Where should we live in Washington, D.C., with two kids?
May 21, 2006 8:36 PM   Subscribe

Which Washington, D.C. neighborhood is right for my interracial, liberal, priced-out-of New York, two-child family?

My wife and I are about 30, and together make a good salary (about $200K/year), but between childcare for our two kids, NYC rent, student loans, paying down credit card debt from my law-school days, and the modest enjoyment of the Yuppie lifestyle (and believe me, we're more frugal than most of our friends), we're saving nothing. We're also facing the prospect of about $20,000 per year per child in private school tuition, though for now, our older kid is going to a public elementary school. Unlike most everyone we know who's bought a home in New York City, our parents are unable to help us with either a down payment or private school tuition, if we decide to go that way. Thus, at this point, homeownership and financial security seem like an unreachable dream as long as we stay in New York.

Our proposed solution: we move where housing costs are lower than in New York, where the public schools are better than in New York, but where the salaries are not much less than in New York. We're thinking about Washington D.C. This probably describes other cities, but for several reasons, we think D.C.'s the place.

My question: where do we move? Where in the D.C. area can we find good public schools, a good political and racial vibe, and decent housing (keep in mind we'd probably rent for a little while, save up some money, and then buy)?
posted by hhc5 to Work & Money (28 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Hmmm...DC is still really expensive (not NYC expensive, but much more expensive than a lot of major cities).

Have you considered the DC 'burbs at all? I lived in Arlington for about three and loved it. It's still pretty expensive, especially now w/ the recent redevelopment. The schools are great and you can't get much closer to DC w/o being *in* DC.
posted by awegz at 8:42 PM on May 21, 2006

Maybe try the Silver Spring / Tacoma Park area in MD.

There is a High School, Montgomery Blair with a magnet program for Math and Science, good access to public transport and it's a reasonably pretty place, well, maybe not downtown Silver Spring but the area has some pretty parts, walking up and down Sligo Creek can be nice.
posted by sien at 8:45 PM on May 21, 2006

Response by poster: We're totally ready to consider the DC burbs (I should have been more clear in my question). And from what we know of DC, Silver Spring/Takoma Pk. are at the top of our list.
posted by hhc5 at 8:51 PM on May 21, 2006

I'm totally biased, but...

Not in DC, but right next to two metro stations (East/West Falls Church are both within walking distance if you are in city limits) is my (two square mile) home town of Falls Church. The housing bubble in our city is collapsing right now, so it's a great time to buy (we have unheard of multiple houses on the market for more that a week, a few days was unusual in the past). Ridiculously liberal (less than 5% for Bush last election). Lots of enviromentalism: Organic Farmer's market, zealous recycling program, Neighborhood Tree Program, etc.
All of the schools, but particularly the highschool are considered of national calibre. The highschool is consistently in the Top 25 of the Newsweek challenge index. The school is on the IB program, and also offers a few AP classes in mathematics. It's a very, very, small school district (130 or so in my graduating class this year). I'd say it's fantastic for the liberal arts and humanities, and very good for maths and science. Your children can elect to go to Thomas Jefferson Magnet if they are looking for a more science/math (and extremely competitive, type-A personality) environment.

Falls Church sounds like a good fit for you. I love the city, and while highschool can suck, I can't say I would have rather gone anywhere else than GMHS.

If you're child is interested in athletics, it's a single-A (smallest sized athletic division) school, so sports are very open to everyone.

The highschool also has a US FIRST Robotics team, which TJHS doesn't have and is a fantastic opportunity for highschool students interested in math/science/engineering.

I wouldn't reccomend Falls Church to everyone, but it sounds like a perfect fit for you. Most people who live here work in DC.
posted by phrontist at 8:57 PM on May 21, 2006

The schools are also very "international": lots of state department, military, and foreign diplomat kids. Practically everyone I know has lived or visited overseas and many are multilingual. Just off the top of my head people I knew spoke: Danish, Swedish, French, Spanish, Farsi, Arabic, Russian, Ukranian, Thai, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Welsh, Dutch (two other kids other than myself), Swahili, and other several African languages I'm embarassed not to remember.

