Wednesday, June 13, 2007

How do people afford this city?

In my new and unplanned blog series about how damn expensive life is, I explore D.C.'s cost-of-living and how increasingly unaffordable it is to live here on a non-profit or lower level government-worker's salary. I was reminded of this once again as I searched Craigslist for future housing options for the coming year. Considering that the once "cheap" and relatively well-located areas of the city like Columbia Heights are in the process of being uber-gentrified, it appears hope is lost for the automobile-lacking person who wants to live in a D.C. neighborhood that is in walking distance of a grocery store, Metro, and a few other commercial establishments that aren't liquor stores or Western Unions. The low-end of a 3 bedroom in Columbia Heights now appears to be 2800 per month or 933 per person, usually before utilities are added in.

Hypothetical: If I'm making $15 per hour at a non-profit working 8 hour days, five days a week, I make 2400 per month, before taxes, or 31.2 K per year. My D.C. income tax alone would be $400 per year plus an additional 6% of the excess income above 10,000, which in my case would be $139 per month. Federal income tax is 4,220 plus 25% of the amount over 30,650, which amounts to $4357.50 or 363.13 per month. Medicare and Social Security taxes are 199, by my calculations, so after taxes, I make 1837.87 per month. My health care premium might be around 60 per month (more if I have a "pre-existing condition"), so I'm down to 1777.87 per month. Now, subtract my 933 rent and a 50 utility check (add at least 25 more if I have cable), and I am left with 794.87. I have to eat, which we can approximate at around 250 per month and buy work clothes which maybe be around 60 per month. If I'm paying back 250 in student loans per month, I am now down to about 245, some of which I probably want to put into a retirement account (though it won't amount to the 10% of income that is recommended), the rest of which I should put in a cash reserves account. Keep in mind that Hill staffers often make significantly less than this hypothetical non-profit salary.

So the question is, why, in spite of the high cost-of-living and relatively low salary do young, aspiring public servants move to this city after graduation? I guess my reason was that it seemed like the most likely place to get the sort of occupation I've described and to meet other people with the same priorities, but often enough, people like me come to D.C. and get disconcerted that their peers aren't here for these noble reasons but rather to feed their own ambition. Members of this group are willing to stick out their financial necks to live in a city whose lackluster city services, absent mid-range dining and shopping scene, and pretty uniform group of professionals (i.e., lawyers and aspiring lawyers) can make it at times a trying place to live. Note to my peers: as long as we keep forking over our rent money (and I'm guilty like you), D.C. will continue to be increasingly unaffordable to people like us.

This flight from affordability is of course egged on by D.C.'s subscription to the standard mode of urban renewal today: gentrify, gentrify, gentrify. The luxury condos and shopping complex with the likes of a Target that have swept through Columbia Heights within the past year are a clear culprit for the recently increased rents; they're also the culprit for the continued lack of entreprenuerial character that D.C. maintains. Increasingly, D.C. has become a city for the very well-off, the young cash-strapped, and the long-time residents who seem to have fairly little say in any of this planning. Why I continue to live here, I don't know.

46 comments:

kob said...

Great post

robin said...

God it makes me want to move to San Francisco, where at least you can make $35 instead of $30 while spending just as much money.p

Michael Blaine said...

High housing costs are very, very bad for society.

The low salaries in Congress (including those paid by Democrats, supposedly the pro-labor party) mean that only the relatively well-to-do get to learn firsthand about that key institution.

The nation's student loan system is a travesty, creating a class of veritable indentured servants.

The solution? Vote for populists, or move to Patagonia, I guess. After all, our ancestors came to America because some other place had turned bad. Maybe it's time to start the emigration process again.

Michael Blaine
www.rudelystamped.blogspot.com

Anonymous said...

I did the Hill staffer thing--started at $27,000. Is my family well off? Nope, right now at 28 I make more money than both my Mom and Dad. ($49,000)

People always asked if it was hard to live on $27,000 in DC. Nope, not really. I had enough money to live in a group house, eat, buy some clothes, pay student loans AND buy a used car. That's enough for me. If you're not used to having a lot, you don't miss it. Plus, the low salary doesn't have to be forever in this town.

Mari said...

Just following what anon wrote, it is possible, very possible if you are accustomed to living on less.
Housing- group house and roommates. Don't expect to live in this city in certain neighborhoods on your own and it be affordable. It is the exception, not the rule. I've pretty much have had roommates the years I've lived here and they share in the utilities, cutting that cost per person down. Also realize that neighborhoods with certain amenities (metro station, grociery stores, etc) will cost more. Living a car-less lifestyle, which I've been living for well over a decade, has a monetary cost, but is way less than car notes, parking, gas, and insurance. Acknowledge that a place near a metro will cost more than one not and factor it into your house searching.
Food- Limit your dining out, that includes take out, and stay away from Whole Foods. Though it takes more time, cooking and preparing your own food cost less in the long run.
Taxes- yes they are high.

