“There are plenty of apartments in DC,” said my dad when I told him that I had accepted my offer and would be moving to DC. He had lived in Arlington for three years during the Carter administration while attending law school. “There’s such a high turnover of students, staffers, and young professionals. There are lots of places to live and you won’t have too much trouble finding a place.” He swiftly moved back to New York upon graduation during the summer of ’81. My dad wasn’t too far off with his assessment of the DC housing market. It’s true that there are a lot of apartments available, and the high turnover of young people in America’s most transient city means there’s always something opening up. But the city’s physical and legal limitations make the market incredibly complex and competitive. It also makes for some very expensive housing stock; stock that in most other cities would be a fraction of the value the DC market dictates.
On par with New York and San Francisco, the DC market is among one of the most expensive housing markets in the country. Rent has been climbing steadily, with the median rent in the District doubling between 2000 to 2010. Like the two cities mentioned previously, DC has a number of factors that contributes to its astronomically high median rent. As a major industrial center (government), it is the premier destination for those going into public sector or service work (just as New York is the premier destination for finance, and San Francisco is the premier destination for tech). DC also has size constraints; the district itself is just under 70 square miles, still larger than SF (at 46) and Manhattan (at 34).
But perhaps the most limiting feature is the city’s height restriction laws that limit the height of construction. Most people believe that the city’s official height restriction is that no building can be built taller than the Capitol. While this is generally observed, it’s not a part of the city’s official bylaws. The zoning actually states that no building can be taller than the width of the street plus 20 feet. It’s why the streets in DC feel so open and spacious (something I hope to cover in more detail later in this blog), and also explains why housing is at a premium. With a cap on development, there’s a finite amount of space available for new construction and new housing units.
Philly, by comparison, has a much less competitive housing market. Aside from the major universities and hospitals, and perhaps a couple of key employers, the city lacks a core industry that makes it a destination beyond higher education. The city itself is also huge; at 143 square miles, it’s over twice the size of DC, making more land available in the city proper. And since the city repealed its long standing height restriction law back in the 80s, developers (both residential and commercial) have taken advantage of the new freedom, building higher and higher, changing the city’s skyline. More space and a lower demand means an apartment in a great neighborhood can be found for cheap, whereas the same apartment in a similar neighborhood in DC can be twice the price.
Luckily my search was short, although most of the two days I spent looking for housing were excruciating. I walked from building to building, becoming more and more disappointed with each property. The choice became simple: pay out the nose for a small studio in a bad building with a great location, or somehow wrangle a roommate to share a two-bedroom to offset the rent and get a better building. Tired and running out of time, I did what I should have done in the first place: ask friends for insider connections. And an hour after doing that, an email landed in my inbox with a room available in a good apartment for a great price in a terrific neighborhood. It’s not a complex; there’s no fitness center, pool, roof deck, or parking garage, but I have a great clean place to sleep, a plethora of bars and amenities at my doorstep, and a city just waiting for me to explore the minute I walk out my front door. I love it. And all for less than I was expecting to spend on rent!
So while housing in DC can be a bitch, and it’s certainly more expensive than Philly, there are places available and people to talk to to get you the right apartment in the right location at the right price. You just need to know where to look.