The Cost of Living

What Sends It Up, and How It’s Brought Down

I recently took a stroll down 14th street; a road I walk frequently, but often in a hurry, trying to get here or there on time.  But I had no appointment, and was interested in taking a close look at what’s been happening.

A view from the rooftop of the JavaRama 14th and T street NW Washington DC 1987

There’s a few new(ish) things – restaurants mostly, none of them new or stellar enough to merit mentioning.  And of course, we do have holes in the ground – and cranes overhead.  At least four, just in a small strip along 14th from around R up to Florida.  There’s promises of more to come – the Utopia complex at 14 & U, the Level 2 intern condo 1/2 block over; a new “Matchbox”.

But I was also looking at what wasn’t there anymore.  El Paraiso – the most authentic Salvadoran cuisine this side of Columbia Heights – was a stalwart and fed us well for years.  But they’re gone, as soon will be the odd Masons hall that I’ve never set foot in, yet always found a curious addition.  Dogs by Day and the neighboring pet store are gone – moved on elsewhere where rents are cheaper but foot traffic is slower – as is the Big Monkey comics store.  We all miss the irreplaceable Noi Chudnoff, and now we miss her store, too…closed for good.  Pulp, always good for a gift, a card, a little scope-age, and big welcomes is welcome here no more it seems.  At least, the economics of the area are forcing its shutdown in the near future.

Feel the love...but do it elsewhere

Garden District helped many of us dig, plant, mulch, fertilize, grow, and just pretty-up our neighborhood, all without needing a car.  That’s gone.  So is HR57, a genuine club in the legal definition that hosted music just OK to kick-ass, consistently mellow crowds, and that feeling of just being a little bit somewhere-else by merit of their membership-to-drink policy.  Now they’ve gone somewhere else.

There’s a lot of other places too; admittedly, not all of them losses.  Was I sad to see Paradise Liquor close up shop?  Mostly not – the days of super-angry Korean shop-keepers yelling from behind plexiglass are probably a thing best left in the past.  The Yums?  There will be no ironic tears or kitschy send off when that place shuts – they were sloppy neighbors, never shoveled their walkways, and didn’t give a damn about anything.

But for every Paradise Liquor, there was a Ruff and Ready – a treasure of a place that just might have a certain treasure for your house, if only your were persistent and open-eyed enough to catch it.  Want a one-of-a-kind piece?  Well now you can get one hand-crafted, from reharvested forests, all for only 100X the price at any of our high-end shops.

High-end seems to be the aspiration these days…although plenty of people are actually doing it and making good coin.  The Ellington selling for $100 million dollars to TIAA-CREF?  View 14 – try $114 million.  Developers are making big money by digging for gold in our streets – and as developers earn money, so, too do a lot of people with hands out — including politicians.   Everyone wants a taste of that sweet pie.

Pro-development-at-all-costs types argue, incessantly, that more housing necessarily equals lower cost of living.  It’s an elliptical argument that assumes a sort of perfect supply-and-demand world that only exists in text books and theorists heads.  Real life is much sloppier, and rarely cheaper.  Each one of those closed shops closed for particular reasons, but there’s no doubting the cumulative financial pressures forced many, if not all their hands.  And for each of these new mega-buildings – those who don’t live here say that more housing will drive prices down.  Funny, exactly the opposite has always happened here.  Craig and I, and many of our neighbors, have lived here long enough to see a steady and inexorable progression: more units built, more people moving in, higher prices to live, around and around.  Today’s shoe-box jr. one-bedroom for an intern will price that intern out of the market within two years.

Leaving what behind?  Fewer stores that are naturally of the community and more that are for outsiders.  Band & Olufson?  How many $15,000 TV’s have been purchased by our neighbors?  St. X?  A gem of a place that used to have room for us now is squeezed at nearly every hour by people driving in from Montgomery or Fairfax county.

image courtesy M.V. Jantzen

I like living in a place where I can walk the dog to my vet.  Pick up mail around the block.  Get yelled at in a run-down liquor store, find the gayest possible gifts in a store that feels more college than city.  Some development is clearly good: Hello Yes Market!  But some local institutions – like the Saloon – are literally irreplaceable, whoever moves in next to cash out.

