Study Shows Longtime Residents Leaving D.C.
By D'Vera Cohn
The study by demographer George Grier, based on the Greater Washington Consumer Survey, comes on the heels of a recent report showing that most of the District's current taxpayers lived somewhere else before 1990.
"We are seeing a lot of people who have lived in the District for a long time are moving out -- and it's particularly true of blacks," Grier said. "And I think that is bad news."
The study was done for the D.C. Tax Revision Commission, which is weighing proposals to change the District's tax policy. The study painted a detailed portrait of residents who moved out of the city from 1990 to 1996, a period during which its population dropped by more than 10 percent.
The District has 528,000 residents, according to the latest census estimate, its smallest population since the Depression. Although other large cities also are losing residents, the District's population decline has been among the worst in this decade.
Slightly more than half the 42,000 households departing for the suburbs were black, and 70 percent moved to Maryland rather than Virginia, the study found. Most did not have children and were households of one or two people.
Grier's study, which did not include people who left the city for other parts of the country, found that more than two-thirds of the heads of households who moved to the suburbs were ages 25 to 44. Nearly half the households had incomes of $50,000 or more.
The smaller number of households -- 34,0000 -- that moved into the District were overwhelmingly white and were generally younger and more educated than those that moved out. Their incomes were slightly lower than those of the households that left the city, Grier said, but are likely to improve.
More than half the black households that moved to the suburbs had lived in the region for 20 years or more, compared with 30 percent of departing white households. Though the study did not ask departing residents how long they had lived in the city, Grier said those who had lived in the region a long time probably had been in the city all of their time here.
When long-term residents leave, it often disrupts community life and makes it tougher for neighborhood groups to find people to volunteer for Orange Hat patrols and other civic duties deemed vital to urban preservation.
"It is so unbelievably painful when someone you have worked with on big civic issues, people who have poured their hearts and souls" leave, said Marilyn Groves, co-convenor of the League of 8000 civic group. "It's almost civic kinship that takes a hit."
D.C. Council member Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6) said she has watched the turnover in her ward with increasing alarm. "You know where you see it a whole lot? In churches in the eastern parts of the city," Ambrose said. "If you look at the cars, you see Maryland license plates."
At many churches with suburban congregations, "you don't see any activity except on Sunday," she said.
Sam Bost, who lives in the Deanwood neighborhood in Northeast Washington, has watched a trickle of departures turn into a flood in recent years. Houses and apartments were abandoned in some cases, providing a haven for drug dealers.
When he married 18 years ago, Bost moved into a house that had been in his wife's family for several generations, and soon he knew almost everybody in his neighborhood. Now, he does not knock on doors to meet his neighbors, because "you don't know who is here."
Most of the young people who have moved in "have no interest in civic associations or civic involvement," said Bost, who is president of an umbrella group of Ward 7 civic groups.
Several miles to the west, Sheila Blake is reluctantly joining the ranks of the departing. She and her husband moved to an area near Howard University in 1989 and quickly became involved in neighborhood activities. What finally wore her down, she said, was that someone was continually dumping trash in an alley near her house.
She and her husband sold their house last weekend and are looking at houses in Takoma Park.
"I really like the city, and I like living so convenient to everything," said Blake, an artist. "But I stay mad all the time."
Joseph Bowser, 62, an advisory neighborhood commission chairman in the North Michigan Park neighborhood in Northeast Washington, grew up in the city. In the 1970s and 1980s, he saw friends leave because "it was status" to live in the suburbs. Now, when people flee, they cite poor public schools, crime and city management.
When newcomers arrive, "you have to make a good case to get people involved, because they don't see why they should get involved anymore," he said. "The elected officials don't have the voice they had."
Tom Edmonds, a political consultant and co-author of "D.C. by the Numbers," still works on Capitol Hill but doesn't live there anymore. He moved to Virginia in 1996 after 10 years in the city. But he keeps up with former neighbors -- and knows the harm caused by even one or two departures.
"It's like living in a small town," he said. "Every time you lose one of those families, you lose a crucial piece of the underpinning that holds it all together."
The study said the city's racial differences were reflected in where people move when they leave. Blacks overwhelmingly favor the Maryland suburbs -- 67 percent went to Prince George's County -- but an increasing number are moving to Virginia. Whites split almost evenly between the two states.
Among African Americans who left the District, the most popular suburban destinations, in order, were Prince George's County, Montgomery County, Fairfax County and Alexandria. Whites chose Montgomery County, Arlington County, Fairfax County, Alexandria and Prince George's County.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company