In sign of rebound, D.C. population set to surpass 600,000

By Carol Morello and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 31, 2009; 12:10 PM

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.

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