Musings from out of the District

As you might have noticed, there haven't been updates this week. I briefly mentioned yesterday that I am out of town. This is correct. I hopped in a rental car and drove down to lovely North Carolina. I'd never been anywhere in NC that wasn't along I-95, so spending a few days poking around the Chapel Hill area seemed like a good idea. I had heard good things and so far, I'm having a good time.

Being away from blogging for a couple days was also a much needed break. Things move so fast in the world of the Internet, and stepping back for a second reminds you that life can go a bit slower. That's a thing I hate about DC, and to a certain extent, the 'blogopshere' in general. No one takes any time to read, or really even think. I'm guilty of this as well, how I opted to do "news bullets" rather than say 2-3 longer pieces each week. To a point this is more successful, people love being able to read a site's content in 15-20 seconds. Who has time to read the longer stuff? Who reads a 2,000 word piece on Metro?

Things in DC move so fast, and everyone races to cover the same story and get their own $0.02. This results in that same echo chamber we see often, where two or three stories dominate the blogs and everything else falls through the cracks. I hate this. I've had a lot of people tell me that they wish there was a site that in a (short) glance, gave them a picture of what's going on in DC. Not lifestyle stuff, but news. A site that touches on the big stories, but also keeps people in the loop about ongoing topics. A site that smashes the whole idea of 'news cycles' into bits and starts over.

That's the direction I'm going to take the other site, and I'm working on some fancy mission statements and all. However, I've noticed that in DC people get bogged down in planning. There's been a few projects I've tried to be involved in, but I got sick of the entire process of having two or three orientation meetings, followed up informal gatherings, where nothing gets done and people just talk about themselves.

I'm writing about this here, because I'm guessing there are a few of you who feel the same way. I'm looking for a few people to help over at District Daily, to turn it into something that serves everyone in the city, not just bloggers or policy wonks. A site that distills the big topics in our city and presents them in any easy to read, easy to understand format. It'll follow up on stories, and also provide a human touch. If you're interested in helping out, you need have no qualifications other than interest. We won't have a bunch of B.S. meetings, and you can likely start building this without even meeting me in person. It's about doing, not talking. Reach me at inbox@districtdaily.com.

Back to WIHDC. A common thread I've noticed is when I visit other cities, I always wish I could stay there. Of course there are problems everywhere, but DC presents a lot of unique annoyances and downright dealbreakers. Housing prices are ridiculous, and honestly I can understand why many people don't want to purchase a $300,000 or more small rowhome in a neighborhood still suffering from gang problems. If I took my monthly rent payment and went to Philadelphia, Chicago, Seattle, Boston, or down here in Raleigh/Durham, I could get more. I could get more in likely a nicer neighborhood.

I know some people who have purchased homes in DC, and I commend them. They are taking a risk, with the possibility of a hefty payoff in the future. The purchases will leave them struggling for the near future, it's hard for people 3-4 years into their careers to afford a home in the District. For me, I've lived in both Logan Circle and Columbia Heights. I'm paying through the nose for a nice(ish) apartment, within walking distance of grocery stores and the Metro. But I still hear gunshots outside my window. I know the odds of myself being shot are fairly low, but when thinking of the future and the eventual hopes of owning a home and raising kids, you start to rethink things.

And now we've come full circle to the whole problem of people fleeing the city once they decide to have kids. I see this changing a bit, baby strollers are everywhere these days. Mount Pleasant, Bloomingdale, etc. have contingents of young parents raising kids. Will they flee when the kids reach school age? Unless both parents are pulling down over $100K I'm going to guess that yes they will.

How can the city make itself more family friendly? Rhee or whoever eventually replaces her can try to improve the schools, but it's going to be rough. Some cities have solved some problems by merging their school district with surrounding suburbs, which is possible if they are all within the same state. DC enjoys no such possibility. DC can't even tap into the larger resources of a state, the way other cities may be able to. Talk about DC statehood often overlooks the problem that if DC was a state, it's entire tax base lives within a very small area. People in Northern Virginia often complain they subsidize the rest of the state, but that subsidization helps the rest of the state weather economic downturns.

I'm rambling here, to be sure, but that's a luxury I don't normally have. I'm going to take advantage of it. I've got a few days to live a bit slower, with no obligations and no deadlines. Taking a breather from DC often reminds me why I ever started reading Why I Hate DC and hits home why despite my occasional optimism, I still get disgusted and disappointed more often than not.


