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Comparing Apples to the Big Apple: Yes, Washington, D.C., Is More Expensive Than New York City

Why shouldn't distant locales tied to jobs in the urban core count in a housing expenditure study?
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Washington, D.C.'s Union Station. (Photo: Jeffrey Zeldman/Flickr)

Washington, D.C.'s Union Station. (Photo: Jeffrey Zeldman/Flickr)

The Washington Post has some fun with a Bureau of Labor Statistics report ("Housing: Before, During, and After the Great Recession.") about housing expenditures in the United States. The initial headline, "It’s More Expensive to Live in D.C. Than New York, Study Says." Then comes the social media controversy, "D.C. Is More Expensive Than New York? Twitter Reacts." The Wall Street Journalweighs in:

On the banks of the Delaware River, in a valley between the Poconos Mountains and Kittatinny Mountains about 10 miles to the west of the Appalachian Trail, sits the town of Milford, Pa. Population: 1,021. ...

... This problem afflicts many statistics that are based on the expansive metropolitan area definitions, such as the government study that got all this started. That study showed the average household in the Washington metro area (which stretches from the Chesapeake Bay to the Shenandoah mountains) spends more on housing than the average household in the New York metro area. This report has been interpreted as meaning that the district is “the most expensive place to live in the country.”

But these stats probably do not address what most people mean when they ask, “Is D.C. more expensive than New York?”

New York’s metro area is technically known as the New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA Metropolitan Statistical Area. It stretches from Pike County, Pa., to as far north as Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and south almost to Atlantic City, N.J.

When most people talk about New York City, they generally mean New York City itself, and not Poughkeepsie and not Cornwall-on-Hudson, N.Y., and not Flemington, N.J.

As a geographer, I would be OK with the story of a slight of geographic perception explaining the disbelief. But the author puts intuition above social science. What we think is true trumps the analysis and the WSJ concludes, "But there’s almost no measure by which it makes sense to consider [D.C.] more expensive than New York City."

Focusing on just the egregious geographic error in the WSJ retort, the extent of the N.Y.C. metro is as good as the D.C. metro. West of the Appalachian Trail or not (might as well be Utah given the rhetoric), Milford, Pennsylvania. is economically connected to New York's urban core just as some Podunk town in Western Loudoun County is part of the D.C. metro area. What one might find is that the nether reaches of metro D.C. are more expensive than the likes of Milford.

Because Milford is significantly economically connected to what most people mean when they talk about New York City, it counts as in the metro. As I have learned, from the Wall Street Journal no less, a bunch of N.Y.C. workers live in cheap Scranton, Pennsylvania. Why shouldn't distant locales tied to jobs in the urban core count in a housing expenditure study? What about those train commuters residing in Wilmington, Delaware.? The federal government has to draw a line somewhere.

The Washington Post has the penultimate word:

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.

I see. The data are skewed because there are a lot of highly educated people in the D.C. metro area but not as many in the N.Y.C. metro area. Mystery solved.