It wasn’t all that bad. I had never really bought into homeownership as something that everyone should do. As a renter, at least I knew what I had to pay on a monthly basis towards housing. I didn’t have to budget for unplanned expenses. I didn’t have to save for a new roof. And I could invest in an abundant collection of cute shoes. But as a renter, I was also subject to the whims of DC housing market.  You might think the crisis in the nation’s Capitol is all about supply and demand, but it’s actually more sinister than that. Really? Yes, really. I have recently figured out a secret behind the housing crisis in Washington, DC. The story about how I discovered this truth is a long, windy and dramatic tale of a young woman just trying to find a decent place to live and call it “home”. This nail-biting thriller is entitled…A Crisis of its Own Making. And this is chapter 1.

Chapter 1 – My Journey to Chinatown

Once upon a time a young woman from the Midwest moved to Chinatown in Washington, D.C. in late September 2008…

It was an unusually hot and muggy fall season in the Nation’s Capitol in September 2008, which did not bode well for me given my Northern roots. I was moving to DC to start my new job at the National Defense University and eventually a new life. I was still a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and working on my PhD dissertation. For the past year and a half, I had been living back in my home state of Michigan to maximize my dissertation fellowship, which just barely covered my rent for a shared apartment in Boston. For less rent than a shared apartment in Boston, I could afford a 1,200 square foot penthouse apartment with a balcony and skylights in a historic home in Heritage Hill in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Yes, I was living large…at $700 per month.

Nothing could prepare me for the sticker shock in moving to DC. That said, I had a must-have list of features. I knew I needed to live alone while I completed my dissertation. My PhD committee warned me about the folly of accepting a job prior to completion, and I still had a long way to go. The WMD Center agreed to let me start out part time (three days per week) until I got to the finish line. During the remaining four days per week, I would need complete solitude to stay focused on the dissertation. This was no time for roommate drama. Living along was a major expense, but necessary for success. No sharing (check). Since I would be working from home four days a week, I knew that I needed my bedroom to be separate from the rest of the living space. Otherwise, I would run the risk of not giving myself adequate downtime or change of scenery. No studio (check). Finally, I wanted a convenient building (amenities, please) in a convenient location near my job to minimize life stress. No burbs or outskirts (check).

And so, in early September 2008, I began researching apartment buildings in downtown DC. I knew I was going to have to shell out some big money for a one-bedroom apartment in a centrally-located building with amenities. But the only way to truly save money on rent in DC would be to have roommates or commute to work, which were both deal breakers. I made a list of buildings to visit and called ahead for appointments. I remember the first time I walked into Mass Court Apartments, a high-rise building located on Massachusetts Ave on the edge of Chinatown. It was love at first sight. The building was stacked with amenities-a Concierge, dry cleaning, a gym and even a pool on the rooftop. A pool! The one bedroom apartment was tiny, but it was in great condition and had its own balcony off the courtyard. Tony, my leasing agent, offered me one month’s rent free, bringing down the monthly rent to a “doable” $1,800 per month. This was a small fortune to be spending on rent for my part-time salary and amounted to about 40-50% of my total income. But I had 650 glorious square feet all to myself in a great location.

Sadly, I didn’t get to live happily ever after in my centrally-located one-bedroom apartment. For one, I didn’t realize that Mass Court was essentially like a luxury dorm for Georgetown Law students. There were parties off the courtyard every weekend, and the music was so loud that my apartment would vibrate like a dance club. And I never used the pool. The 20-year-old “kids” were always on the roof deck drinking beer and goofing off. The pool was jammed full of overfilled rafts sinking from the weight of five people. This was so not my scene. I also didn’t know that a brand new 14-story apartment building was about to pop up next door. During the day, I wrote about nuclear weapons proliferation to the sweet sounds of jackhammers. When my one-year lease came to an end in August, my rent returned to its “normal rate”, which was just under $2,000 per month. But I was chipping away at my dissertation and did not want to disrupt my fragile progress with a move. There weren’t very many “affordable” options for one-bedroom apartments located downtown anyway so I stayed in Chinatown and endured the dormitory-feel and construction chaos.

Long before my arrival, rent in DC began rising steadily and has grown faster than household incomes for the past few years. In 2010, a number of trends accounted for the rising cost of housing in the District including an overall decrease in supply of rental units, a decreasing supply of affordable homes and a growing population. When I first moved to DC, its population was estimated to be around 550,000. By 2011, DC’s population had reached over 650,000. Some predict that DC’s population may soon surpass its peak population of 802,000 and may even reach 1,000,000 in the next 30 years.

With the recession in 2007-2008, the number of building permits to supply new units dropped dramatically. DC gained only about 700 units per year until 2010. Hence, there was a trickling of supply to meet the rushing of demand. It was not until 2011 that this trend reversed leading DC to experience a surge in building permits for the next few years and into 2016. However, a majority of these new units are not more affordable options, but rather luxury units designed to capitalize on rising rents in DC. As of February 2016, average apartment rent within 10 miles of Washington, DC was $2090 per month. Average rent for a downtown apartment was $2,902 per month. That’s average rent, folks…not even the high end of things. According to www.rentjungle.com, average rent in DC has increased by $420 per month, a 25% increase over the past six years. That’s over 4% per year. Meanwhile, wages for government workers have stagnated, and household incomes in DC have increased only 2.2% in the past year.

It should come as no surprise that DC ranks among the top ten most expensive housing markets, competing for first place with San Francisco, New York City and Boston. While rents in other expensive cities are stabilizing, DC’s rent continues to climb at an increase of 3% in 2016.

Eventually, I defended my dissertation in April 2010 whilst living in Chinatown. After spending 2 1/2 years at Mass Court, however, I got some bad news in January 2011. My rent was going to increase to $2,200 per month, and I simply couldn’t afford it anymore. My massive student loans were entering repayment, and my salary had not gone up sufficiently to cover the increase in rent. I spoke to Tony, my leasing agent, and begged him to reconsider raising the rent on a reliable tenant. I said that it was just not fair that I was unable to afford a building, even with all its flaws, that I considered my first “home” in DC. “I’m being forced out of my home,” I told him. He shrugged and said: “I’m sorry, Natasha, but that’s the going market rate for this building.” Translation: “We don’t need your business anymore.” Well, okay then.

Rent was going up rapidly, and purchasing power of the average citizen was sinking, along with quality of life. I was feeling the crunch and knew it was real. And I knew it was even more acute for so many others. I resigned myself to moving again, which cost me about $600 (less than half of the cost of the rent increase). I headed for greener pastures in Columbia Heights.

These days, I know that there’s more to the story of DC housing costs than simply the law of supply and demand. If you want to know the secret I’ve discovered, stay tuned to read my next chapter.

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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