DC rowhouses are expensive. Fortunately, many come with English basements—lower levels with separate entrances that can potentially be rented as apartments and used to offset the house’s mortgage. But it’s not always that simple. Here’s what you should know before you post your basement on Craigslist and start cashing rent checks.
The median monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Washington reached $2,100 this spring, according to real-estate listing site Zumper, making the DC region the nation's fifth-most expensive metropolitan area for renters. The current figure, the site says, represents a 5 percent jump from the preceding quarter.
After seeing the amenities included in the Dupont Circle Airbnb rental owned by Results Gym and Stroga yoga studio founder Doug Jeffries—who the DC government sued after complaints from neighbors—we got to wondering: What other amazing local homes are hiding out on the vacation-rental website? Here’s a quick glimpse inside the five best.
Think your rent is high? Apartments at The Woodley, managed by the Bozzuto Group, go for up to $12,000 a month—a figure that raised some eyebrows last summer when the super luxe 212-unit building opened to residents, becoming one of the most expensive apartment complexes in Washington. Eight months later, only about 30 percent of the building at 2700 Woodley Road in—you guessed it—Woodley Park is leased. According to its website, Bozzuto is offering a month of free rent to new residents, or to pay for moving costs. Management says many of the current residents are international. And apparently some are just international travelers—on the afternoon we visited, a reception was under way in the lobby for a US ambassador who lives in one of the penthouses.
Not every unit goes for five figures. Studios start at $2,700 a month, and living in the building comes with plenty of perks. There’s an infinity pool, an expansive roof deck, and a concierge at your beck and call 24 hours a day. Here’s a look inside the two-bedroom, two-bathroom model unit, decorated by Hartman Design Group.
In a narrow courtyard on a quiet stretch of road in DC’s Takoma, children build snowmen in the cold. Eleanor Whitman watches from the warmth of her three-bedroom duplex, thinking how much she enjoys being a part of the kids’ lives.
Fifteen years ago, the divorcée packed up her three-floor brick house in University Park, near the University of Maryland, and moved to Takoma Village Cohousing, a 43-unit community on a 1.4-acre spread of land. Almost immediately, the 84-year-old says, she built meaningful relationships with neighbors, young and old: “You get to know people here. These things wouldn’t happen in a regular community.”
Those “things”—the ways Takoma Village distinguishes itself from a typical community—are legion. In most urban buildings, tenants don’t make it beyond one another’s thresholds; at Takoma Village, Whitman cooks minestrone for the weekly dinner she shares with other residents. In standard condos, cleaning services tidy common areas; here, community members contribute six hours of maintenance and administrative work per month.
The cohousing model seeks to foster strong relationships among residents, and for retirees in particular it can provide an escape from the isolation that often accompanies old age. The trend boasts about 135 communities nationwide, including 13 in the Mid-Atlantic region. Cohousing advocate Charles Durrett—an architect who with his wife imported the concept from Denmark in the 1980s—says that number is on track to double in the next ten years, as baby boomers and empty-nesters demand more innovative retirement options. According to a 2013 story in the Guardian, the living arrangement accounts for an estimated 8 percent of households in Denmark.
Everything about the model, from its layout to its structure, promotes socializing. Members have private, small homes—typically facing an open green area—but share a large community space called a common house, often equipped with a kitchen, dining area, and guest room. Parking lots might be placed away from residences to encourage encounters with neighbors, and it’s not unusual to hear about residents sharing basements, lawn mowers, even cars.
This sort of support network isn’t inexpensive, though. In 2013, a three-bedroom in Takoma Village sold for $500,000, according to one of the community’s developers. In a real-estate market as competitive and expensive as Washington’s, cohousing has become a social model targeting the middle class and above.
Residents, Durrett says, are “people who believe their own life will be better if they cooperate with their neighbors.”
The cohousing model attempts to balance sharing and privacy. Unlike a commune, where people share food, land, and furniture, cohousing projects are typically registered as condominiums, co-ops, or homeowners’ associations. “It’s the opposite of a hippie commune,” says Ann Zabaldo, a cohousing developer and Takoma Village resident. Eleanor Whitman says residents can choose to engage—or disengage—whenever they want, one of the primary reasons she was attracted to the concept.
