Well, I’m officially a resident (at least on paper). In a span of under 72 hours, I drove down from Philadelphia, moved into my new apartment, set up four pieces of furniture, unpacked my things, traded in my PA license for a brand new DC one, got my DC parking permit, registration, and plates, and joined the local gym. Although I spent most of the past three days getting settled, I’ve been able to see a good portion of the city and its surroundings. Compared to Philly, DC is notably different in terms of its geography, culture, and city layout (among many other things). I know that I’ll be able to make more informed observations as I continue to live and work here, but for now, here are 5 of my inital thoughts and impressions:
1. DC is bigger than you think it is. Philadelphia proper is huge, but the central area where most students and young professionals live and work is compact. Small block sizes, narrow streets, and a homogenous topography make Center City and its surrounding neighborhoods easy to walk around and get to from anywhere nearby. While DC is spatially half the size of Philly, it feels much bigger. This is thanks to larger block sizes, a less cohesive and navigable grid system, criss-crossing diagonals, and a more varied topographic profile. As a result, neighborhoods feel more distinct and less blended together (with some exceptions). Small services are easy to find and come by, but larger competitors (like big box stores) are pushed farther out. Philly isn’t much different with that last regard, but the big box cluster in South Philly is actually pretty close to the central core. You don’t even have to cross a river. Aside from a combo Best Buy/Target/Bed Bath and Beyond in Columbia Heights, anything big box-y in DC requires a trip to the outer parts of the District, Maryland, or Virginia. It all seems really really far.
2. DC is not car friendly. It is like the entire city was designed to penalize drivers and car owners. Traffic and road construction occur all day every day and everywhere. Private parking is expensive, and street parking is incredibly difficult to find (and when you find it, it’s likely far far away from where you actually want to go). If you need your car fixed or serviced, you have to go into the suburbs or to the far reaches of the District. And let’s not even talk about gas (the going rate varies but right now the average is $4.10). Sure, Philadelphians complain a lot about their cars and parking (ask anyone in town what they think about the PPA), and traffic can be messy at times, but there are also large swaths of the city where residents park their cars in the middle of the road on medians, for as long as they want, and nobody bats an eye. A friend of mine in DC said its only a matter of time before I ditch my car altogether and get a Zipcar membership. That’s not entirely impossible.
3. People look down on Virginia. There’s a certain disdain that residents of the District have for their Northern Viriginia (NoVa, colloquially) counterparts. The digs range from subtle (“You work in Virginia?”) to the blatant (“I feel like I need my passport when I go to Virginia because it is like going to a different country. It is not the same.”). Even here, NoVa residents are referred to as “B&T”, a distinctly New York expression. This relationship is not as bad as say, the way New Yorkers look down on New Jersey, but maybe more on par with how Manhattanites look down on the outer boroughs (particularly Queens). With regards to Philly, nobody really looks down on South Jersey from the city, but residents are quick to tell you that the two are not the same (South Jersey is only good for cheap gas, cheaper booze, and the shore). So far, NoVa doesn’t seem that bad, maybe just a bit far and a tad homogenous and overdeveloped. The only saving grace might be that Fairfax and Falls Church are the epicenter of the region’s best Asian restaurants, so there’s that.
4. You pay for the privilege of living here. Sticker shock is everywhere (see bullet 2 regarding gas). A slice of pizza costs $4 (although to be fair is a very big slice of pizza). A cocktail costs $10. Whole Foods is jokingly referred to as “Whole Paycheck”, and the local Safeway is always overpriced and out of stock. If you need a bag to carry your groceries, it costs five cents a pop. I have yet to find out how much my monthly transit pass is going to cost but I’m guessing somewhere in the triple digits. Philadelphia is so much cheaper in every aspect, although with Center City building and improving, it’s not long until the prices catch up. Still, this is the price you pay to be able to call yourself a DC resident. Don’t get me wrong; I’m going to miss dollar drinks night near Rittenhouse, inexpensive BYOs, and cheap ethnic cuisine off Baltimore Ave, but living in the epicenter of an attractive, intelligent, and progressive community isn’t such a terrible compromise. Even if a small iced coffee and a scone is six bucks.
5. It is really really hot. Like seriously I cannot walk two blocks in DC heat without becoming a puddle of sweat on the sidewalk. I can’t remember if it was ever this hot in Philly but I never felt like I was melting after just stepping outside. I’m worried about my commute to work now since I’m scared that I will show up on day one looking like I got off a log flume. Gross.
“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.