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.
"They talk about their $700 mortgage payment, and I feel the green monster begin to stir," said Bowman-Mengel, who rents a one-bedroom apartment in Clarendon with her husband for $1,200 a month. Although co-workers are helpful and quick to offer advice, she knows that mortgage payments on a house or apartment in a desirable neighborhood would be much higher than her rent. "All my co-workers are sitting on just a boatload of equity," she said.
That includes Bowman-Mengel's colleague, Ramon Jacobson, 39. He and his wife bought a three-bedroom rowhouse in the Mount Pleasant area of the city in 2000 for $300,000. Recently, a single-family house across the street was divided into seven condos, and a small basement studio there is priced at amount Jacobson paid for an entire house on the same street.
"When we bought, all our friends said, 'You're near the liquor store, the homeless shelter, the bus. It's just too much money,' " Jacobson said. "I guess we gambled right."
Stewart Ellis, 31, and Harry Yeung, 29, work in identical side-by-side offices at a software firm in Reston.
Yeung, who emigrated from Hong Kong with his parents when he was 16, bought a modest townhouse in Sterling in 2000 for $230,000, when he was first hired at the Northern Virginia computer firm. He rented out rooms to help with the mortgage payments. Recently a similar townhouse sold for $435,000. Assuming a 20 percent down payment and a 30-year 5.63 percent mortgage (this week's average rate), five years of price appreciation mean payments of $2,004 a month versus $1,059.
"I feel incredibly lucky," Yeung said. "But it's not something you could have foreseen five years ago."
Ellis moved here from Louisiana in 1998 and has rented since then, most of the time in a townhouse development in Springfield.
"I saw people next door to me buying, and then selling and making a nice profit," Ellis said. "The whole time I just sat there watching." Ellis said the main reason he never bought was because he always thought he would be going back to Louisiana.
"The irony is that if I had bought, I could have moved back there sooner, and with a sizable nest egg," he said. "If I had just bit the bullet, I'd have so much equity built up by now, I wouldn't have to wait on any -- maybe -- financial rewards from the job."
In other situations co-workers who are both homeowners live with disparity of a different sort.
When Kathy Hendrickson and her husband moved to the Washington area a year ago from Connecticut, they wanted to buy. Apartment living was not their style. Hendrickson's co-worker, Meagan Jeronimo, 26, persuaded her to check out parts of Anacostia and the Hillcrest neighborhood in Southeast Washington, one of the few relatively affordable, close-in areas left in which to buy a home. Jeronimo and her husband had bought a three-story, four-bedroom rowhouse for $135,000 in Anacostia two years ago.
It took some persuading to even get their real estate agent to show them homes in the area, but it seemed a logical choice. "It's a nice area. We like little more space, which is a premium in those shoebox apartments you get," said Hendrickson, 22, a legal secretary in the District.
They found a small, single-family house with a large yard, listed at $365,000. And they were willing to take risks that someone who got in earlier might not have taken, including allowing their bid to automatically increase and taking an interest-only loan. "We waived everything, including the inspection," Hendrickson said.
Their offer of $375,000, $10,000 more than asking price, beat out three other bidders. She knows they are paying more than what Jeronimo and her husband paid two years ago and far more than neighbors who bought a decade ago. "Their payments are almost nothing," she said.
Meanwhile, the real estate market also is complicating workplace management.
Nancy Palazza, president of Alternative Employment Specialists in Herndon, has watched as her workers have struggled to find affordable housing. One employee, new to the area, is probably moving to West Virginia because of housing costs. Another moved to Round Hill from Ashburn, which will add 40 minutes to her commute. Another commutes from Woodbridge.
As a result, Palazza and her employees sat down to talk about flexible schedules or telecommuting. "I can be flexible to a point because we do a lot of work via e-mail," Palazza said. "But I still have to have a core of people here during business hours. I'm trying to be as flexible as I can without compromising the flow of work."
Mike O'Malley, a manager in the intelligence community in Chantilly, said he is reluctant to tell his employees, especially the young ones, about the house he bought in Ashburn in 1997 for $215,000. His home recently was appraised for $570,000.
"We're getting kids who come in and ask how far should I live and what's a good commute. I'm happy to advise them, but I feel like I hit a lottery with the house," he said. He has some employees who are commuting from West Virginia to Chantilly.
When his employees ask where he lives, O'Malley admits it, but he makes sure to tell them "it was sheer luck and timing" that got him there.
"Buying now is just one huge struggle," said Sibley nurse Dressendorfer, who still hopes to do so. But she cannot find anything she likes at a price she can afford in a location she wants. "The prices are just out of control now," she said.