Millennials consider leaving Washington as the city becomes more costly


John Van Zandt, 35, and his wife, Florencia Furnsalida, 31, who is five months pregnant with their first child, eat breakfast at their apartment in the Lanier Heights neighborhood. (Amanda Voisard/For the Washington Post)

The young couple had mastered the morning choreography of their tiny Columbia Heights kitchen. John Van Zandt squeezed into one corner and toasted an English muffin. In another, his wife, Florencia Fuensalida, brewed coffee.

For years, renting a one-bedroom near bars and bus routes was a suitable trade-off for the wonders of the new Washington. But Van Zandt is 35 now; Fuensalida is 31. And kitchen space seemed a little tighter each day Fuensalida’s baby bump grew.

Maneuvering past the fridge, Fuensalida repeated a tired refrain: “We’re going to need a bigger place.” But where?

They were once a part of the free-spending group of young people who jolted Washington’s economy. Now older and with more financial strains, they are trying to find a new place in it.

Amid the talk of young newcomers and their fondness for social leagues and artisanal-coffee shops, another reality exists: Many are struggling to keep pace with the city’s rising cost of housing. And as new millennials move into the District, older members of that generation — loosely defined as ranging from 18 to 34 years old — are heading out.


(Related: How to keep millennials in the District )

The churn adds another layer to the District’s affordable-housing debate as rents skyrocket and thousands of low-income residents struggle to find places to live. Young transients are feeling that squeeze in another way, residents and experts say, cramming into apartments and forgoing cars to be able to make rent. But those conditions can wear thin.

“I hate to say it, but the facts show that the D.C. market is for people who are single and relatively affluent,” said Grant Montgomery, senior vice president and director of apartment practice at Delta Associates, a real estate research group. “But looking at prices, you [still] have to wonder how do they make it work? . . . It’s a sacrifice.”

The most recent city data show that while the median age of those moving into the District is about 26, the median age of those migrating out is 29. Of the 59,000 people who left the District in 2012, about 44 percent ranged from 20 to 34 years old. Those leaving were likely to be college-educated and have an income above $50,000.

Meanwhile, in a recent survey from Virginia Tech of nearly 500 college-educated D.C. residents younger than 34, about 70 percent reported some desire to stay in the city in the next five years. But most of them had some concern that they wouldn’t be able to find an affordable home in a location they desired.

Those numbers represent a new challenge for the District, which has relied on the unprecedented influx of young adults to bring creative energy. Ellen McCarthy, director of the District’s planning office, said the city is trying to entice millennials to stay by focusing on reducing crime to make some neighborhoods more desirable and by preserving more rowhouses as one-family homes to provide more affordable housing options.

“The truth is, population growth in the District is new, and so we don’t know if these young newcomers are all going to stay,” McCarthy said. “But we don’t want to be a city for the young and rich, and the old and poor. We need to keep them.”


The city has had some success, she said. In 2012, it had a net gain of 8,500 millennials. Some are even starting families in the District.

Nonetheless, many young newcomers in the District are crowding four at a time into two-bedroom apartments and subleasing sunrooms of one-bedroom apartments, said Nicole Newman, a community organizer at the Washington Interfaith Network, who spent a year conducting listening tours on gentrification. Many young newcomers were “ashamed to say” that they had problems similar to those of poorer residents in finding housing, she said.

“The affordable-housing crisis has become a more complex narrative than we thought it would be,” Newman said. “If it’s not addressed, the city will lose them and lose committed residents.”

Newman and others worry that the near-constant turnover will create problems or exacerbate existing ones.

Transient residents often don’t build relationships with their neighbors, they note, and the churn could serve to perpetuate tensions between native Washingtonians and newcomers. Short-term residents also are less likely to pressure city government for services, like repairing roads and fixing streetlamps. And in local elections, newcomers often don’t vote.

‘We are not victims’

Like many millennials in their 30s, Van Zandt and Fuensalida have begun using a different sort of mental math to calculate whether they should stay:

How much of their identity is tethered to the District? Is being able to walk to work and bars worth a lack of living space, especially when they seem to be overrun by the just-out-of-college set? Could they move to an up-and-coming neighborhood where crime is higher just to stay in the District?

