By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 3, 2008
Prince William County has become the most ethnically and racially diverse county in Northern Virginia as a profound demographic shift in the region is reversing half a century of white-flight suburbanization, according to a report by the Northern Virginia Regional Commission.
Much of the realignment is a result of tremendous population growth in the outer suburbs, the report shows, drawing on recent estimates from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey. Of the 270,000 people who moved to Northern Virginia between 2000 and 2007, 75 percent settled in Loudoun County, Prince William County, Manassas or Manassas Park.
In Prince William, the growth was driven almost entirely by minorities, who accounted for 94 percent of the population increase.
In contrast, the inner suburbs of Arlington County and Alexandria, once considered gateway communities for immigrants, have lost minority residents since 2000, becoming more white and more affluent.
The report illustrates trends that have been observed in school data and anecdotally but that when distilled into simple charts and tables reflect a demographic makeover that might upend widespread perceptions about the region and its communities.
The changes have been especially dramatic in Prince William. Since 1990, the county's minority population has risen from 19.3 percent of the total population to 47.9 percent, and the jurisdiction is on pace to soon become Northern Virginia's first minority-majority county. Only Manassas Park has a higher minority population -- 50 percent -- among Northern Virginia jurisdictions. Manassas is third at 46.3 percent.
"A seismic population shift has been sweeping across the entire southern rim of Northern Virginia where more affordable housing prices, like a powerful magnet, have been pulling households [to the outer suburbs] -- predominantly immigrant and minority families which are either finding it too expensive to live closer in or are looking further out for a place they can afford to buy," wrote researcher Ken Billingsley, the study's author.
Overall, Northern Virginia is 40.4 percent minority, up from 23.2 percent in 1990; the nation as a whole is 33.9 percent minority. The region's African American and Hispanic populations account for slightly less than their national percentages, but the region's Asian population is 12.1 percent, nearly three times the national figure of 4.4 percent.
Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D), who commissioned the regional report, described the changes it outlines as stunning.
"Thirty years ago, Northern Virginia was just a totally different place," said Connolly, the commission's chairman, who would represent part of Prince William if he won the 11th Congressional District seat in tomorrow's election. "The numbers tell us a lot about our own communities, and the implications are profound in terms of the provision of services."
Although the study did not include Maryland or the District, recent census estimates show that minority groups account for a bigger share of the population in Prince George's County and the District than in any Northern Virginia jurisdiction. Prince George's is 82 percent minority and 63.6 percent African American; the District is 63 percent minority and 55.5 percent African American. Montgomery County is 54 percent non-Hispanic white, 16 percent African American, 14.3 percent Hispanic and 13.1 percent Asian.
Billingsley said the study is a sneak preview of what the 2010 Census is likely to show.
"Whatever the actual numbers, what we're seeing is more than a blip," he wrote. "It signals, rather forcefully, some of the ways in which urban and suburban life are fundamentally changing, particularly insofar as the migration and settlement patterns of immigrants, minorities, and various economic groups are concerned."
In absolute terms, Fairfax, with more than 1 million residents, has the largest number of minority residents in the region. Fairfax is 40.7 percent minority overall. From 1980 to 2007, when the number of county residents nearly doubled, Fairfax's Hispanic population increased from 19,535 to 137,183; its African American population went from 34,944 to 97,124; and its Asian population soared from 22,725 to 158,594.
By comparison, Fairfax's non-Hispanic white population grew relatively little during those 27 years, rising from 514,330 to 598,745, and it lost some ground in recent years, declining from 631,829 in 2000. Manassas and Manassas Park also lost non-Hispanic white residents from 2000 to 2007.
Those demographic changes continue to shape, and be shaped by, changes in the region's physical environment, the report notes. The redevelopment of Tysons Corner, Merrifield, Landmark and Arlington's Rosslyn-Ballston corridor are examples of the emergence of more-urban landscapes in formerly suburban areas.
Amid that process of urbanization, many immigrant and minority families are moving outward, either by choice or necessity, worrying some officials in inner suburbs that have long touted their diversity.
Alexandria City Council member Redella S. "Del" Pepper (D) said some of the study's findings, such as a decline in the city's Hispanic population, were "surprising." Alexandria was the region's most heterogeneous jurisdiction in 2000, with a minority population of 45.3 percent, but seven years later that share has slipped to 41.7 percent.
"This is a community that really prides itself on valuing diversity," Pepper said. "I think [the decline] has occurred because of how expensive it is to live in Alexandria."
It's not so expensive in the outer suburbs, which drew thousands of immigrant and minority families because of lower housing costs and rapid job growth.
"Because we're far less urbanized, it's an easy assumption to make that we're a predominantly white community," said Prince William Supervisor Martin E. Nohe (R-Coles), who attended Billingsley's presentation at a recent meeting of the Northern Virginia Regional Commission. "But my hope is that people will recognize that our community has changed, and I think the change we're experiencing is a positive one."
Nohe said it would be a mistake to supplant one false impression of Prince William with another: that the county's population growth is driven entirely by low-income families. "We're also seeing large numbers of affluent and middle-class families of color moving to Prince William," Nohe said, "and that violates the paradigm of who would have come to Prince William in the 1960s and '70s."
He continued: "What we're experiencing now isn't white flight. We're seeing middle-income and upper-income families choosing to leave inner jurisdictions because they see something here in Prince William that isn't available to them inside the Beltway in terms of quality of life."
No members of minority groups serve on the heavily Republican Prince William Board of County Supervisors or on the city councils of Manassas and Manassas Park, but Nohe predicted that, too, will soon change. "As newcomers to our county get more established, you'll see more minority participation in politics," he said, noting that the county has a black sheriff and black School Board members.
Because the report relies on Census Bureau estimates that extend only through 2007, it is not clear how the recent economic downturn, the foreclosure crisis and efforts in Prince William and Manassas to target illegal immigrants might affect the region's demographics. The highest foreclosure rates in the region are in the jurisdictions that have experienced the largest minority growth.
As a result, such areas as Manassas Park and Dale City in Prince William will continue to offer some of the most affordably priced housing in the region, and Billingsley said he expects the migratory trends to continue.
"We're just starting to see how it's playing out," he said. "It's going to take a while for all this to settle, and it may be more difficult for some groups to have homeownership."
Lower prices in Prince William are attracting a new wave of first-time home buyers, as well as teachers, nurses, firefighters and other county employees who previously found the area unaffordable, Nohe said.
"Suddenly, houses are affordable," he said, "and the quality of life in Prince William is still very good."