The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Influx of newcomers in D.C. appears to be slowing down, Census Bureau says

Restaurant patrons dine al fresco at Pearl Dive Oyster Palace on 14th Street NW. (Lucian Perkins/for The Washington Post)

A flood of newcomers to the District from other cities and states over the past decade may be slowing to a trickle, according to demographic data recently released by the Census Bureau.

Washington saw a net increase of roughly 2,300 new residents from other states between July 2015 and July 2016, the Census Bureau reported in its year-end population estimates. The figure marked a steep drop-off from five years ago, when net migration to the city from other parts of the United States exceeded 7,000.

The city’s population continued to grow at a steady rate overall, to just over 681,000 from 670,000. But most of that increase came from births and international immigration.

The data show a pronounced change to one of the most transformative social forces in the nation’s capital. In recent years, waves of young professionals from other parts of the region and country have fueled a boom in the District’s population and local economy.

They have also profoundly unsettled its cultural and political equilibrium, as longtime residents of the city — many of them poor and African American — lose ground to more-affluent new arrivals.

Demographers and bureau officials caution against reading too much into the agency’s yearly population estimates, which are the result of complicated (though historically accurate) statistical conjecture instead of an actual tally.

The new estimates for U.S. states and the District of Columbia leave many questions unanswered about the people moving to or away from Washington, such as their ethnicity, income levels or — in the case of those coming from abroad — their country of origin. Census Bureau officials said it would probably be months before those details could be made available.

Experts, nevertheless, say the figures tell a story about people’s movement across state and city lines — what demographers call “domestic migration” — that is worth heeding.

Among the demographic components of population change, “domestic migration is most closely aligned with the economy,” said William Frey, a demographer and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “It tells you where the labor force is moving and where the economy is doing well.”

In the District’s case, Frey said, the figures are probably less a reflection of economic change for the city than of booming business elsewhere.

During the recession that followed the 2008 financial crisis, he said, Washington and some other cities became islands of prosperity that attracted workers from rural areas and the suburbs. The trend was reinforced as exurban housing development ground to a halt.

As the worst effects of this economic downturn fade, other parts of the country are again starting to look desirable, Frey said — especially compared with cities whose cost of living has soared.

“Now that we’re coming out of the recession, D.C. as a metro area isn’t growing as fast as it was before. There are simply fewer people coming to the District,” Frey said. “Those bigger forces that created this migration four or five years ago simply aren’t there anymore, and that’s why we’re not seeing those bigger numbers.”

Jeffrey Passel, a senior demographer at the Pew Research Center, said the drop in net migration to the District from other states should be kept in context: The city is still attracting more residents than it is losing.

By contrast, both Virginia and Maryland have seen a net loss of residents to other states over the past several years. Virginia had a net departure of 25,300 people to other states, while Maryland’s out-migration was 26,200. (Those losses were offset by net population increases from international immigration of 32,500 and 26,400, respectively.)

“For decades, the District was losing population,” Passel said. Today, he added, “It is noteworthy that it’s getting both domestic and international migration.”

The city remains distant from the historic highs reached by its population, which crested at about 900,000 during and immediately after World War II. But the influx of new Washingtonians has already reshaped the District in far-reaching ways.

The 2010 Census showed that African Americans — for decades the District’s dominant ethnic group — were a smaller part of a growing city. Over the decade preceding the census count, African Americans had dropped to 50 percent of the population from 59 percent, while whites grew to 35 percent of the population from 28 percent.

The District’s strong economy and rising population have had mixed effects. Flush with tax revenue, the city government has reached stable financial footing after years of lurching between crises. The homicide rate, despite ticking up over the past two years, has plummeted since the 1990s.

Demographic change has also stoked gentrification. Some on the front lines of the city’s economy say it should come as no surprise that fewer people are choosing to move to or stay in the District when faced with its high cost of living.

Saied Azali, a longtime D.C. resident and restaurateur, said his business remains strong. But Azali — a co-owner of the popular restaurants Perry’s, Mintwood Place and Convivial — said he knows proprietors of smaller restaurants who feel driven to leave the District for other states because of the high cost of doing business.

He said the plight of business owners has been aggravated by the city’s elected officials, who in the past year alone have voted to raise the minimum wage and increase business taxes to pay for a program offering private-sector workers family and medical leave.

“Do you want all D.C. to be rich people? Do you want all people to look the same?” Azali said. “It’s so hard to do business in D.C. right now.”

Ed Lazere, executive director of the left-leaning D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, said there is “no validity” to arguments that local legislation such as the wage increase or paid-leave program have or will hurt the city’s economy.

Leading economic indicators — such as job growth and increases in total personal income — show the city continues to thrive, Lazere said.

“The argument that we’re hurting our business climate is really baseless,” he said. “It’s not based on any attempt at analysis or evidence.”

Rather than fretting over the decline in newcomers to the District, Lazere said, public officials would be wise to pursue policies that make it easier for those already here to cope with a high cost of living.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) draws the same conclusion, according to her spokesman, Kevin Harris. He said the mayor was not alarmed by the decline in migrants to the District from other states, which Harris attributed to competition for new residents — especially those in their 20s and 30s — from economically recovering areas in other parts of the country.

He said in a statement that Bowser is more focused — through policies designed to increase the amount of affordable housing, create incentives for first-time home buyers and boost the quality of public education — on keeping people who have arrived from leaving.

The goal is not only to draw more people to the District, he said, but “ensuring those residents who have been here the longest are able to stay and aren’t priced out.”