Among the 13 Mid-Atlantic communities is one seniors-only project called ElderSpirit, about five hours outside Washington in Abingdon, Virginia. Most cohousing retirees, however, prefer multigenerational neighborhoods, where they can interact with all ages. Zabaldo has seen many seniors become surrogate grandparents, including one of her current neighbors who came to be known as Nana to a pair of girls in the community.
For those in need of advanced care, however, cohousing may not suffice. Though younger residents typically help seniors with chores like grocery shopping, such neighborly gestures aren’t always enough.
“Cohousing is good for companionship and some caregiving tasks, but if you’re past that level, you might need other options,” says Rodney Harrell, senior adviser at the AARP Public Policy Institute. “It can’t replace trained home-care workers, and it shouldn’t.” One solution: Instead of moving to an assisted-living facility, some seniors in cohousing band together to split the cost of professional in-home care.
At Eastern Village Cohousing, a 56-unit community in Silver Spring, older residents joined together for another cause. More than 20 community members, all age 50 or older, belong to a social group called the Sages. Members plan outings, such as movie nights, lectures at the Library of Congress, and dinners downtown. They say an active social calendar keeps them young. “It really takes the edge off of some of the loneliness,” says 76-year-old member Sara Lovinger.
Typically governed by consensus, cohousing can also lead to the occasional bureaucratic—sometimes comical—roadblock. In one instance at Takoma Village, it took a year for members to agree on a rug for the common house. Zabaldo says that in any cohousing community, there are always one or two people who aren’t as cooperative or who slack on contributing. In those situations, neighbors generally try to talk out problems until they’re resolved. (Because everyone owns his or her individual residence, no one is ever kicked out for failing to pitch in.)
To outsiders, the profusion of meetings may sound cumbersome, but residents insist it’s just another way to grow closer. “We had a lot of meetings in the beginning to establish policies,” says Whitman. But she adds that these days, the community keeps busier with something else: welcome parties for new members.
This article appears in our March 2015 issue of Washingtonian.
The portion of District residents who spend more than half their incomes on rent jumped significantly between 2002 and 2013, while earnings barely inched up at all, according to a new study published Thursday by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. The trends have left DC with a rental market in which many residents who earn moderate income struggle to find housing that eats up less than 50 percent of their wages.
"There is virtually no inexpensive housing left in DC’s private market," says Wes Rivers, a DCFPI analyst who compiled the report. "Across the board, rents went up, and they went up faster than incomes."
In 2002, about 40 percent of the District's rental units went for less than $800 per month. By 2013, that figure, adjusted for inflation, was down to about 21 percent. Rivers estimates the 33,433 apartments he counted that rent for less than $800 today are all subsidized by either the city or federal governments.
The absence of low-cost housing has long been an issue for DC's lowest earners, but the study finds that households taking home between 30 and 50 percent are feeling the pinch, too. Rivers reports that 31 percent of households in that bracket, which earn $32,000 to $54,000 annually, sent more than 50 percent of their paychecks to their landlords in 2013, up from 8 percent in 2002. And for households that earn up to 80 percent of the area median income ($107,300 for a family of four), the rate paying more than half on rent has jumped from 1 percent to 10 percent.
"Either pay half your income on rent, or pay for other necessities like food and transportation," Rivers says. "Increasingly, we’re seeing middle-income renters do the same."
Incomes for the bottom 40 percent of renters did not change over the analyzed period when adjusted for inflation, while their rental costs increased as much as 35 percent. The middle quintile only saw their average earnings rise 9 percent from $41,990 to $45,970, while rents in that bracket rose 44 percent. Rents for households making up to 80 percent of the median income nearly jumped by 48 percent, while the top quintile of renters saw their housing go up by 32 percent.
In total, Rivers says one-quarter of DC renters are contributing more than half their pay toward housing costs. For households in the bottom 30 percent, severe rent burdens have long been the norm. But sluggish wage growth and a construction boom for luxury housing units have spread firmly into the middle.
