Georgetown has garnered a reputation few others neighborhoods possess. It’s in the nation’s capital, was the setting for the 1973 horror classic The Exorcist and has been home to notable residents like president John F. Kennedy and former Secretary of State and current Georgetown professor Madeleine Albright. It also boasts the distinction of being one of the oldest historic districts in the United States, a feature that has made housing prices skyrocket and has ensured that the colonial theme of the houses has been preserved throughout the years.
This is partially because in 1967, the area was designated National Historic Landmark by the federal government, a designation that was given, in part, to protect the colonial homes the neighborhood. According to Citizens’ Association of Georgetown President Jennifer Altemus(CAS ’88), this means that, amongst other things, it’s difficult to get approval for changes to the exterior of buildings.
“Things look similar to the way they did in 1880,” she said.
Multiple groups are involved in ensuring that Georgetown preserves its classic charm: a Congressional law created the Old Georgetown Board, which has enacted strict rules about how homes can be changed and developed in order to guarantee that its historic ambience is maintained.
The tree-lined, cobblestone streets, which feature townhouses built in 17th-century style, a condition outlined by the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, have appealed to many homebuyers.
“People value the housing stock that comes with the architecture,” said Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner and Georgetown resident Tom Birch. “But they also value the history that has moved through Georgetown.”
The significance of being a historical district is reflected in property prices that average over two million dollars; New townhouses on Prospect Street begin at $3,495,000. Although the active number of houses up for sale has decreased in the past year, the average price of each home has spiked upward sharply, showing the continued desirability of the neighborhood.
Surprisingly, even the recent economic depression had little impact on the neighborhood. Although there was a small dip in 2008, housing prices have accelerated rapidly over the past two years according to Burleith Citizens Association President Chris Clements. The market is stabilizing, although an upward swing can still be observed.
However, buying the property is not the final expenditure for residents: property taxes have been increasing, and with them so have the number of disgruntled Georgetown dwellers.
“Property rates are based on the full value of the property, which is unique to D.C.,” explained ANC Commissioner Ron Lewis. “So when the market goes up, the property taxes go up as well.”
Nevertheless, taxes in D.C. are relatively low compared to other northeastern states. According to commissioner Bill Starrels, a tax cap has recently been instated mandating that properties cannot be taxed at a rate more than 10 percent higher than they were the year before.
In nearby Burleith, residents face similar issues with increasing property prices. Developed in the1930s, Burleith is not part of the historic district and thus does not face the same stringent modification restrictions as Georgetown. Even so, costs remain high.
For residents of both Burleith and Georgetown, the neighborhoods’ appeal is more than monetary.
“I think Georgetown is so desirable because it is a village in the middle of the city,” Altemus said. “It has a small-town yet cosmopolitan feel. It is safe, fun and beautiful.”
Due to the neighborhood’s relatively small size, the “city within a city” often allows residents to forgo the use of a car to travel between their job, home and entertainment.
“You can leave your car for an entire week,” said Starrels. “If you live in Georgetown, you’re lucky enough to work, play and sleep all in one neighborhood.”
“[Burleith’s] walkability makes it desirable. You can walk anywhere, and there’s plenty of green space,” he said of Burleith.
Despite complaints about the costs of owning or renting a property in the area and the occasional rowdy group of university students roaming Prospect Street, Birch believes that one of the most appealing factors of Georgetown is that it becomes more than just a neighborhood to the residents.
“The community is very cohesive,” Birch said. “Neighbors spend time together and are invested in making sure things are taken care of. They care about what is happening.”
To continue to comply with historic District laws, houses are being fixed up and made larger in order to improve the general appearance of the neighborhood. The Citizens’ Association actively works with committees to work on beautification projects and community-building activities, such as Concerts in the Parks and the Business Improvement District’s Fashion Night Out.
“It has beautiful houses and charm,” Lewis said. “It’s a wonderful place to live.”