Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that, according to a recent government study, the D.C. region was "the most expensive place to live in the country, ahead of the pricey markets of New York and San Francisco." I hate to be the guy complaining that somebody said something wrong on the Internet, but the study stated no such thing.
The Post article is based on a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics that looked at how much the average household spent on housing and related expenses in 19 U.S. metro areas—meaning cities and their surrounding suburbs. And indeed, Washington metro residents shelled out the most for their homes, their utilities, and things like furniture.
Here’s the problem. Looking at what the average household spends on housing doesn’t actually tell us whether a metro area is expensive. It just tells us what people spend, whether it’s because they can’t find more affordable options or because they’re well off and want to own an oversize home with a nice backyard. Washington, D.C., isn’t the cheapest city in which to rent an apartment. But the region has the highest median income among the top 25 largest metro areas. And if you’ve ever driven through its particularly affluent suburbs, you know they’re chock-full of McMansions that probably push up average spending on things like home furnishings and air conditioning bills. Washingtonians—and their suburban neighbors—spend a lot on housing in part because they can afford to.
There’s a slightly bigger point to make here. Even if Washington, D.C., did have the least affordable housing in the country, that wouldn’t necessarily make it the least affordable city. As I’ve written before, judging whether a city is relatively expensive means taking into consideration factors like transportation, since it’s much cheaper commuting every day on a bus or subway than it is to own a car. In cities with weak public schools, families have to worry about the cost of educating their children. Taxes change the equation, too. And so on. Any report that only looks at a few statistics about housing costs to declare which city is the least affordable would be misleading at best.