D.C. Population Drops Again
By Gabriel Escobar
The nation's capital suffered a net loss of 10,315 residents in the last year, extending a troublesome trend that has preoccupied civic and government leaders for more than a decade and still shows no sign of abating.
New figures from the Census Bureau place the District's population at 528,964, down from 539,279 in 1996, the lowest since the Depression. So far in the economically rosy 1990s, the capital of the world's richest nation has suffered a net loss of 77,936 residents, or more than one person every hour for seven consecutive years.
The new national data from the Census Bureau, part of an annual report released yesterday, showed Nevada as the fastest-growing state for the 12th consecutive year. Virginia and Maryland continued to grow at a modest pace -- 1.02 percent and 0.67 percent, respectively -- following the trend of the last few years.
While Washington shrinks, the greater metropolitan area, which includes Northern Virginia and Baltimore, continues to boom, gaining 438,124 residents between 1990 and 1996. The area is an impressive sixth in growth nationwide this decade, a list topped by the Los Angeles metropolitan area.
But as has been the case throughout this decade, the marked drop in the population of the District again proved troubling to local leaders and others who follow population trends. Although the city lost 107,000 people in the 1970s, an exodus that coincided with the flight of the black middle class, the persistent decline during the 1990s is viewed as far more serious because for the first time since 1950 the population drop has been accompanied by a dramatic drop in the number of households.
Fewer households mean a smaller tax base and empty housing units, among other problems, and so far in the 1990s the number of households has dropped at four times the annual rate of the previous two decades. George Grier, director of the Greater Washington Consumer Survey and an authority on population trends in the region, said that based on the new census data, he estimates the city may have lost as many as 5,200 households in the last year.
The decline in population during the 1990s already far exceeds the outflow of the 1980s, when the net loss was about 14,000 residents. Earlier estimates that the city will "bottom out" in 2001 or 2002 at about 523,000 residents may have to be lowered.
"However you want to put it, it is disheartening," Herb Bixhorn, chief of the D.C. State Data Center, the agency that crunches numbers, said of the new figures. "We don't see any bottoming out, and we have experienced a tremendous loss."
The Census Bureau estimate is calculated from available records: birth and death statistics, numbers of tax returns filed from each Zip code, immigration data and data on the numbers of people in barracks, college dorms and jails, according to Greg Harper, an official of the Census Bureau.
The population loss is not broken down by race or geography, Harper said. Grier's study, which involved interviews over 30 months, determined that the proportion of black householders is gradually decreasing, while households headed by whites and other races are increasing.
The drop in population last year did not appear to hurt home sales in the District. According to Dale Mattison, outgoing president of the Washington D.C. Association of Realtors, the city had a "record-setting, banner year" with a 29 percent increase in home sales in 1997. Price trends varied by neighborhoods, but, overall, prices remained stable and in some areas increased by 2 percent to 4 percent, he said.
One explanation may be that the exodus is greater among renting families. Or renting families may have taken advantage of the price drops this decade to buy, according to Peter Clute, a Washington real estate broker. Although no official leasing vacancy figures exist, there is anecdotal evidence of increasing rental vacancies in the District.
Grier said his own survey showed that the number of householders between 1990 and 1996 increased slightly in Ward 3, west of Rock Creek Park, and Ward 8, lower Anacostia, and decreased most in Foggy Bottom, Dupont Circle, Southwest Washington and upper Anacostia.
Experts and community leaders say one of the most significant factors in the city's declining population is the District's reputation as a place where the educational system is suspect, services lax or nonexistent and crime a constant menace.
"These literally do drive out existing middle-class families," noted James O. Gibson of the Urban Institute.
What is worse for the city is that those perceptions linger despite, in some instances, evidence to the contrary. The city's overall crime rate has dropped, and the effect has been dramatic in some neighborhoods. The exodus also has continued despite new management in the city -- it is now under a financial control board -- a sign that even this significant make-over has yet to convince many residents that Washington's future is promising and worth waiting for.
For some community leaders, explaining why the city continues to shrink is as easy as looking down the street.
