It seems strange, in this never-ending bull market, to think that there are homeowners in DC who are taking a beating, but, well, there are. Not to pick on anyone, but according to the latest data from the excellent District Measured site, there are neighborhoods where prices still haven’t recovered from the downturn. While homeowners in Trinidad and LeDroit are popping champagne bottles monthly to celebrate their escalating (paper) wealth, if you live in Hillcrest (still down 37%) or Spring Valley (still down 19%), your last decade of homeownership has pretty much been an endless loop of Carrie on prom night – a never-ending bloodbath.
Some of these lagging neighborhoods – Kalorama and Observatory Circle, for example – are probably victims of especially steep pre-crash appreciation; those prices were so inflated that they’re never coming back. A lot of the other neighborhoods bringing up the rear – Deanwood, Congress Heights, Barry Farms – fall in line with the overall trend of neighborhoods east of the Anacostia being undervalued – though perhaps not for long. But there are some interesting outliers. Hawthorne, for example, is technically part of Chevy Chase, and while the median price of homes there is almost double the median price for the rest of DC, it’s certainly no Observatory Circle or Kalorama – it’s a modest, diverse neighborhood of families and retirees. It’s right on Rock Creek Park, and by almost any standard, it’s a “nice” and therefore desirable neighborhood – the Washington Post’s neighborhood profile of Hawthorne described it as a “paradise” and “an enclave of trees and safety.” It’s the kind of neighborhood your parents want you to live in. So why have home prices there languished?
Hawthorne last made the news in 2009, when residents came out against then-Mayor Fenty’s campaign to put sidewalks in. Walkability is a strange thing to protest, and brings to mind the probably apocryphal (but totally believable) anecdote about how Georgetown low-key worked to keep a Metro station out of their neighborhood in an effort to keep out “undesirables.” A Washington Post story from the period about the “Hawthorne Sidewalk Wars” quotes a Hawthorne resident and retired teacher as saying, “I moved into this neighborhood because it was suburbia inside the city, and I like the neighborhood the way it is.” This was a revealing, and accurate, quote. While Hawthorne is very much inside the city, it does have a decidedly suburban feel – the houses are mostly detached, sit on large lots, there are few sidewalks, everyone drives, and there’s extremely limited access to mass transit. (The city eventually caved and let Hawthorne residents decide, block-by-block, if they wanted sidewalks or not.)
In the decade since the crash, village-style development has become all the rage, and one of its cardinal virtues is, of course, walkability. The neighborhoods where home prices have appreciated the most – LeDroit Park, Shaw, Columbia Heights – are all close-in, dense, and walkable, generally oriented around strips of shops and bars, and highly accessible by various modes of transit. In other words, the opposite of the qualities that Hawthorne embodies. Not only that, but while home values in Hawthorne now stand at a relatively swallowable 10% below pre-crash prices, adjusted for inflation, prices in most actual suburbs haven’t come anywhere even close to pre-crash levels. This means that for the price of a Hawthorne rambler, you can get a legit mansion (okay, a McMansion) outside the Beltway. If you want a suburban vibe, there’s never been a better time to move to the actual suburbs. This has left neighborhoods like Hawthorne – suburban-ish, but with all the tax disadvantages and relatively high prices of a District zip code – in a peculiarly undesirable gray area. Prices there will probably flatline for a long time, at least until the generation after Millennials brings back the suburban aesthetic.
The implications for other once-coveted, but far out, inaccessible, and un-intimate neighborhoods, are clear, and worrisome if your name is on a mortgage in, say, Riggs Park or Colonial Village. (Two other “nice” neighborhoods where home prices never recovered.) Whole swaths of the city have been marooned by a sea change in the definition of what makes a neighborhood desirable, and we’re just starting to see those effects. Whether you think village-style development is a fad or a paradigm shift, it’s clear that its dampening effect on property values in un-village-y neighborhoods is strong enough to defy even 2015’s heated market. That’s either incredibly disheartening or incredibly encouraging, depending on whether you side with the “War on Cars” or the “War on Sidewalks.”