The U.S. Census Bureau will report today that the District's population--an estimated 519,000--appears to be stabilizing after decades of decline, with fewer people leaving the nation's capital and more moving in than in recent years.

The new annual population estimate shows a net loss of 2,400 people, the smallest decrease since the mid-1980s. It is among a batch of recent city statistics showing growth and gain--including more new jobs, lower unemployment, less crime, higher school enrollment and record numbers of home sales compared with the previous year.

"The numbers seem to be going in the direction toward stabilization," Census Bureau demographer Marc Perry said of the new population figures. "It's hard to say what D.C. is going to be looking like in a couple of years, but I don't see it returning to minus 2 percent growth annually."

As for the future, analysts say the city can draw strength from its appealing neighborhoods, its strong federal job base and the region's energetic growth. Some even predict that the District's population could rise moderately. But they caution that unpredictable events could jeopardize the rebound--a problem like the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s or a slower national economy, for example.

The estimate for the District, which covers the year that ended July 1, is being released along with the Census Bureau's annual report on state population change. Maryland now numbers 5.17 million people, with a growth rate just under the national average. Virginia now has 6.87 million, with above-average growth. The difference between the two, economists say, is due to Virginia's bigger job increase.

In the District, the key number driving the population dynamics is the number of people who move to local suburbs or other parts of the country. During the District's worst population-losing years, that number hit 19,000. For 1999, it was about 7,000.

The city made up some of that loss through immigration, though that number declined slightly this year, as it did nationally. Births in the city rose slightly, which also helped stem the loss.

Despite the lessening pace of loss, the District has 87,900 fewer people than it had at the beginning of the decade, a 14.5 percent decline that is among the worst for the nation's big cities. And the population is far below its peak census year of 1950, when the capital was crowded with more than 800,000 people, just before the major exodus to the suburbs began.

The new city population figure matches the optimism reflected in a number of other recent statistics.

The volume of real estate sales in the District will break last year's record, and prices are also up, according to Peter Clute, of Pardoe Real Estate Group. Sales are up 50 percent from 1997, the beginning of the city's real estate turnaround.

The biggest sales volume gains were in properties priced under $150,000, between $300,000 and $600,000, and over $1 million, he said. Some of the gain was fueled by the one-time $5,000 tax credit for first-time buyers, he said.

Other studies show that the people moving to the city in recent years are often singles or couples without children and that whites account for a growing percentage of them. In this, the District closely resembles other big cities.

Regional economist Stephen Fuller, who teaches at George Mason University, said he thinks the census figures underestimate the strength of population growth in the District and Northern Virginia, based on the economic numbers he sees.

"It wouldn't surprise me if we didn't see by the end of the year a little population growth" in the District, he said.

The city this year had its first net job growth this decade and had 5,100 more jobs in October than it did the previous October. Unemployment, 8.3 percent a year ago, is 5.7 percent. This is the best economic year for the District since 1992, he said.

"But I don't know whether it can continue this strong through the next five years unless there are major efforts in tapping the technology boom that is feeding growth in the suburbs," Fuller said. The city "hasn't formed a strategic plan for economic development yet."

Fuller forecasts that the District economy will grow next year, although not as much as it has this year. One reason is a predicted slowdown in the national economy, although the District will feel that less than the region will because of its secure government job base, he said.

Other analysts expressed caution about forecasting a rosy future for the city, even though recent trends have been good.

"There have been plateaus in the past, and throughout the entire 1980s the population was pretty stable, so the decline in the '90s was a resumption of a fairly long-term trend," said Jeffrey R. Henig, director of George Washington University's Center for Washington Area Studies. "I'd hesitate before I'd put my chips down on 'It's a new day.' "

But Henig said the District "has a lot going for it"--a new mayor, a trusted financial control board, a hot housing market, a lessening of the suburbs' appeal because of worsening traffic congestion, and the first glimmers of improving public services. In five years, if current trends continue, there could be "some moderate population growth," he said.

Census Bureau forecasts, in fact, call for the city's population to bottom out about now and show a small increase by 2005. For the admittedly less reliable forecast period of 2020-2025, growth in the District is expected to outpace that of most states.

The census estimates being released today are derived from a variety of government records--birth and death certificates, tax returns, visa applications and other paperwork. This makes them less accurate than the door-to-door enumeration done every 10 years. Previous estimates are revised each year to account for new information--the District's 1998 population was estimated at 523,124 last year, but this year the total was changed to 521,426.

Nationally, according to the Census Bureau, Nevada held on to its 14-year distinction as the fastest-growing state, and the West remained the fastest-growing region. The nation's other top gainers were all in the West or South--Arizona, Colorado, Georgia and Idaho. For the first time, according to the Census Bureau, the population of Texas topped 20 million, and the number of people in Florida exceeded 15 million.

Five states lost population this year, including Hawaii, which had been gaining all decade until 1999. According to census data, Hawaii had the worst rate in the country of residents moving to other states. Analysts blame a variety of factors, including military base closings, an economy hit hard by a downturn in Japanese tourism, and high housing costs.

The other losing states were North Dakota, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Wyoming.

Area Population Growth

Percentage change in population from 1998 to 1999.

District -0.47%

Maryland 0.8%

Virginia 1.2%

District's Population Decline Slows

New Census Bureau estimates show that the District's loss of population in 1999 was the smallest since the mid-1980s. Maryland's 0.8 percent population growth was lower than the national rate of 0.9 percent, but Virginia's 1.2 percent growth was higher.

1998 1999 Percentage

change

District 521,426 519,000 -0.5%

Maryland 5,130,072 5,171,634 0.8%

Virginia 6,789,225 6,872,912 1.2%

Population growth by region, 1998-99

The West remained the nation's fastest-growing region, and Nevada was the fastest-growing state, a record it has held for 14 years. Hawaii lost population for the first time this decade.

Nation 0.9%

West 1.5%

South 1.2%

Midwest 0.5%

Northeast 0.3%

SOURCE: Census Bureau