The District has gained thousands of residents in their late twenties and early thirties since 2000, and they have helped to revive the downtown housing market, but the city is failing to hold on to people in their forties, according to census population estimates to be released today.
The estimates offer new details about previously released census figures indicating that the city's population dipped by nearly 20,000 between 2000 and July 2004. City officials dispute the decline, citing a growth in housing units and the apparent stability of school enrollment. They have set a goal of boosting the D.C. population by 100,000 by the end of the decade.
Census estimates show that the District has gained residents in some demographics, but lost residents in others.
The new figures show that they have made progress in some areas but that some groups remain resistant to city living. On the plus side, the city is outpacing the national growth rate for people ages 25 to 34, a crucial group that shrank in the 1990s. The District is also experiencing a baby boomlet, mainly in affluent Upper Northwest, and appears to be holding on to people ages 55 to 64.
But the city continues to lose residents ages 35 to 54, the middle ages when many families leave for the suburbs in search of better schools and bigger back yards. That is a major reason for a decline of 16,000 in the city's population of children older than 5, according to the census figures. Its elderly population is shrinking as well.
William H. Frey, a Brookings Institution demographer who studies metropolitan areas, said the city's population patterns both diverge from national trends and reflect them.
"The District is middle-aging like the rest of the country," he said. "Where it's different is it gets these younger people. Where it's losing out is in these prime early middle-aged years. These baby boomers made a beeline to the suburbs."
The city's growing population of people in their twenties and early thirties includes new immigrants, who account for some of the city's rising number of births. Many are young professionals without children who are moving into newly built downtown condos or apartments.
Chris Bender, spokesman for the office of planning and economic development, said D.C. housing sales are so busy that developers called off this year's D.C. Expo -- an annual fair to show off the city to prospective residents -- because they do not need more business.
But to recent arrival Rob Silver, 29, the city's revival is wanting. Silver, a Realtor, and his wife, Natalie, a Georgetown University medical student, moved to a downtown condo from Virginia in 2003 so she could be closer to school.
Silver likes having the Metro at his doorstep and the city's "New York-style buzz" during a downtown event or basketball game. But he also cites problems: aggressive panhandlers, a shooting a block from his home, and nightclub noise that sometimes makes it impossible to sleep.
"I think downtown will be an amazing place to live in 10 years," he wrote in an e-mail, "but for right now the pioneers of the city are going through a lot to make this work and at $650,000 for a 2br/2ba . . . that is a hefty price to be paying for a transition neighborhood . . . luckily I got in at a lower price."
City officials are going after not just young professionals like Silver, but also empty-nesters who are attracted by the idea of city convenience and culture after their children have left home. Frey believes that the recent increase in the 55- to 69-year-old age group is due not to the city's attractiveness to new residents, but to decisions by people who bought their homes years ago to stay put. Either way, city officials see it as a gain, because they are people in their highest-earning years who do not use many government services.
Bender said it is no surprise that the city continues to lose families with children, as it has for years. Although studies show that those families cost the city more in services -- mainly public schools -- than they pay in taxes, Frey said they are desirable because they are "the backbone of the middle-aged stable communities."
The city is losing 35- to 39-year-olds at a faster rate than the nation is, Frey's analysis shows. And although the nation's 40- to 54-year-old population is growing as baby boomers age, the city's numbers in that age group are going down.
Experts and city officials say the District's ability to keep today's young professionals from leaving, as their elders did, hinges chiefly on upgrading the school system, but they say controlling crime and improving government services are also crucial.
Ed Lazere, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, which studies the city's budget and tax issues, said that is "the big question for the city's future. These young families with kids in the next 10 years -- are they going to stay or are they going to go?"
The population estimates being released today are based on government records such as birth and death certificates, visa data and tax returns, so they are less precise than the Census Bureau's once-a-decade door-to-door count.