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Housing Envy: Soaring Prices Create Divide

Lorna Dressendorfer, left, and Erin Call are nurses in the maternity ward at Sibley Memorial Hospital.
Lorna Dressendorfer, left, and Erin Call are nurses in the maternity ward at Sibley Memorial Hospital. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Daniela Deane and Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 17, 2005

Lorna Dressendorfer and Erin Call, both single women in their early thirties, work side by side as labor and delivery nurses in the busy maternity ward at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Northwest Washington.

They make roughly the same salary at their full-time jobs there, and both also have part-time jobs to supplement their incomes, Dressendorfer at Williams-Sonoma and Call installing IVs as a home nursing aide.

But there is one big difference in their financial fortunes that divides the two friends sharply: Call owns an Alexandria townhouse, bought two years ago, while Dressendorfer remains a renter.

As a result, Call is worth substantially more than her friend.

It's true Dressendorfer has more savings than Call, who has spent most of her savings fixing up her townhouse, making it home. But, as Call says, "there's no way she could've saved as much as I've made on my townhouse," which she said has appreciated in value by approximately $150,000.

The sharp increase in housing values in the Washington area has created a great divide between those who own houses and those who do not, and nowhere does this play out more than in the workplace. Those who do not own homes look enviously at their colleagues who do, and their different financial situations can lead to strains, stress and some veiled anger.

"I'm envious of her financially," said Dressendorfer of Call. "She's changed her life completely. I feel like I'm losing out here, and I'm not a person who likes to lose."

And that's not a great feeling to have every day at work, psychologists say.

Michael Stadter, a clinical psychologist and organizational consultant in Arlington, said that in hard-charging cities such as Washington, known for its high-achieving careerists, people traditionally have been very much defined by their jobs. But suddenly, housing has become a new identity marker.

"Peers often socialize. One might have the other over for dinner, and he says, 'Boy, this is a much nicer neighborhood, a much nicer house,' " Stadter said. "That fuels an issue of identity: 'Am I really doing well? Am I really good enough?' "

"When you're in a culture like Washington or New York, and a person lucked out and now has a place worth 10 times what they bought it for, how do you deal with that?," said Douglas LaBier of the Center for Adult Development in the District and author of "Modern Madness: The Hidden Link between Work and Emotional Conflict."

Consider the case of Michelle Bowman-Mengel, 30, an assistant program officer at a housing and community nonprofit group in Washington. Bowman-Mengel said she is the only one in her office who does not own a home. That leaves her jealous of her co-workers, many of whom bought single-family homes in desirable parts of the city several years ago.

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