As I have surely mentioned in the past, Foreign Service Officers receive housing as an employment benefit while serving overseas or while stateside for training. However, when actually serving in a domestic assignment, whether it’s a year, two years, or more, officers have to arrange and pay for their own housing. And a domestic assignment usually means a tour in Washington, DC – – one of the most expensive regions of the country. Many officers (and in particular single officers who have to manage on one salary) try and delay a domestic tour until they are well beyond entry-level pay for this reason, but it cannot always be helped.
It certainly isn’t unusual for employed adults to have rent or a mortgage as a life expense. When Foreign Service Officers complain we don’t get a housing stipend domestically like the military does to offset the lack of choice we have about where we are assigned, our colleagues on the Civil Service side of the Department probably roll their eyes. They don’t get one either. That’s what DC locality pay is for.
However, being in the Civil Service doesn’t equal the kind of financial disruption commonplace in the FS. Unless you are independently wealthy, it can be a financial shock to come up with $70K or more in rent for a tour when you are not used to housing expenses (or are using that extra money to make monster mortgage payments for a house you aren’t living in).
I was a civil servant in DC myself for almost eight years before joining the FS. I chose to live in this area. And from my experience there is a big difference between settling in this area permanently and bouncing repeatedly in and out of it, often at short notice and with all your effects months behind you, in storage, or showing up damaged.
If you’re “permanently” here, you aren’t taking constant losses in Permanent Change of Station (PCS) moves, getting surprised by evacuations and showing up in DC on your own dime until per diem kicks in, spending thousands of dollars shipping pets around, losing money buying/selling foreign cars, giving away opened things you can’t pack, and losing tons of time to administrative and logistical tasks associated with settling into a new place again.
And you probably aren’t replacing the same household items over and over that somehow become collateral damage even with property insurance, which you will have to pay for and spend your energy fighting over. There is a reason that old Foreign Service saying “Five PCS moves equals a fire” resonates. (Or is it three PCS moves??)
Not to mention if you’re here and have a working spouse, their career path, financial contributions to the family, and retirement savings probably haven’t been repeatedly interrupted over the past five years as often happens with Eligible Family Members. Foreign Service spouses move from one foreign landscape to another with no entitlement to embassy work, repeatedly reinventing themselves both personally and professionally. They have my eternal respect and I don’t know if I could do it.
Civil Service employees in Washington are settled and at least in theory, if their spouse needs to or chooses to work, they have every opportunity to do so, health or bad luck notwithstanding. They hang something on the wall, and leave it there for years. FSOs don’t. We hang things, take them down, figure out where (or if) to hang them again, take them down again, and hope they don’t get all banged up or disappear along the way. Apply this to every item we own. And it’s exhausting. The cost of a life interrupted can be a real need to rebalance and find some equilibrium, which can be as (or more) important than money.
And I’m not trying to bag on our domestic colleagues here. We chose the FS life understanding more or less what it meant. We try to see it in a clear-eyed way, with all its pros and cons.
Taking a two-year domestic assignment in the Office of Children’s Issues for my fourth tour meant two things: one, we would be closer to family, friends, good healthcare, and all the goods, services, and places we missed at home; and two, we would probably have significantly less money than we were used to.
So when we decided to leave Ciudad Juárez, with less than ideal timing and some (but not a ton) of savings, considering I surrendered tens of thousands of dollars in Service Need Differential to get out of there, we put some thought into where we wanted to live in the DC area. We knew we didn’t want to live in an apartment; we did the apartment-living gig in DC between 2006 and 2009, and in Alexandria between 2009 and 2015.
We also stayed in government-paid apartments through the PCS Lodging Program during training before my assignments to Australia and Mexico, the latter for 10 months. Being so proximal to other people and their noise sucked, especially the older we got. My husband and I like quiet. We like to have a yard, some space. This was exacerbated mightily during the first half of 2020 while the pandemic raged and we were stuck in an Arlington apartment without so much as a pocket balcony. We felt claustrophobic, and trapped.
According to Zillow, as of January 2023, the current median rent in Washington, DC and Alexandria (northern Virginia) across property types is $2,586 and $2,300 per month, respectively. And of course, furnishings, gardening and lawn care, utilities, and unexpected repairs are all extra expenses, most of which you also may not have had overseas. These numbers seem low to me, but it’s probably because the figures account for properties from studios in low-income apartment buildings to five-bedroom mansions.
Because my curtailment from Mexico wasn’t something I planned extensively and because we were only halfway through a three-year tour there when we left, we were not in a position to buy a house in this area upon our arrival. So we looked on Zillow in the fall and winter of 2021 to try and find one to rent. We knew we wanted to live in a house. The question was where exactly, and for how much.
And we were so fortunate to find one we liked, back in Alexandria, this time in Fairfax County. We are so close to Mount Vernon that our house bears a plaque by the front door that reads, “This home rests upon the Five Farms of Mount Vernon, Estate of First President George Washington, Registered by The Neighborhood Friends of Historic Mount Vernon.”
I like living in this house, and will publish a part two to my very popular 2019 post on Foreign Service Housing soon that shows it in more detail. But suffice it to say it meets the criteria for cost, space, and location that we were hoping it would.
Our commutes to FSI and SA-17 are reasonable. We live in a nice, quiet neighborhood surrounded by nature. The Potomac River and George Washington Parkway, including the Mt. Vernon Trailhead, are just over a mile away. There is plenty of shopping and access to services. Reagan National Airport is only 20 minutes away, Dulles International Airport less than an hour away even in Friday traffic. It only takes 15 minutes to get to Old Town Alexandria for an evening or afternoon out.
We have plenty of room to each have our own home office, to entertain and host guests if we want, and we even have a front and back yard. Our circumstances are comfortable. We aren’t in the city like we were when we lived in DC or downtown Arlington apartments, and we’re OK with that. For the money, and considering we both telework at least three days a week, having a house for this assignment made so much sense.
But without a doubt, the best things about being back here have been being together in a place where we can be closer to people we care about and rebalance a work and life equilibrium that became very lopsided during the last three overseas assignments. I don’t know that things would have changed as much as they did, actually, without the pandemic and its radical influence on how we see the boundaries between work and… everything else. But it has certainly been a silver lining.
I do miss the novelty and extra money of being overseas. And someday I will probably have it again. But for now, I think I will celebrate this Friday evening with a neighborhood walk and a film, at home. As we have come to understand, so much of being successful in this lifestyle and career is accepting and embracing what you have in the moment.
I love learning about the domestic side of the foreign service. We were in Ballston for about 5 months of onboarding last fall, but would definitely look into something more tranquil in any future DC tours. Alexandria was one of our favorite places once we got a car!
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