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Washington area sees best and worst of recession

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 15, 2010; B01

Walking around the District, Abel Lomax can't help but look around and think: What recession?

After a stint abroad, it took the 27-year-old just four months to find a job with the government -- not bad for the Great Recession. And the neighborhoods where he spends his time sport new restaurants crowded with patrons enjoying Czech Pilseners and Wagyu beef brisket.

"I don't know if it's because I'm primarily in Northwest, but it really doesn't feel all that bad," Lomax said.

The view from Rhonda Sledge's perch in Southeast Washington, however, could not be more different. Work has dried up for the 44-year-old construction worker, coming in unpredictable bursts that have kept her from making ends meet.

"They told me in 2010 everything would change," Sledge said. "Here it is in February, and nothing has changed."

With thousands of new federal and government-related jobs, Washington has benefited from some of the circumstances that have caused Main Streets to go dark elsewhere. The government has taken a greater oversight role on the financial sector, and companies have been drawn to the area because of its economic stability.

But in ways less visible to those in the region's government-dominated cocoon, things are as bad as in the rest of the country. About 42,000 local jobs were lost over the past year, most of them in less-affluent areas and among lower-paying positions in retail and construction.

The pattern has created a system of winners and losers, and a widening of the already broad chasm between rich and poor, said Stephen S. Fuller, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University.

The contradictory perceptions of residents such as Lomax and Sledge reflect job gains and losses in the past year. From November 2008 through November 2009, about 27,000 jobs were created in the Washington area, among them positions for lawyers, lobbyists, accountants, federal workers, educators, health professionals and government workers, according to an analysis by Fuller.

Of the 42,000 jobs lost, about 16,000 were in construction, 9,000 in retail and about 11,000 in financial and information fields that had been in decline since before the recession.

The losses contributed to the news last month that unemployment shot up to 12 percent in the District -- nearly double the rate in Virginia, more than 4 percentage points higher than in Maryland and above the national average of 10 percent at the time. It renewed criticism by city leaders who have long complained that government jobs too often go to residents of neighboring jurisdictions.

Advocates say there could be a long-term impact for the District and the entire region, creating a permanent gap in the kinds of jobs that have historically provided less-educated workers a chance to move up the social ladder.

"Traditionally, construction has always been a field where anyone who wants to work hard and make a good life for themselves, they were always given a shot," said Brian Donohue, an official with the Laborers' International Union of North America. "It was something where you're not going to grow wealthy off of it, but you're going to be able to pay your mortgage and support your kids," he said.

If those jobs go away, Donohue said, Washington could become as unaffordable for the working class as Manhattan.

Sledge said she had hoped to improve her life by leaving her job at a Safeway deli counter for the seemingly more lucrative construction field. She was able to pay off the debt on her Jeep Grand Cherokee and save a little nest egg for herself and her 2-year-old granddaughter.

But the work has largely dried up. When she's lucky, Sledge said, she'll get a call as she's settling in for the night, asking her to be ready by 6 a.m. to install floors or haul garbage.

"If we're slacking on our hours, I would lose my insurance, and that's real hard," Sledge said.

That is not to say the presence of the federal government has not been a source of relief, even in less-affluent areas. Although stymied by a staggering 27 percent unemployment rate that reflects the reality of the downturn and some of the community's most intractable problems, progress continues in Ward 8.

The Department of Homeland Security is embarking on a $3.4 billion project to move its headquarters to Anacostia, and last month, the community welcomed its only coffee shop, Big Chair Coffee and Grill, named for the kitschy city landmark across the street.

But areas that have traditionally been more prosperous have not escaped unscathed.

Businesses have closed in neighborhoods such as Georgetown and Cleveland Park, and condominium projects throughout the region have been stalled by the credit crunch. Although unemployment remains low compared with the rest of the nation, it is reaching record-high levels for the area; although Arlington County's 3.8 percent unemployment rate in December was the lowest in Virginia, it is historically high for that community.

It is hard to miss the economic progress that is still taking place, though, particularly in gentrifying areas such as H Street NE and U Street NW. No fewer than 50 businesses have opened since early 2008 in the newly christened MidCity neighborhood, which includes the trendy 14th and U area. Fifteen other businesses are planning to open, according to the neighborhood's business association.

Fuller, of GMU, said Washington probably continues to attract 20- and 30-somethings because of the types of jobs that are being created and because most young people would not have to sell a home elsewhere in a poor housing market. He said he thinks President Obama is a factor, and Fuller is not alone. In September, the Wall Street Journal selected the District, alongside Seattle, as the No. 1 destination for 20-somethings, in part because of the "youthful pilgrimage" to the nation's capital initiated by Obama's candidacy.

Among them is Lomax, who works part time for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and is working on a master's degree in Arab studies. And Kelly Anderson, who on a recent Saturday wrapped up an afternoon of apartment hunting in Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights.

Anderson and her boyfriend moved to the Washington area last month after Anderson, 25, finished a master's program and got a job at a Georgetown architecture firm, one of the toughest jobs to get in this economy. It was a no-brainer to head to the District, she said.

"This was the only place hiring, so that's why I'm here," she said.

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