Every week the D.C. region gets named the best this or the worst that on some kind of superlative list. It has been called the “coolest” city for its restaurants and bars. It has also often been cited as having the worst traffic — and drivers.
One study called it one of the 10 “drunkest cities,” and another ranked it as one of the snootiest places in the United States. And for four years in a row, it has ranked as the most literate city in the country.
Now the latest: It is more expensive to live in Washington than in New York or San Francisco, according to a new government study. That determination has some Washingtonians scratching their heads and others openly questioning whether someone might have a screw loose.
“These things come out all the time,” said Richard Bradley, executive director of the Downtown Business Improvement District, an association that promotes the city. “They’re generally helpful, but often they’re annoying.”
After all, it was just last week that a different study called the District one of the most affordable places for low-income families among major U.S. cities.
But more expensive than New York?
“It just seems like New York City has so much going for it,” said Pablo Arnaud, 70, who moved to Bethesda 40 years ago to work as a computer programmer after serving in the Marines. “If I was coming out of the service now, I would probably move about three states away.”
The most recent study was done by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which based its findings on data collected during the past two years in the U.S. Consumer Expenditure Survey. That survey looks at cities with populations of over 1 million.
About 1,000 interviews were conducted in the Washington region and about 4,000 in the New York area. People were asked about their incomes and how much they spend on housing and other related costs. The responses were averaged to come up with the results.
The study found that consumers in the D.C. region reported an average household income of $116,000, compared with New York’s $81,000. And Washingtonians spend more on housing.
In the D.C. region, the study found that households spend an average of $28,416 annually on housing, compared with the national average of $17,030. New Yorkers spend $24,187, and San Franciscans spend $25,366.
Critics called the data skewed in part because it has broad definitions for the top two regions. BLS data defined New York as an area running from Manhattan to the Connecticut and New Jersey suburbs. It defined the Washington region as going from the District to Washington and Frederick counties and down to Rappahannock and Stafford counties in Virginia.
Those factors, other economists and researchers said, means the BLS study included people who live and work outside of costly New York City and don’t make the high-dollar salaries typically associated with the Big Apple.
Steve Henderson, the economist at the BLS who helped produce and analyze the data behind the report, agreed that the different demographics produced different spending numbers.
“There are a lot of highly educated people in the D.C. area, so that means they have more good-paying jobs and they have more money and they can afford to spend more on their homes,” he said.
Some local residents said they weren’t that surprised by the findings, given how housing prices have skyrocketed.
“Everything is just constantly going up. Everything,” said Virginia Newton, 62, who has lived in Capitol Heights, Md., for 30 years and said she makes less than $40,000 a year as an employee with a tour-bus company.
“Just in the cost of food you see it,” she said. “You can easily spend $100 a day just on food here.”
Newton said she decides daily whether to take the subway or her car to work. Parking costs her $13 a day, plus the cost of gas when she takes her car.
“It is a struggle,” she said. “This cost of living is going up and up, and raises aren’t as frequent.”
Bradley, with the Downtown Business Improvement District, said sometimes reality varies from the statistics. For example, luxury condos in the District are going for $1,000 per square foot, compared with $5,000 to $6,000 in New York City.
He said his 26-year-old son works for a nonprofit group in New York. He pays $3,000 a month for a 500-square-foot apartment in Brooklyn he shares with a roommate. It sits above a chicken-and-waffles restaurant.
“We’re nowhere near any of those numbers in D.C.,” Bradley said.
Julie Zauzmer and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.