  1. We pay through the nose, deal with burned out neighborhoods and gunshots, and have no vote or even a real electoral choice. Yet we do it. DC is a special place: vibrant, historic, and-- most importantly--unique. If you leave you'll miss it. And I loved "the Price of Safety"

  2. Chapel Hill sucks. I would suggest checking out WNC, thats the part nobody thinks off, specifically Asheville. Thats a cool city, lots to do, lots to see. And you can easily find parking.

  3. Michael, you're a national treasure. Don't stop loving the moment.

    Dave, you tool. You should convene some of the fellas from the neighborhood--including the fat kid and the nerd with glasses--to build a fort. Outside of this fort, post a sign that reads, "No Girls."

  4. When are they going to develop the dork filter for internet comments?

  5. Dave, where exactly do you think you could get a rowhouse in a decent neighborhood in a city that's the size of DC?

    I am going to pretend that you didn't compare us to Raleigh/Durham, which is a crime-infested armpit that makes DC look like Paris, and Philadelphia, which has had nearly 300 homicides this year. Please. That place is far worse than DC for crime.

    I think on this point you are seriously deluded. Are you just saying that you could buy a house in Boston, Seattle or Chicago in a neighborhood like Columbia Heights for $300K, or have you actually researched what homes are going for in other cities?

    The reality is, even at the peak of the market, DC often lagged behind other urban areas (especially Boston and Chicago) for home prices.

    I just did the most basic comparison. Zillow's home sales for the last year of single family homes below.

    Washington, DC: Median $410, Columbia Heightsm $432, Capitol Hill $683

    Seattle: Median $408, Fremont $439

    Chicago: Median $187, Lincoln Park $1.898 million

    Boston: Median $334, South Boston $370, Beacon Hill $2.4 million, Allston-Brighton $428

    Bear in mind when comparing DC to other cities, that most other cities include vast outlying areas, the equivalent of PG county or worse. DC only includes DC. If you looked at median home sales only within a 5 mile radius from city center, undoubtedly, the medians in every other city would be significantly higher as well.

    That is why I picked out specific neighborhoods for comparison. While I know much less about Seattle and Chicago, I have visited friends who live in Fremont and Lincoln Park.

    Fremont is a hip neighborhood that's not even that close to downtown, it has small ugly houses. It had bad public transit. People started living there because it was cheap and okay.

    Lincoln Park is probably one of the more expensive places in Chicago, sort of like Dupont Circle.

    Even in Dupont Circle, a single-family home would not sell for the median above.

    South Boston is a lot like Columbia Heights, except with more racism, no target, and uglier houses.

    The bottom line is, saying you can get a house (not a condo) in a neighborhood as good as Columbia Heights or Logan Circle in another city for the same money is simply wrong based on everything I know, and is supported by some basic research. While it's a hard comparison to make because I'm not intimately familiar with these other cities like I am with DC, it is clear that there are plenty of places that are far more expensive than DC. I don't think you'd be buying a whole townhouse anywhere you wanted to live as convenient or (relatively) safe as Columbia Heights for $300K in another decent city.

    If you still believe otherwise then you better back up that statement with statistics.

  6. Jamie,

    You're right in that I'm not always comparing something smack-dab in city center. It is difficult to compare other cities with DC, since other cities are generally much larger than the District of Columbia.

    Also, I have more knowledge of rental rates in other cities than I do regarding home prices. I know for a fact that in many cities I could rent a bigger or nicer apartment for far less than I do in DC, in a similiar neighborhood. You can find good apartments in Philadelphia, Chicago, or Seattle for under $1,000/mo (often around $800), whereas those sorts of things in 'desirable' neighborhoods in DC run $1500+/mo.

    Here's the thing, in the next 3-5 years, when I want to buy a home, in DC it will likely have to be in NE. I've been priced out of Petworth and Columbia Heights by now. Could I move to Arlington? Probably not. Maybe Takoma Park? Possibly. Fairfax County? Maybe.

    Here's a question: Where in DC can I find a 2 bedroom apartment walkable to the Metro for $1200? Because I can find that in Chicago, for example.

    Do I enjoy living near a Target, walking distance to retail and restaurants, and all of that? Yes, of course I do. But how much is that worth?

    When I hear friends about friends of mine who live in Raleigh, for example, who have good jobs and can buy a big house for $200K and can send their kids to good public schools... it makes you wonder.

