Monday, February 4, 2013

Where to live and how much it will cost you

The Washington Post had an interesting headline today about the ridiculously long waits veterans in Maryland are facing when they try to file disability claims.  Apparently the average wait is over a year....429 days, which is also 162 days longer than the national average.  Also, their accuracy sucks.  Yikes.

The reasons for the issues were plentiful: large numbers of applicants, influxes they couldn't handle, pilot programs they weren't ready for, good management being poached by the (close by) national office, and high staff turnover.  In the midst of it all though, I was interested to see this excuse get thrown out there:
“The ability to attract talented candidates was challenging due to the high cost of living in the Baltimore commuting area,” VA said in a statement.
Now maybe it's just because I've lived in Boston for so long, but I thought it was a little strange to see someone in Baltimore complain about a high cost of living.  I was pretty sure this was just normal bureaucratic excuse making, but I decided to take a look around the internet and see if I couldn't figure out if there was some legitimacy to it.

It turns out there are a lot of different ways to measure how pricey a city is.

Kiplinger's seemed pretty comprehensive...they factor in housing, transportation, groceries, health care and "miscellaneous".   They rank Boston as #8, Baltimore doesn't make the top 10.

CNN money provides a cost of living calculator that claims that if you made $100k in Boston, you'd only need to make $86,774 in Baltimore to keep your standard of living.  They even give you a break down of which categories make the biggest difference (health care and utilities are much less in Baltimore compared to Boston, groceries and transportation slightly less, and housing equal).

It appears that what you count as a city makes a big difference too....for example the Council for Community and Economic Research split up New York City, and thus has Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens as 3 of the top 10 most expensive cities.

This list struck me as a little odd, until I realized they played an interesting semantics game....this isn't "most expensive" it's "least affordable".  The report it linked to clarified that they counted housing and transportation costs, and then compared them to median incomes in the area.  Cities that had high costs but also high incomes were not included...they were targeting cities with low incomes but high costs.  That puts Boston and Baltimore as almost identical.

Overall, I thought the different ways of counting were pretty interesting.  I'm still not buying that Baltimore's facing any particularly unique challenge of cost, but more likely that those interested in living in the area and working for the government would rather go a few miles down the road to DC.  Also, I've been to Baltimore, and I got a little curious what would happen if you priced out the good areas of Baltimore.  Once you get outside the inner harbor and a few other areas, things go downhill in a hurry, so I wouldn't be surprised if the average costs were a bit skewed.

Ah well, at least they have the Lombardi trophy for the year.  You know, once they found it.


  1. Hi BS King,

    It's been a while since I have commented (hello and I hope you are doing well). There is one other factor regarding the Federal pay scale that probably comes into play here.

    I worked at the Census Bureau from 1990-1996. While I was there the federal government started paying extra to employees that worked in "high cost" cities. Of course the bulk of federal employees work in the Washington, D.C. area, which is a high cost area, which would mean a lot of extra payroll expense. What ended out happening was that Washington, D.C. and Baltimore were rolled up into one area (the cities are less than 50 miles apart) and all of the sudden we were no longer working in a high cost area.

    I remember this because some of my co-workers were really miffed about this at the time.


  2. Hi Glenn! Good to (figuratively speaking) see you!

    I was unaware of that part of the pay scale....very interesting.

    Still, it feels it wouldn't play in to attracting people to Baltimore, because presumably they would have gotten the good end of this deal, correct?

    I know a lot of the hospitals in Boston have struggled with attracting talent given the home prices. At the height of the market there were apocryphal stories about HR departments giving specific instructions to people not to mention home prices to prospective employees. Ah, city living.

  3. Fun fact! Our VA claim will have its second birthday next month. Luckily our livelihood is not dependent on this.

  4. Hi BS King,

    I got distracted so it has taken me a couple days to get back to you. You are correct that Federal employees in Baltimore should have gotten the better end of the deal. The newspaper's statement about home prices both does and does not make sense to me.

    It doesn't make sense because Baltimore was cheaper than Washington, DC. Also, when I was out there, much of Baltimore seemed to be struggling and appeared to be in decline. That usually doesn't help home prices.

    On the other hand all real estate in Maryland was relatively expensive. A good friend of mine at the time moved from Census (Dept. of Commerce) to the Department of Treasury so he was working in downtown DC. He seriously thought about moving to West Virginia and taking Amtrak into work every day. Just stepping over the state line chopped 30% off the price of a home. We never did figure out what drove that difference in home prices.