We have a fairly big International Club that fosters a lot of this. In addition, there are student exchanges to France and Chile for French and Spanish students (the only languages offered in highschool, but students can study languages on their own towards IB credit if they desire, espescially if they are a native speaker).
posted by phrontist at 9:06 PM on May 21, 2006

Consider also that living in Virginia gives you in-state tuition to tons of excellent universities including UVA, Virginia Tech, and William and Mary.
posted by phrontist at 9:11 PM on May 21, 2006

This recent article in our student newspaper should convince you of our extreme liberal tendencies.
posted by phrontist at 9:13 PM on May 21, 2006

I second Arlington. It's a nice place, good schools, not as expensive but as close as you can get without being in the city itself.

Falls Church is a nice place too, as is Silver Springs/Tacoma Park. It really depends on if you want to be in the city or slightly out of it. I like Northern Virginia myself - it's close enough to the city to be a hop skip and a jump away, but yet doesn't have as many big city issues as DC itself.
posted by gemmy at 9:14 PM on May 21, 2006

A lot of these places are very similar on paper, you should definately visit them first.
posted by phrontist at 9:19 PM on May 21, 2006

I read your question and immediately thought Falls Church, too.
posted by gramcracker at 9:50 PM on May 21, 2006

My college roommate went to Thomas Jefferson (linked above), and so I met a number of people who went to TJ. They were all awesome. He lived in the Falls Church or Tyson's Corner area growing up, if I recall correctly.

He was half white, half Vietnamese, and didn't seem to have major issues about it.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:14 PM on May 21, 2006

The commute in from almost anywhere in Virginia is a nightmare, so take that into serious consideration--the same goes true for most of Montgomery County, as well. Even when you're relatively close to a metro station, it's not always easy.

Plus, if we're being totally honest here, most of Northern Virginia is only nominally racially integrated; much of it is very white and very wealthy. In practice, different classes don't mix much in NOVA.

If you're genuinely interested in looking for housing in a racially and socioeconomically diverse neighborhood, I'll recommend three places:

1. The Brookland neighborhood in NE DC, which is very diverse and still quite affordable. Ignore the fear-mongering about the eastern quadrants of DC and do some investigating--you'll find that some neighborhoods (Brookland included) are substantially safer places to live than many VA suburbs.

2. Mt. Rainier, MD, which is right across the DC/MD border. It is very racially diverse, very affordable, and has an active and cohesive community that has worked very hard to drive renewal in the area. It also has GLUT, one of the best food co-ops in the metro area.

3. Hyattsville, MD, which again is very ethnically diverse. Housing in Hyattsville has gotten more expensive recently, but again, it still represents a bargain. People talk about it as the next Takoma Park.

Then of couse, there's Takoma Park, which is great, but it has gotten to be very pricey recently.

Personally, if I had a good chunk of change to invest in a house, I'd buy in any of these places and focus on sending my kids to one of the many local charter schools. All the places I've mentioned have lots and lots of very politically active parents, so even if you choose to have your kids remain in public school, you'll find you have ample opportunities for you to stay involved.

E-mail me if you want to chat more.
posted by yellowcandy at 12:06 AM on May 22, 2006

My wife and I just moved to the DC area, downtown Silver Spring, in fact, and we love it. It is not NYC, but nothing is. The traffic isn't quote so bad, the people are more friendly (in general), and the public transportation is clean and more convenient. We bought a condo here because NYC-area was just too expensive and simply not worth it. Unless I am opulent, the thought of buying in NYC or any of the boroughs, or paying the insane real estate taxes of NJ, I am miffed why people stay there, financially.

Anyway, downtown Silver Spring rocks! It's full of growth and it has yet to reach it's potential. Definately come down, check out the areas, and pick what is best for you. Silver Spring (perhaps not downtown), Rockville, Arlington, Alexandria, Falls Church (perhaps), suburbs of the District, there is something here for everyone.

Financially, there is no doubt it was the best move for us. And it's a big city with lots of culture and plenty of things to do, you can't go wrong. Email if I can help.

