Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Houses No One Can Live In

It was a decent outing, as my wife and I and our boys sat down for a pleasant dinner with another couple and their boys, folks we've known since the pups were small.

We dined and chatted in a restaurant ensconced in a sparkly new insta-city, one of the many quick-build high-density developments that have sprung up in recent years around DC's public transit hubs.  It was still mostly empty, but the colorful architecture was clearly primed to be filled with the Ikea furniture of young, childless Booz Allen Hamilton employees.

After the dinner, we walked, all of us, over to another new entertainment complex, shiny and sparkly new and occupying the space that once held a multiplex theater.  They'd torn down a drive-in to build the multiplex, and then torn down the multiplex to build an entertainment district.  There, a new townhouse development was springing up just outside of the complex.  Though the townhomes were modern and interestingly designed, they were still surrounded by old warehouses and storage lots.

A sign proudly announced that "construction sale" costs were in effect, with the town houses starting from "the low $600s."  "Where fashion meets flavor and comfort meets cool," purrs the developer website, pitching out pictures of sleek multiethnic couples who shop and then drink appletinis and then shop some more.

When I read financial and economy-oriented news, I see such things presented as a sign that the economy is getting better.  New housing starts up, we hear.  Home prices on the rebound, we hear.  Investors are sweeping in and snatching up homes to resell, we hear.

But let me suggest that townhouses bordering an industrial park starting at somewhere north of six hundred thousand dollars?  That is not actually good news.

Beyond the entry cost, which would require a downpayment a tick over six figures, you'd be looking at a monthly payment of a little over three thousand bucks.  Factor in utilities and maintenance costs, and you're looking at a monthly outlay of close to four thousand dollars for housing.   Well over forty thousand dollars a year, and likely closer to fifty thousand, for a three bedroom townhome.  Let's call it forty eight thousand, 'cause that's likely where it'd land.  If it's the cheapest model.  Most go for between $750-850,000.

If you're a cop in Fairfax County, and you're midway through the pay scale, that would be every single penny you make.  If you're a teacher in Fairfax County, with a Masters Degree and ten years of experience, that would consume 78% of your salary.  If you're a firefighter/EMT with ten years in?  Same deal.

If you're the assistant manager in one of the upscale retail stores that populate those new insta-cities?  Fuggeddaboutit.  Not even in the ballpark.

For all of the sparkly pictures and luxe pretensions of the developer, what's being created here are homes for imaginary people and the absurdly well-off.  What is not being built, not anywhere, are homes for the rest of us.