"The District government does not pay attention to the quality of life in the neighborhoods, and until it does, it's going to continue to lose residents," said Westy Byrd, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Georgetown for the last decade, who said she was not surprised by the continuing decline in population. "The control board doesn't even try to pay attention to the quality of life. Everything with them is money, money, money."
Washington's status as the capital city has always skewed the migration patterns to a degree and makes comparison with other urban areas difficult. The city began the century with 278,000 residents and then boomed during the Depression, when the New Deal inflated the work force. In 1943, at the height of World War II, the city had 900,000 residents, the historic high by far.
The city has lost population every decade since, with the '70s being the worst in terms of net loss. By the 1980s, demographers were predicting an end to decline, but the violence that gripped the city drove many more middle-class residents to the suburbs and precipitated another movement out, which accelerated beginning in 1990. Predictions that Hispanics and Asians would fuel population growth have not materialized, partly because those two immigrant groups are increasingly choosing the suburbs.
The figures for the District released yesterday also include what one statistician in the Census Bureau called a "substantial" correction for 1996. Last year's population estimate of 543,000 was lowered by 3,721 because certain projections that fed the estimate, including the rate of births to deaths, proved too optimistic.
When the higher estimates for 1996 were released a year ago, officials were somewhat encouraged because the population decrease of 11,000 was an improvement from 1995, when the city lost 13,607. Under the revised number for 1996, the city's net population loss was 13,025, meaning that in each of the two years -- 1995 and 1996 -- the city lost almost as many people as it did in all of the 1980s.
Despite the generally gloomy statistical picture, Washington's future is not necessarily bleak. Experts agree that the drop in population will end at some point. Not only are housing sales up, but the city also seems to be in the throes of a demographic transition. The people who are moving into the city are younger, wealthier, often childless and consequently less demanding of city services.
This change coincides with some notable improvements in the city, including the revitalization of downtown and the opening of the MCI Center. For the optimistic, those are signs of progress and suggest that a payoff, in terms of a population increase, is inevitable.
"I don't think it's going to continue forever," Grier said of the flight from Washington. "Very few population trends do. In the case of the District, it has so many strengths, basic fundamental strengths, that sooner or later this is going to stop. It's just too good a place."
Washington's popularity with tourists also continues to increase. One travel association recently listed the city among the five hottest cities to visit. Tourists are increasingly booking hotels in downtown, a new trend that reflects the revitalization of the area. Attendance at conventions and at the Smithsonian Institution is up.
Although more and happier tourists do not necessarily mean more and happier residents, some believe that all those factors point to a healthier environment for the city.
"I'm always a booster of D.C., and I do think the city is on its way back," said Dean Wilhelm, former president of the D.C. Convention and Visitors Bureau. "There's been positive news coming from the District, for a change. We still have our problems. I don't want to sweep them under. But I think it's turning around."
In Woodbridge, a residential neighborhood in Northeast Washington near the border with Prince George's County, John Mitchell Sr. is counting on just such a turnaround. He has resisted moving to the suburbs for decades, but every once in a while, he has second thoughts. Last week, someone dumped a body in an alley nearby his home.
Police are not nearly as visible as he would like them to be. And even if crime is down, the city's chaotic past is hard to forget.
"When somebody breaks into your home," Mitchell said, "you tell them crime is on the decline, and they'll say, `I don't want to hear that.' "
But the retired construction inspector has enough belief in the neighborhood where he has lived for 35 years to invest his retirement income there, a show of faith in his home town and perhaps a sign of what is in store for Washington.
He and his wife bought a vacant building across the street from their home and converted it into a four-unit apartment building. Three of the apartments are rented.
Senior citizens are still afraid to venture out at night, and no one is holding block parties the way they used to in the 1960s and 1970s. But houses built in the 1930s, solid homes with walls 13 inches thick, for the first time are attracting a new kind of homeowner: young doctors and lawyers.
"We do have positive things happening here," said Mitchell, 68, an advisory neighborhood commissioner. He decided to run for office the last time he was tempted to flee to the suburbs.
"I said `No!' " Mitchell said, reflecting on the decision. "I can stay here and make a difference in my neighborhood."
Staff writer Doug Struck and Metro Resources Director Margot Williams contributed to this article.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company