    Yes, I wouldn't have access to as much "stuff" as in DC, and I'd need to own a car, but I think for a lot of people it's difficult to ever get ahead in DC because of the high cost of living.

    also, im getting that bug in firefox where the arrow keys don't work. that is annoying.

  7. Compare crimes in various neighborhoods at
    http://www.crimereports.com/ Just type in an address or a zip code. Just for grins, take a look at NE, including H St and Union Station.

    Be sure to activate the "Sex Offender" control to show you all the feloneous perverts in your neighborhood.

    You're right to want to get out Dave. Someone else was right about Ashville NC. Housing values in DC outside of the "traditionally good" neighborhoods (Georgetown, Cleveland Park) are over-inflated. We're still in the throes of an asset bubble (housing), in case no one heard about that.

    If I were to buy a house tomorrow, and I had half a million burning a hole in my pocket, I'd skip the (perpetually) transitional neighborhoods and substitute a "cool" in-town location with the following: living space, amenities, stable local government, low personal and property crime rates, no junkies and/or dealers as neighbors, etc.

    But, that's just me.

  8. Well, again, I don't have nearly enough familiarity with Chiacgo or Seattle to equate neighborhoods with Columbia Heights.

    But go to chicago.craigslist.org. Click apts/housing. Select 2BR and click search.

    I see very little under $1000 and a lot over $1500.

    That tells me that the stuff under $1000 is probably not in a neighborhood as good as Columbia Heights since I find it very unlikely that the bottom 10% of the rental market in Chicago is in desirable neighborhoods.

    Where are these $800 2br apartments in good neighborhoods in Chicago then? They don't seem to be on Craig's List.

    The reality is pretty simple. The grass is always greener. Except it isn't. If everywhere else in the U.S. was a better bang for the buck than DC then people would, on average, be leaving DC. But they aren't.

  9. Where can you get a 2BR apartment in Columbia Heights for under $1800?

    Look at this, for the Wicker Park neighborhood.


  10. I have no idea what Wicker Park is like, so the only thing I can say about that comparison is that that rental is about 3/4 of a mile from the nearest L.

    I searched on crime in wicker park and found this:


    "My last apartment was in the heart of Wicker Park, and in my last year there the following happened:

    1. Attempted break-in at my apartment
    2. Major burglary in the apartment behind us (in the same building)
    3. A car chase ended as a stolen truck crashed into our front yard, and the perpetrator ran off as the cops chased him with guns drawn
    4. Someone decided it would be a good idea to torch a bunch of buildings up and down our alley. A coach house burned along with two garages and the back of an apartment building. A few people lost their homes and cars, including a nice Audi TT.
    5. Several large drug busts occurred in the "open air drug market" in our alley.
    6. As I pulled my car into the garage off the alley, I routinely saw guys smoking crack.
    7. A homeless guy put a water hose into our garden level window box and flooded our bedrooms overnight (we had a duplex down)
    8. A neighbor on Wolcott was chased into her garage by a stranger, and the stranger tried to bust down the garage door to get at her. She wouldn't even open the door when the police came she was so terrified.
    9. The "Wicker Park Rapist" was busted for some really brutal rapes. He was known for anally raping victims.

    That does not really sound like any great shakes to me.

    Is Wicker Park really a good comparison to columbia heights? How close is it to city center? Is there shopping? A supermarket? How much crime is there? How far along the gentrification/revitalization path is it?

    I mean, Chicago is a much bigger city than DC. If Wicker Park is more equivalent to the H Street area as far as crime goes, then you should be comparing rents to that. The kinds of things that they are talking about crime-wise are not unheard of in Columbia Heights, but in 2 1/2 years here, I've never had my house broken into, nor has anyone I know, and even in the news they are not very common.

    I have no idea if this is an accurate portrayal of Wicker Park.

    At the same time, I know that the spectrum of rents in Chicago is not that different from the spectrum of rents in DC and the surrounding areas, so it stands to reason that $1200 in the greater DC area probably doesn't get you much different than $1200 in chicago, all things considered.

  11. "on average, be leaving DC. But they aren't."

    DC is nothing if not a transient city. It is a stopover for almost everyone who lives here, from students to diplomats.

    On average, people leave DC only slightly less than people arrive in DC. And that migration pattern is fairly new.

