The Business Rent Is Too Damn High

While housing in many areas is too expensive, it’s worth remembering that business rents are also too damn high. Today’s example is the Sizzling Express in D.C.:

Hang’s been getting a lot lately because after nearly 20 years as a Capitol Hill institution, Sizzling Express will close on June 15, and its legions of loyal customers—many of whom have become friends with each other and Hang and Tran—are texting, wishing him and his family well, expressing how much the restaurant has meant to them.

For many loyal customers, Sizzling Express is more than a place to get something good to eat at a reasonable price. “For people in the African American community, it’s like the black Cheers,” Dantley Brown says, referring to the NBC sitcom about a Boston bar where everybody knows your name…

Most of the food at Sizzling Express isn’t fancy, but it’s reliably good, affordable, and available buffet-style. Hot and cold sandwiches run from $5.99 to $9.99 each. Slices of cake are sold individually. Unprompted, four different patrons recommend a sushi roll featuring cooked salmon. One bar patron said he loves that dish so much he’d be getting the phone number of Sizzling Express’s sushi chef, so he could follow him to his next gig…

The changes occurring in neighborhoods throughout the city led to the restaurant’s imminent closure. Like many other D.C. restaurants and bars that have closed their doors in recent years, Sizzling Express is a victim of rising rents. When the restaurant opened in July 1999, Hang says the rent was $7,000 a month [~$10,700 in 2019 dollars]. Now, it’s $21,000 a month.

“The rent’s too high,” he says. “Food costs are rising, payroll costs too. I can’t afford it anymore.” Hang says he told the management company that owns the building two years ago that he wouldn’t be renewing his lease. The company did not respond to requests for comment.

It’s not that this is an irreplaceable culinary landmark. But neighborhoods need relatively good and affordable restaurants that aren’t overpriced ‘fast casual’ dining (the ‘fast casual’ is simply an affection that is required to justify higher food prices). While the primary driver of affordability is housing, when other amenities, such as a version of cheap diner food, becomes expensive, that only makes places more expensive and less enjoyable to live in.

If I ran the zoo, urban public housing would also include storefronts that provide reasonably priced goods and services. I’m sure Bowser and the City Council will get on that right away…

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