Census Figures Show D.C. Area Migration to Outer Suburbs Nearly Halting

Demographer William H. Frey called the change
Demographer William H. Frey called the change "more drastic . . . than we've seen in a long time." (Michel Du Cille - The Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo     Buy Photo
By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 19, 2009

As housing prices have plummeted and credit has shriveled, more residents of the District and Washington's inner suburban counties have chosen to stay put, all but ending the steady exodus to the region's less expensive, outer suburbs that characterized most of this decade, according to Census Bureau estimates released today.

"I looked at these numbers and said, 'Wow!' " said William H. Frey, a demographer from the Brookings Institution who analyzed the figures. "This is a more drastic change in U.S. migration patterns than we've seen in a long time, and I don't think we've seen the end of it."

The impact of the trend -- which Frey said follows similar patterns in metropolitan areas including Las Vegas, Phoenix, Orlando and Charlotte -- was particularly dramatic in Arlington County: More residents moved there from other counties than moved out during the July 2007 to July 2008 period covered by the census figures, a first for this decade. The net gain of 1,750 people, combined with a net 2,403 immigrants who moved to Arlington from overseas during that period, helped swell the county's population by 3 percent, compared with 1.6 percent growth from July 2006 to July 2007.

Although the District and other inner counties such as Fairfax, Montgomery and Prince George's continued to lose more U.S. residents than they attracted, the loss was substantially less than in previous years. Fairfax, for instance, lost a net of only 5,437 residents to such "domestic migration" from July 2007 to July 2008, compared with 11,839 from July 2006 to July 2007. With immigration to the county continuing to rise, Fairfax's population grew 1.1 percent, compared with 0.6 percent the previous year.

The population of Prince George's County declined for a third straight year. But the slowdown in out-migration helped mitigate the trend: The county shrank 0.5 percent from July 2007 to July 2008, compared with 0.8 percent the prior year.

Meanwhile, outer counties whose comparatively inexpensive housing once attracted newcomers in droves appear to have lost much of their luster.

For the first time this decade, more residents left Prince William and Stafford counties in Virginia and Frederick County in Maryland for other counties than moved in. Though the loss was more than offset by a slight increase in immigration from overseas, the growth rates of these counties were considerably diminished. Prince William, for instance, increased by 1.4 percent, compared with 2.2 percent the prior year.

Even Loudoun County, which continued to draw a surplus of both immigrants and residents from other counties, is no longer the growth powerhouse it was. Ranked second-fastest-growing county in the nation in 2005, it dropped to 20th place in the most recent numbers.

George Mason University economist John McClain said the estimates -- which the Census Bureau produces annually based on sources such as census surveys, tax returns, and birth and death records -- closely track the housing market's meltdown in Washington's outer suburbs. In Prince William, for instance, median home prices began falling as far back as early 2007, as the number of new units began to outstrip demand. But the bottom truly fell out in the summer of 2007, when the subprime mortgage crisis caused lenders to drastically curtail credit. By 2008, median home prices in the county had plunged 41 percent from a peak of $390,000 in 2006 to $230,000.

By contrast, prices have fallen 23 percent from the peak in Fairfax, 10 percent in Arlington and 5 percent in the District. McClain said those figures suggest newcomers could remain wary of counties such as Prince William for some time.

"If you're a first-time home buyer and hoping to get a 95 percent mortgage, you're not going to buy [in Prince William] for a while because you're worried that in six months your house will be worth less than what you're paying for it," he said.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company