D.C. metro area population growth slows


The growth rate in the Washington region has declined as the national economy has bounced back. Homes in Loudoun County are seen in this file photo. (TRACY A. WOODWARD/The Washington Post)
March 14, 2013

The rapid-fire growth in the Washington region slowed appreciably last year as other cities hit hard by the recession started to recover and attract more newcomers, new Census Bureau figures show.

In the 12-month period ending July 1, Washington slipped from fourth to 15th among the fastest-growing metropolitan areas with more than a million residents, according to population estimates released Thursday.

Washington is still attracting new residents, just not as many as it did for several years running during the recession. The region’s population rose 89,000 over the year, bringing the total to more than 5.8 million. But the growth rate of 1.5 percent was down from 1.9 percent in the previous 12-month period, when the population rose by 105,000.

The region’s growth was eclipsed by spurts in parts of the country that had been focal points of the economic meltdown, such as Phoenix and Las Vegas. Several cities in Texas experienced some of the fastest growth, which the Census Bureau attributed to the oil and gas boom.

Demographers said the 2012 population estimates confirm that it is the twilight hour of a remarkable phase in the Washington region. When the rest of the nation foundered in recession, federal spending helped keep the Washington area’s economy afloat. The population soared from 2007 to 2010, buoyed in large part by job seekers coming to the one major city in the country where jobs were readily available.


population growth (The Washington Post/Source: Census population estimates for metros with a million or more residents. )

“One year, we were the only metro area in the entire country adding jobs,” said Lisa Sturtevant, deputy director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University. “If you were a college graduate looking for a job, Washington was the only game in town.”

Now, in the aftermath of the recession, more options are opening up elsewhere. Among the 15 largest metropolitan areas, Washington is in the bottom third for job growth, Sturtevant said.

“The economy is turning, and the housing market is back,” said William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution. “People are able to move to new jobs. Or if they’re staying at their old jobs, they can move to a new home they couldn’t afford before. What people used to think of as normal movement is coming back.”

An improved job market is luring Emily Bond and her husband from Manassas to Los Angeles. They moved here from Austin a year ago after he got a job with Prince William County. Emily Bond works part time writing defense contracts. Her husband has a new job with a film-production company in Los Angeles, so they are selling their furniture and leaving next weekend.

“There are a lot more jobs for people like us in L.A.,” she said.

The earliest signs of a slight slowdown in the Washington area’s population growth first appeared in 2011, when some of the region’s largest jurisdictions started losing more residents to other parts of the country than they gained from them. But what started as a trickle widened into a stream.

From July 2011 to last July, Alexandria and Fairfax, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties were all net losers in the exchange of residents with other parts of the United States. Their total populations increased, however, because of births and residents moving in from other countries, including immigrants, military personnel returning from overseas deployments and workers returning from positions abroad.

See how demographics have changed over time.

Atlas Van Lines, which charts inbound and outbound trips by metro area, moves more people into the Washington region than out of it. But since 2007, the inbound numbers have declined every year.

“Compared to the rest of the country, you’re growing quite well,” said Kerri Hart, a marketing specialist with Atlas. “But we’re seeing a slow and steady decline.”

Local planning officials said they are not concerned.

Anne Cahill, the Fairfax County demographer, said its outbound numbers are affected by the high percentage of high school graduates who go away for college.

Last year, Montgomery County managed to break through the 1 million population mark for the first time, even though 3,000 more people left the county for other parts of the country than moved in from them. Its population rose 13,000 because of births and a net gain of almost 9,000 people from other countries, mostly immigrants.

“We see it as a sign of an improving economy. . . . This indicates people are feeling a little more optimistic and starting to move around again,” said Rose Krasnow, the county’s acting planning director.

Jerri Cooper, a landscape designer, is leaving the region she has called home for 27 years and moving to a spiritual community in Oregon. But her lack of confidence in the local economy also plays a role, especially in light of the federal budget standoff.

“This has been one of the best areas for my business, because people have money,” said Cooper, who lives in Arlington County. “But considering the future of the economy, I don’t think I’m losing much. With the sequester, it’s going to hurt, especially in Northern Virginia.”

Parts of the region continue to show strong population gains, even if they are less than in previous years. Loudoun and Prince George’s counties, for example, each gained more than 10,000 residents from July 2011 to last July.

The District continued its growth spurt, with almost 9,000 more people moving into the city than moving out, and an even larger number of children born over the year. After subtracting the number of people who died, the District’s population grew by 13,000.

Newcomers may be partly responsible for the local baby boom. Harriet Tregoning, director of the District’s Office of Planning, said people younger than 35 account for 60 percent of the city’s growth since the 2010 Census.

“We’ve had more growth . . . than we did in the whole previous decade,” she said. “We are punching above our weight.”

But the District won’t be keeping Mike Ferens, who has lived in the city since 1998. Ferens, 48, had been working in satellite communications for a federal contractor, but he was told that his contract was ending as troops were brought home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Next weekend, he is heading to a job as a satellite technician supporting the Federal Aviation Administration in Anchorage.

“I could have shopped for jobs around D.C. more,” he said. “But as a single-income person, I found myself trapped. I can’t buy a house. D.C. has been great. There are museums on every corner. . . . But as I close in on my upper 40s, I want to own something.”

Carol Morello is the diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post, covering the State Department.
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