Recently, the Washington Post ran a story in its weekly real estate section with the following headline:
“Looking to buy a home for $200,000? Here’s what you can expect to find.”
Among the offerings: a 550-square-foot efficiency in Southwest D.C. (with a co-op fee of $819 a month), an 896-square-foot, two-bedroom duplex in drab Landover, Md., and a 451-square-foot studio (with a Murphy bed!) in Alexandria, Va.
So, I scurried over to my Realtor.com app and undertook the same exercise for this area.
Last month, for around $200,000, I could buy a fully renovated three-bedroom, three-bath, 2,100-square foot Victorian-era townhouse with river views in Harrisburg; a four-bedroom stone stunner (another Victorian) a few blocks east of downtown Lancaster; or a gorgeous 2,100-square-foot, three-bedroom Queen Anne near Dickinson College in Carlisle.
Suddenly, I felt like a rich man.
Yes, I love D.C., lived there for many years. But, at this point in my life, I really don’t want to live in a place where, with a little stretch, I can touch my bed, my kitchen table and my bathroom sink all at the same time.
Now, one could argue that, fortunately, I don’t have to. I have a job here. So, I can be all smug in my spacious rowhouse down the street from the state Capitol.
Yeah, but the thing is—so could a lot of people. Plenty of workers in the D.C. area telecommute, and some could swap their government, professional or services jobs for similar ones here. They may earn less on average, but probably not that much less.
Let’s look at some numbers.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2017, the Harrisburg/York/Lebanon CSA (combined statistical area) had a median housing unit value of $184,100 and median household income of $63,296—a differential of less than 3x.
In contrast, the Washington/Baltimore/Arlington CSA had a median housing value of $363,100 and a median household income of $89,181—a differential of greater than 4x.
But even these numbers understate the difference between the two areas.
The sprawling DC/Baltimore/Arlington CSA reaches far outside the core metro area to include portions of West Virginia, western Maryland and, for some reason, Franklin County, Pa.—much lower-priced areas that drag down the median housing value.
In fact, inclusion in the same CSA may be the only thing that Chambersburg and Chevy Chase have in common.
What I’m saying is this: I see a misalignment of the market—the market for people.
Just down the road from here, there’s the D.C./Baltimore metroplex, which is a fantastic place. But it’s incredibly congested and wildly expensive.
But not far away, on the other side of the Mason-Dixon line, the lower Susquehanna Valley is neither congested nor expensive. It doesn’t have a big city, but it has several charming small cities, lots of countryside, scenic mountains and even some nice suburbs, if that’s your thing.
So, why aren’t more people here?
My inkling is that folks simply don’t know about this area—it’s not on their radar. It sure wasn’t on mine. I lived in the mid-Atlantic my entire life and, before I moved here, I couldn’t have told you the difference between Harrisburg, Harrisonburg and Hattiesburg.
I’m not certain who’s to blame for this information gap, but I’ve often thought that the six or seven counties of the lower Susquehanna should combine forces to brand the area—let the world know that it exists and that it offers a high quality of life.
A friend of mine—a big baseball fan—recently drove up from the D.C. suburbs to take in a game on City Island. While watching the Harrisburg Senators play, he told me that he was making plans to retire from his long-held job with a U.S. government contractor. In retirement, he didn’t want to stay in crowded, sprawl-y northern Virginia.
So, he was looking for a cute, walkable college town, somewhere in the mid-Atlantic, with good craft beer, affordable housing and easy access to the outdoors. He was considering Charlottesville, Va.
“No,” I blurted out. “You want to live in Carlisle.”
“Where’s that?” he asked.
I told him. So, on his way back home, he took a detour off I-81, walked around the historic town and fell in love.
Alternatively, I suppose, he could retire in the gentrifying D.C. neighborhood known as Hill East, which is also a nice place. There, a new, white-walled condo building just went up. Prices start at $679,000 for a one-bedroom unit and go to $2.9 million for two bedrooms (condo fees, $626 to $1,500 monthly).
It’s located right over a busy hardware store.
Lawrance Binda is editor-in-chief of TheBurg.