Statistically, a Region That Stands Out
U.S. Government Fuels Economy

By D'Vera Cohn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 21, 2005

People who live in the Washington region have, on average, bigger incomes, larger homes and more education than residents of most other metropolitan areas, but they also contend with soaring real estate prices, lengthy commutes and workaholic hours.

The area stands out in other ways, too: It is among the nation's most ethnically and racially diverse, and is one of the top 10 destinations for new immigrants. Although it's not especially hip, it also is a magnet for gay men, lesbians and recent college graduates.

What explains its character more than anything else is the presence of the federal government. Although a growing part of the region is not linked to the U.S. government, federal jobs and federal contracting are key to an economy that consistently has been the strongest among major metropolitan areas. The government offered job opportunities to minorities before the private sector did, which helps explain the area's attraction for African Americans. International organizations and embassies located here because it was the nation's capital, and thousands more immigrants were drawn here by the thriving job market.

The region now has more than 5.9 million people who live in an area stretching from the Chesapeake Bay to Virginia hunt country, according to the most recent Census Bureau estimates. Fifty-seven percent are white, 24 percent black, 9 percent Hispanic and 7 percent Asian. One in six residents of the area were born in another country. One in four of the region's households had incomes of $100,000 or more in the 2000 Census, the most detailed source of information about the region. That proportion grew in recent years, as did other measures of affluence. About 18 percent of the region's homes have nine or more rooms -- only Salt Lake City ranks higher among large metropolitan areas.

But the number of poor people also is growing, and data show a widening gap between the top and the bottom of the income scale. In the District, the latest census figures show that the poverty rate declined slightly in 2003, but at 16.9 percent it still is higher than the national average.

Washington has never been a factory town. Policy is what is manufactured here, which accounts for the area's high share of managerial and technical jobs. Nearly one in five adults here held a graduate degree at the time of the 2000 Census, more than in any other large region.

The job market is strongest in Northern Virginia, where some local counties have led the nation in job growth in recent months. That helps explain traffic patterns: More Maryland residents commute to Virginia than the other way around, leading to westbound crowding on the Capital Beltway in the morning and eastbound congestion in the afternoon.

Those traffic jams are a growing downside of the region's booming wealth and population. The area's average commute of 32 minutes each way ranked fourth in the 2000 Census. It grew three minutes over the previous decade, because of increasingly packed roads and longer distances between home and work.

The 2000 Census was the first to show that most area workers cross county lines to get to their jobs, another reflection of lengthening commutes. With more jobs popping up in suburban areas that lack a dense central core, a growing number of people drive to work alone. Some even bought alternative-fueled cars because that lets them drive alone in the region's carpool lanes, called high-occupancy vehicle lanes.

The race to get to work is leading people to get up earlier or work later. A growing number of fast-food restaurants are opening at 4:30 a.m. Gyms are filling up with people who come before sunrise. People rush to get on the roads before the 5 a.m. traffic congestion begins. And WUSA-TV has added a 7 p.m. newscast to appeal to those who get home later.

As prices escalate in close-in neighborhoods, people are moving farther out, part of a national pattern fueling debate about the costs of sprawl. (As in other regions, these are the communities that tend to vote Republican, while closer-in communities and the District vote Democratic.)

Loudoun, Spotsylvania and Stafford counties are among the nation's fastest-growing. Prince George's County, where many residents are formerly from the District, is the nation's most affluent majority-black suburban community.

The region's commuting problems are fueling growing debate about how to provide enough affordable housing so that people can find places to live near their workplaces. Six in 10 of the region's homes sold in 2003 cost more than $250,000, according to a recent report from the Fannie Mae Foundation. That is twice the proportion three years earlier. The report made the point that home prices are rising faster than wages, putting housing out of reach for many people with moderate incomes.

The affordability issue is center stage in the District of Columbia. A decade ago, the city's finances were so tattered that a presidentially appointed control board was created to oversee its budget and spending. People were reluctant to move in because of crime and poor services. The black middle class followed the white middle class to the suburbs. Now, however, the real estate market is so hot that housing advocates say that people without much money are even being squeezed out of less desirable neighborhoods. Some trendy neighborhoods had their assessments more than double in the past three years.

In Northern Virginia, the average assessed value of a home has doubled in the past five years. In suburban Maryland, average assessments rose in most communities by at least 40 percent in the past three years.

Rising home prices are good news for current homeowners, many of whom are using some of their increased equity to remodel. They also mean additional tax revenue for local governments. Moreover, the Fannie Mae report said people are managing to buy despite hardship, with the homeownership rate rising faster in the region than it is nationwide.

Among those buying in are members of the region's growing immigrant community. Although nowhere near the size of those in New York and Los Angeles, the region's foreign-born population differs from those elsewhere in that no national group dominates. The top three countries of birth -- El Salvador, Korea and India -- account for only a quarter of immigrants in the area. Many immigrants scrape by in low-paid jobs as nannies, construction workers or custodians. But this region also is different from others in having a substantial group of well-off and well-educated people born in other countries.

About half the region's new immigrants are settling outside the Capital Beltway, not in the downtown neighborhoods where previous generations began their lives in America. These outer suburban immigrant communities, demographers say, are one more thing that makes the Washington area different.

D'Vera Cohn covers demographics. She can be reached

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