By Carol Morello and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 31, 2009; A01
The District is on the verge of a watershed in its turnaround, with the city's population set to break 600,000 for the first time in almost two decades.
Recently released Census Bureau statistics show that the city is just a few hundred residents shy of the mark, with an estimated population of 599,657 as of July 1. That reflects a gain of almost 9,600 over the previous year.
In part because of the recession and the housing collapse, it is also the first time in decades that the city has not had a net loss of residents moving to the suburbs or elsewhere in the United States. Until this year, virtually all population growth in the District was attributable to immigrants arriving from other countries.
In a Thursday morning news conference to discuss the new estimate, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty noted that the District's population grew faster last year than all but four states (Wyoming, Utah, Texas and Colorado).
"These gains reflect a significant vote of confidence that the District of Columbia is moving in the right direction," Fenty (D) said. "This kind of growth will only continue as more people see how we are working to improve our schools, provide more transportation options and build healthier, safer, more vibrant neighborhoods."
Although they don't yet have the statistics to prove it, demographers and city officials said they consider it probable that since July the population has surpassed 600,000.
"Isn't it exciting?" asked Harriet Tregoning, director of the District's planning office. "It's a significant milestone for the city."
The official head count will not come until the 2010 Census in the spring. But the population estimate caps a decade of growth that accelerated in the depths of the recession.
Demographer William H. Frey of the Brookings Institution attributed the growth to three factors: Fewer people are moving to the exurbs because of the mortgage meltdown; fewer people are leaving the region for former Sunbelt growth magnets during the recession; and more newcomers are moving to the nation's capital to join the Obama administration.
"What we've seen is a frozen suburbanization nationwide, and the District has been part of it," he said.
The most recent population count is the District's highest since 1991, when it was almost 601,000.
From a high-water mark in the years after World War II, when the population exceeded 800,000, it began slipping in the 1950s as residents started moving to the suburbs, a trend that continued unabated through the 1990s. The population hit its lowest modern point of 565,230 in 1998.
In 2008, the District ranked 27th in size among U.S. cities. The recent growth could move it up several spots.
The new population figures are estimates, culled from government records on income tax returns, Medicare, military service, deaths and births. They do not include racial or ethnic breakdowns.
In the past three years, the city has experienced a small baby boom, as births have risen to more than 8,000 annually.
"All the young people who have moved in are getting married, staying and having children," said Mary Filardo, head of the 21st Century School Fund.
Tregoning said she was gratified to see that fewer city dwellers are leaving for the suburbs. Almost half of increase last year, about 4,600, was attributed to people moving to the city from elsewhere in the country.
Throughout the 1990s, the District experienced a net loss of 12,000 to 19,000 residents each year, offset only by immigration from outside the country. As recently as 2003, the city had a net loss of more than 10,000 residents, although the size of the loss has been declining.
Tregoning said tax records will help clarify from which the states the newcomers are arriving. She said she thinks that many new arrivals are young and want to live near public transportation.
She also said thousands of jobs have been created in the city during the recession, particularly in education, health, services and the federal government.
"If someone is wondering where to go after graduating college, or who's lost a job or just wants a change, there aren't many places that are adding jobs," she said.
Many of those jobs, however, are held by people who live in Virginia and Maryland. Almost 12 percent of D.C. job seekers are unemployed, a record high.
D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), whose district stretches from Georgetown to Shaw, gave credit to former mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) for the city's apparent population rebound. Williams, who was in office from 1999 to 2007, set a goal in 2003 of adding 100,000 residents in a decade. Williams invested heavily in development, improving city services and reducing crime.
"The whole image of the District of Columbia began to change from a dangerous, dirty, unsafe place to a very different city," Evans said.
Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) dates the changes to 2005, with the construction of thousands of downtown apartments. The ensuing influx, Graham said, changed the character of his ward, including neighborhoods near the Columbia Heights Metro station, 14th and U streets, and the eastern end of the U Street corridor.
"We've always felt that we were having this population growth, but it just wasn't being reflected in the data," Graham said.
Council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large), chairman of the Economic Development Committee, said many newcomers are affluent professionals who boost the city's tax base. But he said the added wealth has not trickled down to longtime residents of the city, which has one of the nation's highest rates of homelessness.
The new population numbers move the District a step closer to eclipsing Baltimore, which has been losing residents for most of the past two decades. Its 2008 population was 637,000. The District is still much smaller than neighboring Montgomery County, with 950,000 residents, and Fairfax County, with 1,015,000.
It remains to be seen whether the growth rate will pick up steam when the economy improves or whether residents will again abandon the city for the suburbs. But for now, city officials expressed elation at the potential of having passed 600,000.
"It's a real benchmark," Frey said. "Now we can start dreaming about 700,000."