Of the 161,362 apartments DCFPI counted in 2013, those with monthly rents and utilities above $1,600 account for 35 percent of the entire stock. Units below $1,200 per month make up 46 percent of the market.
The demands of a changing population, led largely by higher-earning residents who have arrived over the past decade, are rewriting the rental market, but at the cost of displacing low- and middle-income households, the report reads. Unaffordably high housing costs, DCFPI reports, forces families to move frequently, which in turn impacts adults' employment and children's educational opportunities. And don't expect the market to make itself more equitable.
"As long as we have a healthy demand of new entrants into the city, we won’t really know until we know that supply is correct," Rivers says. "There is a strong demand for higher-end units. At either end, you do see that there has been this shift. It does show a trend that we are having more units at the top end and we’re losing units at the bottom."
The policy group says Mayor Muriel Bowser and the DC Council have made a few motions toward shoring up the District's supply of affordable rental housing, but it also lays out a few heady prescriptions. DCFPI is wary that legislation passed in 2014 aiming to pump $100 million into the city's Housing Production Trust Fund, which constructs and preserves housing for low- and moderate-income rsidents, will not be fully funded. (It gets its funding from a 15 percent cut of taxes collected from property sales, which has been a volatile source since the 2007-2009 economic collapse.)
DCFPI's bigger order is a wholesale expansion of another housing assistance fund—the Local Rent Supplement Program, which serves very low-income families by paying their rents after a contribution of 30 percent of their income. Currently, the program serves 3,240 households. But with 25 percent of renters citywide spending more than half their salaries on rent, the DCFPI sees as many as 41,000 households on the brink.
Washington's rental market showed no signs of slowing down in 2014, according to a year-end report from the real-estate company Zillow. In total, tenants paid their landlords $13.4 billion in 2014, or about $300 million more than they did last year, an increase of 7.7 percent.
Zillow's research pegged the region's average rent at $1,428 per month in 2014. Over the past year, residential rents in Washington remained nearly flat, increasing by an average of just $2 per month. That translates into about an average annual jump of just $24 for the roughly 782,000 Washington residents who rent their homes. As a metropotlian area, Washington is well outside the norm; average increased by much more in some of the regions Zillow studied.
Rents in Denver rose by $86 per month, San Francisco increased by an eye-gouging $163 per month, and renters in San Jose, California experienced an average hike of a totally dispiriting $197 per month.
But even with Washington's relative calm, there are no signs of paying rent becoming less painful in the near future, according to Zillow's chief economist, Stan Humphries.
"Over the past 14 years, rents have grown at twice the pace of income due to weak income growth, burgeoning rental demand, and insufficient growth in the supply of rental housing," Humphries says in a press release.
That last detail applies somewhat less toward the Washington area, where several jurisidcitions, including DC, Tysons, and Bethesda, continue to put up new buildings at the higher end of the rental market. But we might not want to get too comfortable with our relatively unchanged rents. Renters across the spectrum should brace for higher costs of living in 2015, Humphries says.
"Next year, we expect rents to rise even faster than home values, meaning that another increase in total rent paid similar to that seen this year isn't out of the question," he says. "In fact, it's probable."
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that average monthly rents in Washington increased by $59. In an e-mail, a Zillow spokesperson says that figure was published erroneously.
Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.
While the Urban Institute's comprehensive study on DC housing costs on Tuesday stated what most of us already know—that DC rent is damn high and getting higher—the effects of a surging residential market are felt more on the blocks with the best public transportation access. Again, this isn't a big shock: with nearly 40 percent of DC residents relying on public transportation to get to work, it's logical that the housing closest to Metro stations comes at a premium.
The Urban Institute's research found that citywide, 64 percent of rental units now cost more than $1,000 per month, while 35 percent go for at least $1,500 a month. However, when apartments sit on top of train stations, the typical rent for a one-bedroom unit often approaches $2,000 a month, according to RadPad, an online apartment-hunting service that combed listings around the Metro stations with the most rental activity.
The findings aren't that startling for a metro area in which more than 50 percent of renters spend at least 30 percent of their monthy earnings on housing, but there is a bit of sticker shock to reinforce the fact that rental costs continue to surge. RadPad's map tops out at the Foggy Bottom-GWU station, where nearby one-bedrooms average $2,723 per month. Dupont Circle, at $2,443, and Mount Vernon Square, at $2,402, are next.