-Silver Spring!
posted by seinfeld at 4:48 AM on May 22, 2006

DC public schools are notorious. In my (Montgomery County public) elementary school, there were two brothers from DC who used fake addresses to enroll. Halfway through the year they were caught and kicked. In high school, a guy who lived in DC whose parents paid a fee so that he could attend legally.

Anyway, I grew up in Silver Spring and am a product of MCPS so I'm biased. Come to Montgomery County! We have 5 high schools in Newsweek's Top 100. (Richard Montgomery, Wootton, Walter Johnson, Churchill and my high school, Bethesda-Chevy Chase)
posted by puffin at 5:00 AM on May 22, 2006

Falls Church City, Arlington County, or Silver Spring/Takoma Park, in that order.

If you move into the District proper, you'll find yourselves springing for private or parochial school beyond about the 6th grade, at the latest. Furthermore, property taxes are simply insanely high in DC.

A lot of people are rapidly getting priced out of the DC housing market (all of the Falls Church residents on a recent WAMU town hall meeting couldn't afford their homes now), so I'm guessing that in reality you'll find the latter two the most affordable (if you can buy in South Arlington).
posted by wildeepdotorg at 5:24 AM on May 22, 2006

Just to clarify:

Your children can elect to go to Thomas Jefferson Magnet if they are looking for a more science/math (and extremely competitive, type-A personality) environment.

This is not true. Your children can elect to apply to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. They'll have to submit grades, an essay and teacher recommendations, and they'll also have to take a standardized multiple choice test with essay component. They've got a less than 20 percent choice of getting in.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 6:47 AM on May 22, 2006

My experience is that neither NOVA (traffic hell) nor Tacoma (where there is a real track that is not crossed by the ex-hippie yuppie sell-outs) are not racially diverse. I also think that they would be soul sucking burbs for someone coming from NYC. I'd suggest Mt. Pleasant or Columbia Heights. Silver Spring is OK too.
posted by batboy at 7:29 AM on May 22, 2006

I love living in DC, but it's probably not a great choice if you're looking to send your kids to public school. The most liberal, non-classist folks I know send their kids to private schools here. I'll second the Falls Church/Takoma Park recommendations.

My wife and I are different races, and I'll say we've never experienced much, if any, issues anywhere in the DC metro area. The Northern Virgina (NOVA) suburbs are just fine, especially the "inner suburbs" of Falls Church and environs. When I was married before, we chose Falls Church, and my daughter is still there. You'll find good schools and lots of mixed-race families there. The best ethnic restaurants and markets are in that area, as well.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:48 AM on May 22, 2006

I'm in DC as well, and while I think it's a great place I will admit to chuckling to myself over the idea of someone moving here to escape an area where home ownership seems financially unreachable. It may be better than where you are but you may find yourself moving from the frying pan to the broiler.

If you're living in NYC I suspect you'll not be thrilled with any of the far suburbs or even areas like Falls Church. Crystal City-ish might be close enough in for you but I suspect you'd be happier with Rosslyn/Ballston/Courthouse. In the city itself I am fond of Mt Pleasant but as others have said, DC's public school system is no great shakes.
posted by phearlez at 8:21 AM on May 22, 2006

If you have some time to explore the MD area, I'd recommend driving along East-West highway (route 410) as it goes through several of the MD neighborhoods mentioned. Starting in the East, where 410 intersects with 295 (the Balt-Wash parkway), you'll pass through:

- Riverdale
- Hyattsville if you turn south on Route 1
- University Park if you turn north on Route 1
- Takoma Park
- Silver Spring
- 16th Street if you turn south off 410
- Chevy Chase
- Bethesda

The housing prices tend to go way up as you head West along 410, but there are still some reasonably affordable homes (especially if you look a little north of 410, more towards the Beltway).

For future reference, DC residents can take advantage of the Tuition Assistance Grant that allows your kids to attend any public college/university at in-state tuition costs.
posted by hoppytoad at 8:40 AM on May 22, 2006

Regarding Arlington racial demographics, it's 19% Hispanic, 9% black, 9% Asian, 4.3% multiracial, and most of the rest is white.