    You know what that could indicate? That property values in DC are akin to a Ponzi scheme.

  12. Jamie,

    I'm going on what I've seen in Wicker Park, and from what my friends tell me. Given that Chicago is a much much bigger urban area than DC, of course most residential neighborhoods will be farther from the city center. However, I'm not basing value completely on how many miles it is from the middle of the city.

    I think it's difficult to argue with the premise that housing costs in DC are higher than in several other major cities. There are cities more expensive than DC, but in general DC is high up on the list of expensive places to live.

    I'm willing to trade some things for affordability, to a point. I would consider paying $1200 or even $1400 for a 2 bedroom apartment near H Street NE. As best as I can tell, you can't even find that these days. I could probably find a 2BR in Trinidad in that price range, or maybe somewhere in Anacostia.

    It just seems that in DC there's fewer options for places to live that are affordable. This is due to the fact that DC is smaller than most other cities. I might be able to find what I'm looking for in Maryland or Virginia. So again it's all a trade off.

  13. Your last paragraph is exactly my point. If you're going to compare neighborhoods in other cities that are far from city center, then you need to include Silver Spring, Arlington, Alexandria, Hyattsville, and so on in your comparison. Because these are, actually, the equivalent of someplace that's technically in Chicago but is five miles away from downtown.

    It may very well be that geographically, Wicker Park is like, say, Hyattsvilel or Takoma. If you look on Craig's List for apartments in those places, there is no shortage of 2 BR units around $1200.

    Likewise, if you only look in neighborhoods that are within a mile or two of city center in Chicago, you may not find much for $1200.

    Being in a neighborhood that's technically in Chicago but is far away from downtown is no different than being in Silver Spring or whatever.

    You can't just compare the city proper because DC is unique. You need to compare the whole metropolitan area. And in that sense I don't think the range of prices is at all different from most other similarly sized MSAs.

  14. That's right: Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, etc. are all alike and *DC is different*! Fundamental laws of economics and sociology do not apply here because *DC is different*!

    So very, very different. A world unto itself, almost. A bubble, peirced only by the hoardes of cars with MD tags that invade the city in a reckless tsunami of alumninum, plastic and glass. And all the corrupt DC municipal employees who live in PG County and raid the city's coffers on a grand scale. And lets not forget the little AIDS problem.

    Yep, DC is different all right!

  15. Oh, at least DC provides free STD screening for its school children. At your expense.

  16. @anonymous...

    Either you have really bad reading comprehension skills, or you are retarded.

    Did I say anything about fundamental laws of sociology and economics?

    No. I said DC is different in that it is the only city that includes the city proper and not the larger MSA around it, so if you want to compare things like rent to another city, you must include the near-in suburbs in that analysis.

    If you disagree, I suggest you go look at a map.

  17. Jamie, I've been here for 20 years and I own a home in NW.

    But if it aids you in your quest for perpetual smug self-righteousness, I'll agree: "DC is different"

    There. Go be hip in your unique, effortless manner.

  18. Oh, and Jamie, search wikipedia for "Washington DC MSA."

    You'll see that West Viriginia is in the DC city MSA.

    Similar to how Northern NJ is in the same MSA as NYC.

    And Northern Kentucky is in the same MSA as Cincinnati OK.

    But it is indeed different from the rest of the country!

  19. I really have no idea what you are talking about. I have also been here for 20 years and own a home in NW. So what? Does that have any bearing whatsoever on the defined boundaries of DC compared to other cities?

    All I said was that when comparing rents in a city other than DC to DC, you need to include the an area larger than DC proper, since that is included automatically in every other city.

    It really isn't up for debate that DC is a unique city in that it's "city limits" are geographically, and population-wise, much smaller than every other similarly-sized MSA in the country.

    Therefore, it is not an accurate comparison to compare rents only in DC, with rents citywide in another city.

    I have no idea why this is smug or self righteous. It's just a simple fact. Actually, I am arguing exactly the same point as you: that DC is NOT immune to economic laws, and that rents function the same way they do pretty much everywhere else. So if you want to compare DC to a regular city that includes the inner suburbs, you need to count those inner suburbs even though they are not technically in DC to make an accurate comparison.

    What this has to do with hipness, smugness, or self-righteousness, I really don't know, but whatever. Nor am I even sure what your point is, since you haven't made one except to argue with me about DC's "uniqueness", about which you seem to think I'm saying something totally different than I am.