Jo said...

When I made 30k I couldn't afford to live on my own. I stayed with my folks till I got a higher paying job... that said I got lucky. I agree with Mari though, it's impossible to live in a decent place without roommates. That's a HUGE help.

JF said...

"a few other commercial establishments that aren't liquor stores or Western Unions."

racist.

Anonymous said...

If you dislike it, leave. There are non-profits everywhere, many located where COL is lower.

Beryl said...

Saw this on DC Blogs. Great post and you open up a difficult conversation. I moved here as an intern, working in Tysons and living in Reston. I managed, though it took a bit. Mostly what hurt me was the student loan debt and credit card debt I was carrying with me, so I would have had that anywhere, but it made the rents here harder. Without that debt, I would have been fine... so I never got cable, spent about $175/mo on food, and I doubt I spent $1000/year in clothes. I've found living in the District MUCH easier than the VA burbs. I dropped the car (saving an estimated $14/DAY! No lie!), lived in a part of town not so shiny or lofty, and we've managed to buy a house, with a yard even. It can happen... just no one likes to blog about the perfectly lovely few years they've had. Good news = boring stories. Keep asking around and you'll find folks who do this all the time.

Elaine said...

To the sentiment that says "well if you don't like it, move," I agree with you, in a way. After all, this blog entry is kind of doing exactly that: exhorting people to move. However, I'm suggesting it because I think between the non-paying internships many college students take during their summer terms and these low-paying jobs, it simply may not be worth the supposed career advancement that entry level workers believe they'll enjoy by moving to D.C. after graduation. If we keep living beyond our means to move to places like D.C., costs of living will keep rising because landlords can make money off of us.
Furthermore, it's a little disconcerting to me that the urban planning that goes on in many metropolitan areas today to "revive" cities is geared mainly towards upper-income people who can afford 300K + condos. D.C. is not being planned for young non-profit workers but for attorneys in private practice.

Anonymous said...

I know friends who are both high-powered non-profit lawyers. They absolutely love the causes they support and wouldn't live anywhere else, but make less than private lawyers.

Their daycare and Catholic school tuition for their 4 kids is $5700 per month or almost $70k per year.

"So you think you got troubles."

Anonymous said...

JF said...

"a few other commercial establishments that aren't liquor stores or Western Unions."

racist.
11:04 AM, June 14, 2007

Who said anything about race?

You.

Asshat.

Anonymous said...

I am a lowly Cap Hill Staffer making less than your theory. To survive, I did this crazy thing called getting a part-time job. I work two nights a week (not weekends) and make an extra $400 per month. That goes an extremely long way. If you want to live in D.C., you can make it happen.

Anonymous said...

It's very easy to 'oh-woe-is-me' when you think about living in DC on a Staff Ass salary, but honestly, just stop! The majority of people in this city are over worked and under paid. The only thing everyone talks about is how 'hard' it is. I started in DC on $1000/ mo and most of my friends and roommates were in the same boat. We pooled resources. We shared everything. It's not difficult, it's what you have to do to get by. With true debilitating poverty displayed all over DC, I find it appalling that so many formerly middle or upper middle class kids come here and do nothing but complain about how hard their lives are. I'm sure all of our parents or grandparents have stories of starting off in a new place with just pennies to their name. You sacrifice when you need to, work hard and then all of a sudden, things aren't so bad. There is a lot wrong with DC, but housing for the $27,000- $34,000 a year bracket is the last thing this city needs to worry about. There is real suffering going on here and, if you think you have it bad, think again. I'll reiterate what everyone else who shares my views says: if you don't like it here, stop bitching and move. If you want lower housing costs, move to Virginia or Anacostia. You people are ridiculous.

JP said...

Seriously-- if you don't like it get out. I don't live in DC, though I have lived in a couple of cities and also have spent a lot of time in DC. Lots of smaller cities are seeing a revitalization- why not move there. Places like Richmond or Baltimore are far cheaper. Where are you originally from? I am from the northeast and make far more than you do and live far better in a small city about an hour or so from Boston. It's not as glamorous as DC, but then I'm not the one complaining...

Anonymous said...

I don't know what it's like now, but when I moved to DC a few years back, Craigslist was mostly overpriced. Found places I liked more in the Post. They were further out than Columbia Heights, granted.

cbc said...

In addition to being expensive its also a lame lame place. I still don't understand how it can be expensive without having any really good qualities or things that make it better than other cities. Most asshats per capita, horrible crime, services, and the actual "city" that a person can go to without having to be in the suburbs is tiny. DC sucks.

JF said...

