Three millennials try to sell their peers on the District
No. 1: Making Georgetown ‘cool’ again
Josh Hermias has a theory about millennials when it comes to Georgetown bars and restaurants: They still go, but they don’t tell anyone about it.
In a city where almost every neighborhood is trying to lure people in their 20s with cash to spend, that’s a problem, even for a neighborhood whose name is almost synonymous with exclusivity.
So even though Georgetown is still popular, Hermias, 32, is trying to make it cool again as economic development director of the Georgetown Business Improvement District, a group financed by commercial property owners.
Hermias found that 25- to 34-year-olds living within three miles of Wisconsin Avenue and M Street have $3.6 billion of disposable income. A chef on the side, he said restaurants will be key to Georgetown’s seeming less routine and luring more of those dollars.
“Maybe I needed some clothes today, and I got some clothes in Georgetown, and I enjoyed my day today, but that’s not remarkable in [the millennials’] ethos. Because the things that they do talk about is restaurants.”
For six years, Hermias, a native of Bucks County, Pa., has lived in the same tiny Dupont Circle studio. He does not own a television and has never owned a car, driving a blue Stella scooter to work and using Uber car or car-sharing when it rains. He vows to never live in the suburbs. “I like density,” he said.
If another millennial characteristic is that they do not stay in the same job, Hermias fits that, as well. He researched international aid effectiveness at the Brookings Institution before deciding it was too slow, then jumped into the NASCAR of municipal government as a program analyst in Mayor Adrian Fenty’s administration. Neil Albert, the former city administrator, said Hermias was smart, “and he had a real appetite for learning new things.”
During a stint as a data analyst in the office of the chief operating officer at Georgetown University, Hermias’s varied experience helped him. “There are some folks in a lot of organizations who are sort of comfortable in one area,” said Chris Augostini, the school’s chief operating officer. “He had, with great ease, the perspective of being able to weave together these interested parties.”
Maybe because pulling together neighborhood ingredients is a lot like cooking. Sitting in Baked & Wired, the funky Georgetown bakery, Hermias said he sees millennials getting more of a taste for the neighborhood. “There’s lots of things for us to do here, right? You come here and you shop. You come here and you go to Baked & Wired. You come here and walk around, right? It’s beautiful.”
No. 2: You can own a piece of the city! Maybe
Realtor Ally Behnke spends most of her days racing around town in a Zipcar, trying to persuade her 20- and 30-something clients to invest in a coolly appointed condo near U Street or a fixer-upper in Petworth and grow old in the city.
Behnke offers workshops to help first-time home buyers learn how they can qualify, and consults with condo developers about the amenities that will lure people in their 20s (big closets, large living areas, and bedrooms designed not for couples or children, but for roommates).
With the zeal of a motivational speaker, Behnke tells her clients they can buy in the District at a cost comparable to the pricey rents here if they take in roommates to help make the mortgage. Twenty-five-to-34-year-olds in the District might earn a median salary of $44,680 (nationally, the median income for millennials in metropolitan areas is $27,025). But rents in neighborhoods such as Columbia Heights, Adams Morgan and Logan Circle average $2,000 per bedroom — far above the generally recommended income-to-expense ratio of 30 percent. Why not pay yourself rather than a landlord, Behnke reasons.
Yet after a day of showings, the 29-year-old will trek up 11th Street NW to a Columbia Heights rowhouse she shares with three friends. With the city’s median home price at $460,000, the agent who sells the Washington dream is a renter.
Behnke, who grew up in Vienna, moved to the District in 2004 because she liked the idea of urban living. She received her real estate license in 2007, only to watch the economy crash in 2008, just as the developer she worked for was preparing to put luxury condos on the market. She lost her job. “It was like I got to the party, and the keg was already tapped,” she says. She went to work at a bar and a vintage clothing store, both in Adams Morgan.
The recession could be the defining event in the lives of millennials. According to data from the Economic Policy Institute, young college graduates faced an unemployment rate of 10.1 percent in 2011, but an underemployment rate almost twice that. Furthermore, pay for new graduates decreased 8.5 percent between 2000 and 2012.
After she lost her real estate job, Behnke stayed active in the field by helping artist friends secure vacant properties to host pop-up art shows, and continued to show her support for the District by co-founding a city pride event, D.C. Flag Day.
She’s now back in the business with Stages Premier Realtors, trying to attract younger buyers with approaches such as “pop-opens,” vintage-clothing pop-up sales held during open houses. Her period of underemployment, however, has made her see “space, people, culture and the urban environment completely differently,” she says. “Before the recession, I was one of those people — I drove a Pathfinder in the city.” Now she usually walks.
Behnke remains hopeful that she, too, will have a chance to own a piece of the city she loves. To qualify, she’ll need to show two years of consistent employment. In the meantime, the group house and Zipcars are allowing her to save for a down payment.
“I would like to have a family and raise them in the city,” she says. “Why would you leave?”
No. 3: Putting H Street NE on the map
Elise Bernard, the longtime blogger behind Frozen Tropics, might be H Street’s original hipster.
She started writing about the neighborhood in 2004, long before the bars, restaurants and arch comparisons to Brooklyn. She publicized the art galleries and beer gardens as they started moving in.
Now, at 34, the lawyer and Oklahoma native has become one of the most-read neighborhood bloggers in D.C. — and one of the most enthusiastic advocates for the H Street NE corridor, a neighborhood that is growing younger and wealthier each year.
“H Street used to be a place a lot of people avoided,” said Bernard, perched on a stool in H Street Coffeehouse, an upscale cafe that opened in March. “Now it’s a big night-life corridor with a thriving art scene.”
Things were different in 2001, when Bernard arrived fresh out of college and rented her first room in the area for $425 a month. Back then, a friendly, threadbare neighborhood such as Trinidad promised plenty of porch-sitting and communal gardening, but little in the way of Instagram-able night life.
That didn’t bother Bernard: She liked her centenarian neighbors and the area’s “good vibes.” So in 2003, at 24, she bought a three-bedroom, 1,600-square-foot house along the H Street corridor and, a year later, a new laptop. The house she lives in to this day; the laptop she used to launch her new blog, chronicling crimes, events and neighborhood meetings, trumpeting new businesses and refusing to cave to the city’s “Northwest bias” by always appending “Northeast” after “H Street.” That bit of marketing has stuck.
Today, Bernard blogs to an audience in the tens of thousands, but she’s quick to credit other young people for H Street’s ascendance. There’s Erik Bruner-Yang, the tattooed 28-year-old who introduced the District to ramen. Or Teddy Folkman, the one-time Food Network star and Granville Moore’s chef whose Belgian-influenced bar food (and ever-changing craft beer list) is beloved by a clientele across Northeast.
Frozen Tropics now covers more restaurant openings and fewer public safety meetings, reflecting a cultural change about which Bernard feels conflicted. According to the Census Bureau, the estimated median household income in Ward 6 has shot up above $85,000. The median age has fallen by two years, to 34. When new college graduates move to Washington, they increasingly look for group homes and English basements not only in Adams Morgan or Columbia Heights, but around H Street, as well.
Bernard does worry that, as H Street becomes more desirable, it risks pushing its oldest residents out — or cheapening the neighborly vibe that first drew her. She wishes the city offered more programs to help residents age in place. She doesn’t want to see national chains creep in. At the same time, she argues, artists and entrepreneurs are just starting to tap H Street’s potential.
“We have a lot of creative energy here, a lot of relatively young people in their 20s and 30s,” she said. “There’s some very interesting stuff happening.”