D.C. newcomers searching for their dream home might get a few wake-up calls

Anyone who has searched for a home in the District, for convenient parking — or even for a bar stool during happy hour — may have sensed what census statistics confirm: There are a lot of newcomers around town. And these newcomers — and their housing wish lists — are helping reshape the city’s neighborhoods and housing stock.

From July 2008 to July 2009, a net of 6,550 people migrated to D.C., according to a Census Bureau analysis of Internal Revenue Service data. Last year, the District’s population surged past 600,000 for the first time in two decades. Developers are taking notice.

“When newcomers . . . come to Washington for employment, they generally rent first,” said Ann Scully, executive vice president of Mayhood, which has been developing condominiums in the District for almost 30 years. “They pick a neighborhood and they rent in that neighborhood. If they end up liking it they might look for something to buy in that area after a year or two,” added Scully, who has been with Mayhood since 1984 and is involved with the Workforce Housing Committee of the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit group that advocates for increased development for moderate-income households.

In addition to favoring rentals, experts say, newcomers generally gravitate toward neighborhoods they recognize.

“Typically newcomers are looking for areas that are nationally identifiable. So we get a lot of people asking about Georgetown, Dupont Circle and downtown,” said Ken Johnson, who founded DCRealEstate.com, a marketing, sales and leasing company. “For someone who is coming from outside the area for a job, they’re usually not looking to pioneer. They want something they see as safe and that’s in the center of things,” added Johnson, who also edits the DCMud real estate blog.

Affordability shock

But newcomers soon find that prices in those neighborhoods are among the highest in the city, so many have to broaden their search.

Alefiyah Mesiwala, 30, a preventive-medicine resident at Johns Hopkins who is doing a rotation in Washington, and her husband, Aadil Ginwala, 32, a business consultant, said that after renting in Baltimore for the past few years they were ready to settle down and buy in D.C.

“Our requirements were that it would be Metro-accessible, that it would be physically convenient, that if we needed to rent the building out at some point it would be really easy, and we would be in a fun part of town,” Ginwala said.

They considered Dupont Circle, Chinatown, Penn Quarter, Adams Morgan and U Street but soon discovered that their options, given what they could afford, were limited.

“Our initial goal was condos, but they were so expensive and the fees were so high,” Mesiwala said. “You might be paying $2,000 or $3,000 for a mortgage and on top of that anywhere from $400 to $1,000 in maintenance.”

In the end, they found an attractive two-bedroom rowhouse between U Street and Dupont Circle that had been lingering on the market. They recalled that the garden was unkempt and mold had grown on the deck.

“Really all it needed was a good power washing,” said Ginwala, who suggested that the building’s modest neglect helped the couple afford their neighborhood of choice.

Johnson said he meets lots of newcomers with sticker shock.

“It’s rare that people come to the city and say, ‘God, things are so cheap. I can get more than what I expected,’ ” he said. “Usually, it’s the reverse. They might come here looking for a nice penthouse and quickly find that, based on their price range, what they’re actually looking for is a small two-bedroom.”

Some newcomers say housing in D.C. is just too expensive.

Leah, a 36-year-old lawyer who declined to give her last name because she does not want her firm to think she is unhappy, said that “the rent in D.C. is more than the job justifies,” even though she makes $145,000 per year. In September, Leah moved from Chicago into a $2,150-per-month one-bedroom apartment near Cleveland Park with her wife, whom she said found a good job in government before they arrived. While Leah said she likes her neighborhood, she added that in Chicago she could get much more bang for her buck.

“In D.C. you can spend a ton of money and still end up in a neighborhood that’s not that great, not that interesting and not near a Metro,” she said.

The migration of newcomers in search of affordable housing is leading to development in neighborhoods that had been overlooked for decades. One example is the area around H Street Northeast. When the “Newcomer’s Handbook for Moving to and Living in Washington D.C.” is updated this fall, it will include a new chapter on the “Atlas District” because of the interest the area has rapidly generated since the last edition came out in 2006, said the book’s author, Mike Livingston.

