The claim that Washington, D.C., is the most expensive city in America is suddenly everywhere online, including this viral article from The Washington Post that's all over Facebook. Others are rightly pointing out that New York, San Francisco, and Honolulu have been named the most expensive places to live in basically every other meaningful study.
There are two facts here.
- First, it's a fact that Washington D.C., is not more expensive to live in than New York.
- Second, it's a fact that residents of Washington, D.C., spend more on housing, on average.
The difference between these two facts is a story in how we can tell lies with true data.
The claim that D.C. is the most expensive place to live comes from a Bureau of Labor Statistics study that you can read here. A graph from this study shows the "average" resident of Washington, D.C., paid more for housing in 2012 than the "average" resident of any other metropolitan area.
The Average D.C. Resident Spends the Most on Housing
I'm putting the word "average" in massive, gargantuan scare quotes here. According to the government, the "average" D.C. resident spent $11,510 on what the BLS calls "owned dwellings" and $4,396 on what BLS calls "rented dwellings" in 2012.
In the real world, however, how many "average" people do you know who own a house and rent an apartment and spend thousands of dollars on each dwelling, every year? Unless the market for pieds-à-terre in the district exploded in the two years since I moved, I'm confident the answer is "exactly zero." This is an awkward "average" that includes both homeowners (of which D.C. has a lot) and renters (of which New York and San Francisco have a lot).
The government pays its employees more money in New York than D.C. Moving to New York as a government employee is sufficient cause for a roughly 4 percent wage increase. And other indexes seeking to gauge the cost-of-living also find New York more expensive. The 2014 Mercer Cost of Living Rankings said New York was the most expensive city in the U.S. and the 16th most expensive in the world. D.C. is the 92nd most expensive city in the world by their method.
The Most Expensive Place to Live in America
D.C. is expensive. And D.C. residents have every right to complain that it's too expensive. The city's development is hampered by a building-height law that is absurd and deserves national ridicule. But the BLS never said that D.C. was the most expensive American city to live in. If you find yourself making that argument, you are using true data to tell a false story.