The spiking rents extend beyond the urban core, but tend to drop as the Metro lines push out. A one-bedroom near the NoMa-Gallaudet station runs $2,238; the next station up, Brookland, runs $1,551 a month.
Of course, this map is skewed from sourcing only one company's listings—that's possibly why there's a $998 difference between Anacostia and Congress Heights—but it does reinforce much of what the Urban Institue found in its report and hints that the chunk of people who spend upward of 30 percent of their incomes on rent will continue to expand.
Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.
One of those websites that ranks cities along arbitrary metrics has decided that Washington is the third-best US city for millennials, the generation of young people that marketing professionals and baby-boomer newspaper editors can’t stop talking about. And according to the new list, the best part of town isn’t even in town. It’s Clarendon, a section of Arlington known for its heavy concentration of bros.
The ranking comes from Niche.com, a website that compiles rankings of municipalities and schools, and in the case of millennials, reviewed cities according to income, housing prices, crime rates, and percentage of people with a college diploma, along with less statistically sound things like professional sports teams and nightlife.
Fifteen percent of the Washington area’s population is between 25 and 34 years of age, Niche found. But in Clarendon, that demographic accounts for a staggering 53 percent of the population. They live in places like the “METAL HOUSE,” a four-story domicile that was rented out last September to tenants seeking a haven for keggers and flip cup tournaments.
Why else is Clarendon perfect for millennials, Niche.com reasons? Forty-eight percent of its residents hold master’s degrees, the median household income is $108,132, and the median rent is $1,788 a month. By contrast, the median rent for all of Washington is measured at $1,353.
Looks like it’s time for people born after 1980 to get out of Mt. Pleasant and H Street and head across the river to Clarendon, home of popped collars and expensive apartments that double as beer pong arenas.
With so many new, high-end apartment buildings dotting Washington, prospective tenants have plenty of options to choose from. And building owners are responding by upping their amenities. Twenty-four-hour gyms, heated bike rooms, and rooftop pools are so standard that new developments need too get creative.
W.C. Smith’s 2M, a 314-unit building opening this summer in the NoMa neighborhood, features all that, and is possibly inventing a brand-new amenity in Emmy, a six-month-old English bulldog that will be shared by tenants. Yes, really. A communal dog for residents to borrow in chunks of time like a Zipcar.
“I was sitting at a cafe one day, and we saw a puppy come in and everyone just stopped in their tracks and came alive,” W.C. Smith vice president Holli Beckman tells the Washington Post. “And it just dawned on me that everyone loves doggies and babies, right?”
But as much as a cute, playful creature like Emmy—who has a dedicated Instagram account (obviously)—can melt hearts, experts on dog care are concerned for the pup.
“It’s a cute idea, but oh, no,” says Mary Huntsberry, an animal behavior specialist in Montgomery County. “Not a good idea at all.”
Huntsberry says that offering up a dog like a time-share could have severe effects on its mental and physical health as Emmy is moved from apartment to apartment and cared for by so many different people.
“Certain people think you need to be harsh, that’s not true with another person,” she says. “Dogs can be easily traumatized.”
W.C. Smith’s advertising for 2M says the building is pet-friendly for people who actually own their own dogs, but Huntsberry worries that Emmy is being dumped into a uncertain situation.
“They’re animals, they’re not purses you just lend out to people,” she says. “That’s just nutty.”
Editor’s Note (added 4/4/2014): In response to this article, Anne Marie Bairstow, vice president of marketing and communications at W.C. Smith, writes: “We appreciate Washingtonian’s interest in our 2M Street pet ambassador, Emmy. However, the story had several inaccuracies. The article says that Emmy will be rented out like ‘Zipcar for dogs or like a ‘purse,’ which is, of course, not the case. Emmy will live with the 2M property manager and come to work with him in the leasing office. Residents will be allowed to walk Emmy in the building’s private dog park, but all visits will be closely monitored." Washingtonian thanks WC Smith for this clarification.