Fuensalida works for the city; Van Zandt manages a program at the Latin American Youth Center that places homeless youths in apartments. Their combined income is a little less than $100,000 — slightly above average in a city where the median per capita income in their age group is about $45,000. Discussing money makes them a little self-conscious, especially when hundreds of homeless families have no options.

“We are not victims,” Van Zandt said. “Sometimes, I feel like I get what [the homeless] are going through. But then a pregnant mom comes into my office for help because she’s been sleeping on a park bench. It puts things into perspective.”

But the irony in his situation isn’t lost on Van Zandt: His generation has helped foster the city’s prosperity, but increasingly he feels left out of it.

The District that Van Zandt moved to at 25 felt like a custom-made haven: He shared a $1,600-a-month two-bedroom apartment off U Street NW with his cousin, a student at Georgetown Law. He and his friends would go drinking in Adams Morgan and liked to eat at a new 14th Street restaurant called Cafe Saint-Ex . It was during that time that he developed a love for mentoring underserved youths, some of whom lived in the troubled Petworth neighborhood. He met his future wife and followed her to Chile in 2007.

After he and Fuensalida returned to the District in 2010, he and his friends started to feel that they had aged out of the partying scene in Adams Morgan. The flourishing 14th Street corridor in Northwest Washington had gotten too expensive. Rents rose so much that it costs the couple $1,790 a month to rent their one-bedroom apartment in Columbia Heights. Now, his more affluent friends are buying houses in Petworth. And the couple’s bank account shrinks to about $200 each month after living expenses.

Fuensalida was thrilled about having a child, but then, “I started thinking about the costs.”

They’ve cut their restaurant budget to help save money. The couple started thinking about moving to the suburbs but then wondered if that was impractical because they do not own a car. Their budget is based on city living.

They looked at two-bedrooms in neighborhoods such as Shaw, Petworth and Columbia Heights. But they were few and going for $2,400 a month.

They sensed the market was working against them. It was.

Research from Delta Associates showed that since 2000, the number of two-bedrooms being built in the city has shrunk by at least 45 percent — and the number of one-bedrooms has dropped by at least 21 percent. Instead, developers are building studios and junior one-bedrooms. From 2000 to 2012, studies show, the average rent rose by about a third per month. Smaller spaces, for more money.

‘We’ll figure something out’

On a friend’s suggestion, Van Zandt biked to Northeast to check out the Trinidad neighborhood. “A lot of white people are moving in here,” a black resident told Van Zandt, presumably to comfort him. But the comment made Van Zandt uncomfortable. He didn’t want to be seen as the urban pioneer who would upset the neighborhood ecosystem.

On the morning that Van Zandt and Fuensalida were eating breakfast in their apartment, Van Zandt suggested Raleigh, N.C., as a possible new location.

“If we chose to live in a smaller or more affordable city, we’d be just fine,” Fuensalida replied as the couple ate on the love seat in their living room.

“But there wouldn’t be a job for me there, working with the community I love to work with,’’ Van Zandt countered. He sank into the furniture.

He picked up an extra job waiting tables at the Saloon on U Street twice a week. On a good Thursday, it adds about $100 to their coffers. Still not enough.

“We’ll figure something out,” he said.

Maybe Richmond, he thought. Or maybe Baltimore.

“Sometimes, I feel like our only options are to get higher-paying jobs or to move,” he said the next afternoon, over a stack of résumés in his office at his day job.

On the floor below his, a homeless mother was getting her final assessment to live in a transitional home. Before him was a 11 / 2-inch stack of résumés from out-of-towners eager to be hired with the same job title he had when he started nine years ago. If they could envision a future in the District, so could he.

Maybe the District.

The management at the couple’s apartment building informed them that there were large one-bedrooms for $200 more a month than what they were paying for their place. Perhaps they could put the baby crib in the sunroom until they figured out another option.

“We’re going to make this work,” Van Zandt resolved. He repeated something he likes to remind friends and co-workers of: “I’m a transplant, not a transient.”

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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