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.