The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C.’s explosive growth continued over the past decade, census data shows

Diners in the outdoor and indoor dining room at Moon Rabbit, which opened this fall on Southwest Washington’s remade Wharf. (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)

The H Street corridor got a streetcar. The Navy Yard got a Whole Foods. Southwest Washington got the Wharf, transforming a once-dowdy waterfront into a playground for live-music lovers and eaters of pricey seafood.

And for the second consecutive decade the District got much bigger, sustaining explosive population growth that began in 2006 after a prolonged decline.

Since 2010, Washington’s population has grown 14.6 percent — nearly double the national rate — jumping from about 602,000 to 689,545, according to data released by the U.S. Census Bureau on Monday. The population tally is significantly smaller than recent Census Bureau estimates, but still nearly triple the growth recorded the previous decade. As recently as December, the Census Bureau projected the city had grown to about 712,000.

Monday’s Census Bureau announcement makes the District officially larger in population than Vermont, in addition to Wyoming, and it aligns with the narrative D.C. leaders have pushed about the city’s vibrant economic growth as they make the case for D.C. statehood — which Bowser noted again Monday.

But on the flip side, as the city got bigger the cost of living got higher, displacing lower-income residents in neighborhoods such as Shaw and Columbia Heights. And the city got Whiter, according to annual census estimates, adjusting the city’s decades-long cultural identity as a majority-Black city to one that is now almost evenly divided between Black and White residents.

Your questions about the 2020 Census, answered

The Census Bureau will not release official racial and migration numbers for the District until the summer, when the bulk of the information gathered in the 2020 Census will become public.

But demographers who study the city say the population changes are largely a tale of two halves of the decade, with the first half maintaining huge growth that began during the Great Recession, as millennial-age professionals moved to the District in droves. Growth from domestic migration slowed in the second half of the 2010s, data shows, while births and international migration remained relatively steady. There were nearly twice as many births as deaths in the District, an imbalance that was comparable to only four states.

By the last few years of the 2010s, however, more people were moving out of the District than coming in.

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Sunaina Kathpalia, a demographics researcher at the D.C. Policy Center, said that the slowed population growth in the latter half of the decade is “not a sign of some kind of doom.”

“It is part of a cycle,” she said. “D.C. had a dramatic boom in population, and now it’s just leveling out. Births in the District remain really strong and so does international migration, and I think they will continue to offset any losses.”

The Census Bureau’s data released Monday shows the District’s growth rate in the 2010s surpassed that of most states, including Maryland and Virginia, which boosted their populations by 7 percent and 7.9 percent respectively. But Andrew Trueblood, director of the D.C. Office of Planning, cautioned against that comparison , preferring to compare the District’s growth to that of other large cities. Among cities with more than 50,000 people, the Census Bureau last year ranked the District 14th in total population growth.

Trueblood said the city will undertake its own investigation to ensure that the data released by the Census Bureau is as accurate as possible and to try to pinpoint why there was such a discrepancy compared to earlier estimates. He noted the pandemic created “unprecedented challenges” that could have contributed to an undercount.

“We’ll be wanting to look at the data-quality metrics to make sure we’re able to count every resident,” he said. “I think it’s pretty well agreed that covid likely caused hard-to-count populations to be harder to count.”

The trends of the past 14 years in the District are still remarkable, however, considering the District’s decades-long decline in population during the second half of the 20th century, which saw prolonged periods of White flight, segregationist housing policies and bouts of financial instability.

Kathpalia identified the District’s turning point as, ironically, the Great Recession.

“When the nation’s economy is not doing too well, more people come into the city because there’s a steady flow of jobs,” she said. “On the other hand, when it’s doing better, we see a relatively larger outflow of residents, because there’s generally more opportunities regardless of the location, and a better cost of living.”

A report by the Urban Institute identified highly educated millennials as the biggest group driving growth in the latter half of the 2000s, which continued into the early 2010s. In 2011, nearly 67 percent of the people who had moved to the city over the previous 12 months were between the ages of 18 and 34, compared to 57 percent in 2005.

Study: D.C. is among the least affordable places to buy a home

A building boom followed the population influx, with luxury condos going up in neighborhoods such as Columbia Heights, NoMa and the Waterfront. At the same time, demand dramatically drove up housing costs. The median home value in Northwest Washington, for example, more than tripled between 2000 and 2016.

A 2019 report by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition identified Washington as the nation’s most intensely gentrified city between the years 2000 and 2013, finding at least 20,000 Black residents had been displaced.

Trueblood noted that both the Black and White populations of the District declined in the 1990s. But while more White people moved into the District in the 2000s, the Black population continued to shrink. In the 2010s, both the Black and White populations grew, according to census estimates, but the White population grew at a slightly higher rate, Trueblood said.

“Some number moved away because they couldn’t afford it,” Trueblood said of demographic changes within African American communities. “But there was also a certain number that moved to the suburbs because they wanted different school options, that wanted two cars, that wanted a lawn or wanted to live closer to family in a different state.”

The National Community Reinvestment Coalition released an updated report in 2020 covering the years 2012 to 2017. During that period, the coalition ranked Washington as the 13th most-intensely gentrified city, saying its pace “seems to have slackened.”

Trueblood cited the city’s efforts to relieve pressures on the housing market. He noted Democratic Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s plan to build 36,000 new housing units by 2025, ensuring at least 12,000 are affordable housing units, and that they are spread across all of the city’s neighborhoods.

The driving force behind the policy, Trueblood said, is “recognizing that our city has a history of segregation, and that we need to begin dismantling that.”

John Harden, Ted Mellnik and Kate Rabinowitz contributed to this report.