And the downtown region bounded by the White House, the Mall, N Street Northwest and New Jersey Avenue — with the Verizon Center at its middle — saw the fastest growth per square mile, adding 6,270 housing units between 2000 and 2010, according to Gerry Widdicombe, the director of economic development at the Downtown Business Improvement District.

Getting around

Transportation, of course, is a prime consideration for everyone.

“You have a lot of young people who are coming here without cars, so they’re relying on public transportation,” said Chris Donatelli, the president of Donatelli Development, which has built three residential buildings directly above Metro stops and has clustered others around them.

Keith Sellars, senior vice president of retail and real estate at the Washington D.C. Economic Partnership, said, “If you want to track development across the city, follow the Green Line.” He said the Green Line brought redevelopment progressively northward to the areas around the U Street, Columbia Heights and Petworth Metro stations.

Metro availability practically sold Chuck Clay, a 35-year-old bookstore manager, on a rental three years ago.

“When we got off the Metro on the last day of searching, we saw this building right in front of us with a sign that said ‘now leasing,’ ” said Clay, who moved into the Highland Park complex above the Columbia Heights Metro stop.

He came from Florida with his wife because she landed a job at George Washington University.

“DC USA had just opened, and the neighborhood was definitely still in transition,” he said. “But the apartments were beautiful and being so close to the Metro and all of the things to take care of our personal needs made it an easy decision to live in this neighborhood.”

Fresh eyes,
fresh challenges

Last year, David Alpert conducted a survey on his blog Greater Greater Washington asking readers to state where they had moved from, which neighborhood they had moved to, why they moved there and what transportation they use. The 90 people who volunteered information listed previous residences across the country and as far away as North Africa. Only about half said someone in their household sometimes used a car, including carpooling and Zipcar, with many proudly declaring freedom from automobiles.

But what most intrigued Alpert, who moved from New York City to Dupont Circle in 2008 because his wife got a job at a law firm, was the range of neighborhoods commenters chose.

“I was really surprised to see Anacostia so often,” Alpert said.

David Garber, who writes the blog And Now, Anacostia, and renovates houses in the neighborhood, proposed that newcomers “are coming here without all of the stereotypes people in the region have and might be looking at places like Anacostia with fresh eyes.”

But an influx of newcomers to D.C. neighborhoods sometimes carries new concerns.

When newcomers arrive, said Martha Ross, Brookings’ deputy director of Greater Washington research, they are moving into extant communities. In the case of Columbia Heights, for example, she said they are joining a mixed-income neighborhood in the midst of an economic transformation.

“You don’t get the sense that the people who live in the subsidized housing along 14th Street are connected to the economy in the same way as the people who live in the market-rate housing,” Ross said. “There’s low-income and high-income folks living side by side, but it doesn’t feel really integrated. That can lead to some social friction.”

Dan Silverman, author of the Prince of Petworth blog, which covers many of the Northwest neighborhoods that have drawn renewed interest, said the topic of whether newcomers have been beneficial to these neighborhoods is controversial.

“I hear people say it in a positive way and a negative way,” Silverman said. “But in the last 10 years there have clearly been a lot of positive retail and residential developments that have come to neighborhoods like Columbia Heights.”

Silverman said at least some of the new amenities do seem to be meeting grounds for newcomers and longtime residents. Visitors to the Chipotle on 14th Street near the Columbia Heights Metro stop, he offered, can find a cross-section of the community there.

When Oramenta Newsome, executive director of Washington’s Local Initiatives Support Corp., began working in Columbia Heights in the 1990s, she focused on renewing housing and bringing transportation and businesses to what had been a neglected area. But with the arrival of several of the goals for which she had pushed — including the Metro in 1999 and the DC USA shopping center in 2008 — now her focus is shifting. Columbia Heights now attracts many newcomers, but its housing prices have also gone up, so LISC is working with groups in Columbia Heights to ensure the neighborhood has affordable housing— and that all the residents benefit from the neighborhood’s economic success.

“Sometimes you have to be careful what you ask for, because you may get it,” Newsome said.

 
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