A few months ago I wrote an off-putting memo about people who move to DC and feel compelled to live “in the city.” Today I revisit my argument more thoughtfully.
When choosing where to live in a given metropolitan area, pretty much everyone thinks about the following factors in their cost-benefit analysis: quality of the particular deal (e.g. size, cleanliness, roommate situation), cost to rent/buy, additional costs (e.g. taxes, parking fees), crime/safety in the area, accessibility to public transit, and accessibility to useful stuff. This is not a comprehensive list of course, but I am highlighting these factors because in virtually every case one can find available housing in Maryland and Northern Virginia that beats out the comparable option in DC weighing these criteria absent other considerations.
Now, as there are other considerations, the analysis is not complete. I contend that, in addition to the above, the most common factors a prospective DC-area resident will consider include the following:
- Proximity (or transit time) to work.
- Affinity for a particular neighborhood/community.
- Desire to have a more urban vs. suburban feel.
- The “DC” factor.
#1 is of course on everyone’s list of top considerations, and it alone may tip the scale back to DC depending on work location. But, as I argued in my previous post, this really only applies to people who live close enough to walk or within a 15-minute commute of their office. On this argument alone there is no special reason why someone who works on K Street would live in Tenleytown or Eastern Market over Rosslyn, and it goes without saying that people who live in DC and commute to a job in Arlington must have another reason for doing so.
#2 is a very important factor, I think. I’m sure plenty of people commit themselves to living on Capitol Hill or in Dupont because those areas mean something to them. And I know plenty of people who have moved to Eastern Market or U Street or Bloomingdale because something about the feel of those neighborhoods appealed to them. But I’m willing to bet that community feel isn’t the reason people are moving to Petworth, or 9th & Florida NE, or pretty much anywhere more than 6 stops from the city center and a 10+ minute walk from the metro. And I hate to break it to my Columbia Heights compadres, but right now that area “feels” pretty much like Clarendon. So there must be another reason; how about…
#3 is the intangible that I suspect most people will use to tip the scales if they haven’t come up with another defensible argument for living in DC by this point in the post. It’s perfectly legitimate, and completely immeasurable. Here’s the rub: there’s definitely a bright-line distinction between what feels urban and suburban. On one extreme, pretty much everyone who doesn’t care about #1 or #2 but cares about #3 should prefer somewhere like Dupont, which is about as urban as this city gets. On the other hand, absent #2 as a consideration the there’s probably nothing more urban about Van Ness or Eastern Market than Courthouse, much less Takoma or Deanwood (not that I know anyone who would argue with the latter). So if you’re living on the edge of what would be less urban than the nearest areas of Virginia or Maryland, think carefully about whether your choice of housing isn’t based on…
#4 is the rationale-that-shall-not-be-named. Much like Manhattan residents who buy 212 area codes to show their friends they’re true New Yorkers, some people don’t care about the tax rates or the community or the proximity and really just need to send their Christmas cards with “Washington, DC” on the return address. This argument is the uncouth cousin of the others, because most people definitely choose their location for one of the above reasons, but there are always a handful of people for whom the cost-benefit simply doesn’t tip the scales toward DC so they force the scales on these grounds but will never admit it. And I’m certainly not saying it’s wrong, because this is important to some people. What I am saying is if all the above reasons point to Virginia or Maryland and this is the one that does it for you, then I think it’s important to be comfortable with the fact that the decision is rooted in pretension.
In conclusion, I want to acknowledge that preferences are most certainly not linear. For example, I might say that community feel is less important than proximity to work, but not to the extent that I’m going to live in a high-rise surrounded by concrete as opposed to a townhouse on a tree-lined street five minutes farther away. There are lots of good reasons to live in DC; I definitely consider it every time my circumstances change. But since few people are okay with coming across as pretentious, I consider it a public service if I can help anyone to better understand the reasons they’re using to decide where to live.
That’s right: a public service. Some people fight for their country; I blog about DC living considerations. Happy Memorial Day.