Damn right DC sucks. So many asshats. So many "happy" hours.

Also, hill staffer. What do you do to earn $400 in two nights? Escort? For which congressman?

Hill Staffer said...

JF,

Please read my post a little closer. I said $400 per month. I'll even do the math for you, that's about $50 a day. It isn't a boatload of money, but it sure helps buy the escorts!

BN said...

I'm planning on spinning your post off into a movie starring Zach Braff. It's going to be called "Overdue Utility Payments"

JF said...

sorry staffer. i noticed that right after i posted... still, you're earning a slave wage, buddy.

Elaine said...

I want to point out that I'm not complaining about my own life, which some of the responses seem to be implying.

CBC, word.

Hill Staffer, I think you're kind of being an apologist for your employer. I'm sorry if it unsettles me a bit to see a college graduate earn so little, but it does, especially with the price of tuition today. Don't we justify the high salaries of doctors and attorneys because of the high cost of their professional training? Also, I don't think it's slothful to believe that people should not have to work more than 1 job to earn a decent living. That goes for a service sector job or a entry level white collar job.

To the person who said "the majority of people in this city are overworked and underpaid," why on earth woudl you glorify that? I think that's awful (and the reason why I probably won't stay here long term, though right now I'm fairly happy...)

Anonymous said...

It's easy to live here on little money. 3 words: "dont buy shit." You only need money to buy shit. do you really need that shit? do you need tv? or that purse? or that car? live in a basement and enjoy all the beer and whole foods meals you want.

BN said...

Pardon me- the movie is going to be called "...Rent?, or: I went to a top-tier university and all I got was this decent entry-level job and a moderate amount of disposable money"

kungpao said...

It's all part of growing up. Don't worry-- you'll be making 38 K before you know it!

Elaine said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elaine said...

You only need money to buy shit. do you really need that shit? do you need tv? or that purse? or that car? live in a basement and enjoy all the beer and whole foods meals you want.

I didn't even factor in "stuff" costs. I tend to have this philosophy too. I didn't even account for furniture costs. Also, I don't have cable, and I pointed out that it would be a relatively small but still extra cost in this hypothetical budget, but most people I know of, regardless of income, seem to have it, which is why I mentioned it.

janet said...

I think the idea is that you hopefully only make $30K for a few years and you somehow rapidly move up, at least to around $45K where life gets a little easier month to month.

The only reason I have made it here in DC working at a nonprofit is that I lived with my boyfriend (now husband) so we shared housing expenses. I'm not sure I could have done it alone very well.

kungpao said...

And then theyll raise your rent.

kungpao said...

And then you'll get an MA and your loan payments will double.

kungpao said...

ANd then you'll graduate, and find yourself unemployed, and get a job offer for 37. It's awesome!

Anonymous said...

Eh,

When I moved to DC in the heady days of 1997, I was able to secure a rent controlled apartment near the Catherdal. I worked for a non profit. When I was fed up making peanuts I started working for defense contractors. Now I have a nice condo 'round abouts Logan Circle. And a number of other services I don't need but make my life easier.

I have about the same disposal income now as I did then. The more you make, the more you spend.

Caitlin said...

Ugh. Great post.
I'm a Hill intern for the 2nd year in a row, and am planning on moving to the city after graduation. I lately have been looking for an apartment and cannot find ANYTHING. When I went out on foot and saw a nice new complex being built, I inquired and learned that they start at $1.8 million. It looks as if I am going to have to live far into VA or MD in order to work in the city.
I find it ironic and wrong that public servants - the ones that keep the city running - the Hill, the Departments, etc - can barely afford to live in the city. I find it sick and disheartening.

Melissa Marie said...

I was lucky to find a reasonably priced place in Old Town Alexandria, but now OT is gentrifying even more and I'll be pushed out in a year or two. Granted, I'll be a GS-12 by that point, but things were rough the first year. All my friends and family back in Ohio think I'm living the high life. Nope, just high in expenses. I went almost a year without cable so I could maintain my car. I try to find cheap entertainment so when I splurge, it actually means something to me. I won't settle here, but the ride has been enjoyable if not lucrative.

Anonymous said...

I was making $27,000 for about five minutes. You get your foot in the door and then you move up.

If I wanted to have a ton of money I would have picked a different major and profession and moved to a different city. Why are you blaming others for outcomes of the choices you made?

Anonymous said...

someone up there mentions rent controlled apartments....do they exist anymore?!?!? Where are they!!!! Having been gone for just about 2 years during grad school, I've returned to find rent prices to be much higher than I had remembered. It sucks hardcore.

Elaine said...

There is a lot wrong with DC, but housing for the $27,000- $34,000 a year bracket is the last thing this city needs to worry about. There is real suffering going on here and, if you think you have it bad, think again.

