Census Reports Decline in D.C. Population

By Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 22, 2005

Forget the swank loft condos rising everywhere, the rehabbed row houses, the abandoned public-housing complexes bulldozed and rebuilt. Forget the suburbanites and former urban refugees who are flocking to the city for its nightlife, easy commute and neighborhoods suddenly reborn.

The number of people living in the District has shrunk by nearly 4,000 in the past year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau: 3,718 fewer people, to be exact.

The federal agency yesterday unveiled its annual state and national population estimates, announcing, among other things, that Virginia and Maryland each grew more populous -- Virginia by 1.2 percent, Maryland by 0.7 percent -- and that the country added about 2.8 million people, for a total population of 296.4 million.

This is the time that federal people-counters look at tax records, immigration, birth and death rates and calculate that the population of the nation's capital is falling. Then the city's counters, in what has become an end-of-year ritual, cull through housing starts, their own tax records, school enrollment numbers and apartment vacancy rates, and complain that the feds have got it all wrong.

"Something doesn't seem to panning out," Joy Phillips, associate director of the District's state data center, said yesterday. If she was concerned about this year's estimates, she seemed downright flabbergasted by the accumulation of estimates since the last actual census was taken in 2000: "We cannot see any way that D.C. has lost 20,000 people in these last four years."

Sure it has, and maybe more, say the census people. The District made headlines in 2000 and 2001 when the July estimates showed a statistically insignificant population change -- about 1,000 and 1,800 people, respectively -- a sign that the years of hemorrhaging residents might finally be drawing to a close. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) celebrated back then by announcing a campaign to draw 100,000 new residents to the city over the next 10 years.

But, by 2002, an estimated 5,000 more people were gone, the feds said. Then 7,000 in 2003, 3,500 more in 2004, and the aforementioned 3,718 this year. Demographers point out that much of the city's revitalization has focused on singles and childless couples, while those leaving largely have been families with a few children.

Phillips countered with an earlier estimate, one that has become a favorite for D.C. politicians. In 1999, after nine years of estimates, the Census Bureau figured the city's population at 519,000. When it conducted a census the following year, however, the count was 572,000. Now, midway between that census and the one that will be done in 2010, D.C. officials insist that the bureau is wrong again.

Phillips said the city will formally challenge the estimate this year for the first time.

Nationally, the big population story was out west, where California's growth rate sank to less than 1 percent, lower than 21 other states. It ranked 17th last year, and in the top 10 fastest-growing states for most of the decade before that. New York state, too, is struggling. It lost population for the first time in at least 15 years.

"People are moving to where housing is more affordable, jobs are more plentiful," said William H. Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution. Sparsely populated states such as Nevada, Arizona, Utah and Idaho are growing, he added, in part because people leaving California are moving there.

Census officials cautioned that because this year's estimates are based on data through July 1, the state numbers do not reflect the considerable population shift from the Gulf Coast states that occurred in the fall in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

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