Supposedly the condo market is getting absolutely hammered in this area, so condos may be a real bargain now.

The Fairfax County and Arlington County school systems are nationally renowned, whereas DC's is an ongoing mess.

Traffic can be a real bear and should be a high priority when evaluating options. The subway (Metro) is generally excellent, but onlyconnect still drives into the city from our Arlington home. I think it takes her half an hour in rush hour to get to her office deep in the District.
posted by NortonDC at 9:14 AM on May 22, 2006

Absolutely, DC public schools have suffered in the past few decades--I taught in a Teach For America school in a very poor part of DC, so I've had the full-immersion experience. But at the same time, there are some really excellent charter schools in the District, and even more importantly, the only way that the system will change is when parents and more affluent families invest their time and money in making them better. The families that value racial and socioeconomic diversity are the very ones that are driving substantial gains right now, and the reason I mentioned charter schools is that it strikes me that hhc5's family seems to fit this description well.

As for NOVA's school system: it's great that white flight out of DC has benefited someone, at least.
posted by yellowcandy at 12:23 PM on May 22, 2006

Arlington, Old Towne Alexandria (which is super beautiful and yuppified), Falls Church - I know zero about Maryland. And nobody double-takes on interracial couples here because it's really just so common. They also have a varied demographic from what I see when I'm out and about.

However, if you'd be willing to send your schools to public school - Fairfax has some of the best schools in the country.
posted by heartquake at 12:42 PM on May 22, 2006

Consider Wheaton, MD (part of Silver Spring). It's very diverse with lots of ethnic restaurants and Metro close for easy access downtown. And "relatively" cheap.

Downtown Silver Spring, Takoma Park, and Wheaton are within a few miles of each other.

BTW, I know a good real estate person who's familiar with the Silver Spring/Takoma Park area if you're interested.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 1:45 PM on May 22, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for all the good answers. My wife and I really like Takoma Pk/Silver Spring, but really hadn't considered Falls Church or Arlington.
posted by hhc5 at 3:06 PM on May 22, 2006

if we're being totally honest here, most of Northern Virginia is only nominally racially integrated; much of it is very white and very wealthy. In practice, different classes don't mix much in NOVA.

Agreed. (I'm pretty sure Fairfax County is the wealthiest county in the nation by certain measures.)

You won't draw stares as an interracial couple here, but if you're looking for positive cross-cultural experiences (rather than simply seeking to avoid negative ones) then Northern Virginia has very little to offer. We live in Fairfax County outside of Alexandria and are looking to move, either within or outside of the area, for this reason.

Note that Herndon (in Fairfax County) is at the center of the national immigration debate, having recently voted out a city council which built a center for (presumably largely undocumented) Latino day-workers.
posted by sudama at 8:02 AM on May 23, 2006

It's very white around here.
posted by phrontist at 6:00 PM on May 23, 2006

You won't draw stares as an interracial couple here, but if you're looking for positive cross-cultural experiences (rather than simply seeking to avoid negative ones) then Northern Virginia has very little to offer.

This is nonsense. The best ethnic restaurants in the DC area are in Northern Virginia. Little Saigon and the Eden Center is in Northern Virginia. The Indian community mostly lives in Northern Virginia. There are huge swaths of Spanish-speakers in Northern Virginia.

Arlington is racially-integrated, has relatively good public schools, is closer to downtown DC than many of the reasonably safe neighborhoods in DC, and has less crime, lower taxes, cheaper real estate, and taller and newer buildings than DC. Plus the local government services are reasonably responsive. I'm in a beautiful building across the street from a Metro stop, and am in walking distance of three supermarkets, Peruvian, Pakistani, Indian, Thai, Japanese, Mexican, Italian, Spanish, and countless chain restaurants. Not to mention Five Guys. With no commuter tax, there's just no reason to live in downtown DC when Arlington is around.
posted by commander_cool at 12:38 PM on August 23, 2006

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