It’s just a thought.  But perhaps development isn’t always good – for the neighborhood, for the people wanting to move in, or for those living or working there.  That’s why those who hurl the ‘NIMBY’ slur will always be wrong: because we’re not, and just perhaps, some of our backyards are OK as they are.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “The Cost of Living

  1. The title implied you had some thoughts about how to bring down the cost of living, but I don’t see any of those ideas in the body of the post. Can you elaborate on that?

    My general thought is that the development you see is a symptom of the rising values in the area, not a cause – and if one could magically stop new development, that wouldn’t necessarily stop the rising rents and rising costs.

    • Doug

      Alex – we do have a couple ideas, at least ideas that have worked in other cities. I wanted to get to those today, but ran short of time. Next post.
      But please: if you have some, or have a differing point of view here, we’d love to give you a guest post!
      –dbj

  2. This reminds me a lot of the debate in Kensington, where people complain about middle- and working-class people being pushed out, but oppose new development on the grounds that it’ll ruin the area’s “small-town charm.”

    There’s nothing wrong with wanting a neighborhood with a dry cleaner or pupusas or garden supplies within close reach. But like Alex said, new housing in that neighborhood isn’t the reason why those things are being pushed out. (And in fact, stores on 14th or U Street say in business because of people like me who come from Montgomery County – though I take the Metro or the bus, thanks.) New housing in your area will be expensive, but preventing new housing from being built in your area won’t make it any cheaper. If you’re really concerned about your neighborhood being affordable, you should really be pushing for inclusionary zoning.

    • Doug

      Dan, my point is that many people justify new development specifically because they say it will make housing more affordable. That’s just not true. I appreciate the thoughts, but it would mean more if you lived here. Everyone has a tiny say in the place where they live – not veto authority, but a little say. This is mine, in my neighborhood.

      • I don’t think it’s correct to say that it’s not true. I think it’s more correct to say that it’s more complicated than that.

        There’s clearly demand for the area. There’s also clearly a need for more supply of these kind of walkable places and neighborhoods. Yet any one neighborhood is still just one piece of a much larger regional (and even global) real estate market. Fighting development doesn’t change that.

        But at the macro scale, more development is certainly needed. The DC region’s apartment vacancy rate is incredibly low. Rents are rising very fast because of it, even in the face of stubbornly high unemployment. Now, it’s just as true that perhaps more development in Bethesda would also help alleviate those regional market pressures on the macro scale, but that doesn’t mean you’d be able to stem the unsustainable rising rents in your ‘hood either.

        The grand take-away is that places like this are dynamic. We often get attached to specific businesses and the like, but these places always are in a state of change. It’s often like the gas gauge on a car, however – we know it’s slowly moving, but it’s not moving fast enough to see with the naked eye.

        As for affordability, I think Dan is right to hint at the kinds of regulations that can help shape new development to maintain affordability – but fighting development tooth and nail will certainly not accomplish that – not in a growing, in-demand region like this.

  3. Pingback: Trees improve neighborhoods | ustreetbeat

  4. Logan Res

    You guys always make references to individuals such as interns in a derogatory manner as if they don’t deserve to live in the city or that they bring down the neighborhood. Why is that? Smaller condos and apartments are what a lot of individuals from every age range desire.

    I read your blog and want to point out a couple of things. You guys made a big deal out of the development going in to replace the Yum’s building on your block. Your fuss added to the costs of that development. When a developer has to build more parking than what is really needed in a building on the metro route and eventually a street car route, this adds more costs to the construction which affects the prices of the units. You also fought them on the scale of the building which meant they get fewer units in which also will raise the prices. And didn’t you also make a fuss about Matchbox coming to 14th Street? Are you still against them, or are you now in favor of them coming? I’m confused. Also, you mention the loss of HR57 as if you miss them but you know darn well that if they tried to come back in, you’d be raising a big old ruckus about a club coming in to the neighborhood….shock! people! cars! noise! OH MY!!!

    Also, Pulp isn’t closing. They’ve been purchased and will remain open…yay!

  5. David.O

    Hey guys, here is a solution to your problem.City First Homes is a DC Govt-created program that provides $75,000 Down Payment Assistance Loans. The program helps people buy a home in DC at a cost less than renting, and build significant wealth through home ownership. All that is required is that you make below 120% AMI, which is $89,000 for a single person. A great program, maybe it can help you guys.

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