Wow, can we quit the self-defeatist talk? Just because there is poverty in this city does not mean that people in the non-profit sector shouldn't demand better incomes for themselves. Is someone only allowed to expect to make more money if they're making minimum wage? How are we going to get good people to go into public service if they get paid less, don't get enough tax relief, and can't afford to live in the places where they are needed?

You realize that the low pay also will keep the non-profit sector one that only appeals to independently well-off people who can afford to supplement their low incomes, right?

I think the couple of Anons who posted here need to strap on a pair and ask for a raise rather than justifying this city's high cost of living and your low salary, lest you become inured to being under-compensated for your labor.

Thanks to everyone who offered productive comments about their experiences with housing and COL here, though.

Anonymous said...

Wow people have some attitudes. I'm the first to accuse people of the "woe is me" attitude, but I didn't see it in this post. I think the point is DC is catering to people with money when many of us would be willing to pay less for less services, etc. Do I firmly agree DC also has a problem with true affordable housing? Definitely. But an ideal city would have spots for everyone.

Everyone did have great ideas about saving money, and one of the biggest in DC is to live close to a bus line. Last year I lived in the Brookland area, right across the street from Trinity Univ. I was on a bus line that went right downtown, the 80 line.

John said...

If these annonymous posters could tell us why the sacrifices are worth it, their arguments might hold some water. But sacrifice for sacrifice's sake is just plain dumb. I know its *possible* to live on any budget in DC, but I couldn't tell you why its *worth* it. The jobs don't really add to your resume as much as you think they would, and in the meantime you've been spending a few grand a month to live in a closet.

I think that most people move out after 2 or 3 years, and they all have two things in common: they are cynical and they are broke.

John said...

I mean seriously, it's like she's writing about how much being lost in the desert sucks and wants to return to civilization, and y'all are giving her tips for preparing cactus and trapping jack rabbits.

Anonymous said...

"Anonymous said...
I am a lowly Cap Hill Staffer. To survive, I did this crazy thing called getting a part-time job. 2:23 PM, June 14, 2007"

This means you're overworked, and not being effective on behalf of constituents. And that is the fault of your US Congress.

Notice how that institution never makes any of the best places to work lists that popular magazines produce? Notice (particularly in the case of Democrats) how it brow-beats foreign governments on their countries' working conditions, and then does nothing for its own staff? Notice (particularly in the case of Democrats) how it promises to bolster the middle class, but itself creates more working poor?

The fact that it's always "sucked" to work for Congress doesn't mean the place shouldn't begin to pay reasonable salaries, salaries commensurate with what one expect from the legislative branch of the richest nation in the history of the world. Moreover, the low salaries impede non-middle class kids from learning anything about the Congress directly, thus making our "democracy" more exclusionary.

lastcallmd said...

It's interesting that so many peopoe think that cheap housing is a right because they want to work for non-profits, or congress, or the general what they consider "good". Sort of like they should get the moral discount. Spoiled brats, each of you.

And for those complaining about congressional salaries, generally you're the same type of "good government" people who are most outraged by the idiot reports of congressional staff taking trips, going to lunch with, god forbid, LOBBYISTS!!!!, and so on.

Look in your cracked mirror folks. To paraphrase Pogo, you have met the enemy, and it is you.

Mark said...

Honestly, if you want cheap rent maybe you should reconsider relocating to a place like Fargo, North Dakota.

Michael Blaine said...

What's amazing about many of the above posts is a surprising lack of empathy for those scrambling to get by in DC. It's like a bunch of sadists have posted here: rather than saying, "Yeah, life in DC should and could be better," some commentators seem to relish the bad standard of living. Perhaps that's why our country is less and less a good place to live: its own citizenry appears to have given up expecting anything better. It appears our national oligarchs have won; a typical US citizen seems to be as mean-spirited and fatalistic as a typical citizen in Russia. What a disaster.

Michael Blaine
www.rudelystamped.blogspot.com

Anonymous said...

Ultimately, the problem is government created. Height restrictions drastically reduce the number of units that can be built in DC resulting in artificially high rents.

This pushes development out into the suburbs in the worst kind of way. Ultimately, this is caused by two issues: supply and demand AND negotiating power. If Congress didn't raise salaries, they might consider going out and negotiating big rent discounts with som eof hte major landlords like Southern Management. At least staffers then benefit from collective bargaining in negotiating rent.

Oliver Ganns said...

So I guess the people in DC really know how to find money-saving ways. I mean, if I were to live in a place where everything's expensive, then I would have to learn how to use my money wisely.

For sure, aside from rent and food, car maintenance is one of the most costly things. In fact, some people are now resorting to DIY maintenance for obvious reasons. Good thing my favorite automotive shop isn't having a hard time getting new customers.