Smaller, Not Smellier – Our Search for Affordable Housing in Washington DC

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Something seemed off as soon as our potential new landlord cracked open the door to the basement apartment in Southeast DC. She seemed normal enough, but her pants were unbuttoned and an inch of bare belly showed under her business-casual blouse. One whiff inside the door and we knew she was hiding a dirty secret.

“Is that incense?” I asked, pointing to the smoldering stick on the windowsill.

“Smells good, hmm?” Hmm.

I looked around and noticed all the windows were cracked. Incense was burning everywhere. I began to investigate further.

“What’s that smell? Is that… pee?”

“No, no. Previous tenant had big dog. Would you like to fill out an application?”

I’m not sure if we were just tired of our apartment search or if it was that we hadn’t come across an apartment this cheap in DC before, but we ignored our common sense and reached for the form.

“Is that water on the floor?” I said as I looked up at an obviously damp ceiling.

“Oh, yeah, somebody must have spilled that there.”

I took a final sniff around the room and walked up to Josh who was filling out the form.

“Do you really want to pay $35.00 to apply for this place?” I said quietly in his ear.

He stuffed the application in his green shoulder bag and we were on our way.

It was really disappointing. Here we were, 3 weeks into our apartment search and we still didn’t have a new place to call home. Saving $4-500/month (including an increased Metro commute cost) on rent meant a sketchy landlord and the stench of canine. In addition to the crude odor, it also came along with a much longer commute. We were all the way out in Maryland! But even more interesting, the tiny “efficiency” studio apartments that we hoped to squeeze into to save a little money are more expensive than sharing a 2 bedroom apartment with 3 people.

We finally understood – DC is a completely different jungle.

The inspiration for our search came from people living in the tiny house mecca of the west coast – Portland, OR. If we simplified our worldly possessions, we were promised a smaller, more affordable place. But this is DC, a city with one of the highest income inequality levels in America. I’ve always known that, but I didn’t expect it to affect me. I already pay so much in rent, saving a couple bucks surely doesn’t mean I have to live in the smelly apartment miles from work. Does it?

Just yesterday, I came across this DC metro map that really puts things into perspective. The map shows the median income according to DC Metro stations. I currently live on the Orange line near the Court House stop, with the median income of $113,000. To drop our current rent from $1900 for a two bedroom (we are currently sharing the apartment with my brother) to $700-800.00 for an efficiency, we ended up in Maryland – which makes sense, given that the median income in Maryland is $52,000.

According to the Green Party of Arlington, “Since 2000 Arlington has lost more than two-thirds of apartments affordable to people earning $60,000 or less.” No wonder I can no longer live in the hub of my glitzy town. And it wasn’t surprising to watch our old landlord hike up the rent once we turned over the keys. Where do you live? Do houses and apartments continue to get pricier and pricier?

What bothers me most is not the little frustration I’ve had with my apartment search – believe me, I’m grateful. But looking at this map and searching for an affordable apartment made me realize how drastic income gaps are in this city and how we divvy up the “prime” spots for those with the most money, pushing those who make more modest livings far, far away. I couldn’t imagine how tough it must be for people who make minimum wage or less, especially since it hasn’t been raised in 21 years!

When All Hope Was Lost

Just when the dream of an affordable little place seemed completely impossible, we finally found something. It’s not perfect – it’s a 2 bedroom, not that tiny space we dreamed of. And to be honest I think it might be bigger than our old apartment! But it is cheaper – Josh and I will be saving around $350 a month!

We are no longer within walking distance from the metro and I won’t enjoy a casual 15 minute walking commute to work, but its still near lots of transportation options – 2 bus lines or a 40 minute walk to work – 18 by bike (we’re shopping for bikes very soon – yay!!!). It’s also in a very cool neighborhood – we’re just a few minutes from the Arlington Cinema & Drafthouse, one of our favorite local spots.

This weekend we’ll be moving to our new home and we’re very excited. I’m glad that I was able to find a more affordable place, but I’m not finished discussing affordable housing. This is only the first of many steps.

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