Why Is D.C. Losing So Many Residents?
By December 27, 2021 5 8523•
Why the sudden drop in the District’s population?
Just last year on Tax Day, April 15, 2020, Washington, D.C. was reported to be growing for the 14th straight year. According to Census Bureau statistics, D.C.’s residential population grew “more than 14 percent from 2010 to 2020, from 601,723 in the 2010 count to 689,545” in the 2020 count, a “healthy gain,” according to reporter Andrew Beaujon of The Washingtonian.
Just two years earlier it looked like Washington, D.C.’s population juggernaut could not be stopped. Mayor Bowser celebrated a population projection from the DC Office of Planning’s State Data Center that the city would reach 700,000 residents in 2018, citing “two newborns as the people who would purportedly put the District over the 700k mark,” according to Beaujon.
But now, at the end of 2021, the District is reportedly losing population at record levels. “More people are leaving D.C. than in any other area of the country,” WTOP reporter Valerie Bonk reported on Dec. 23. “The District had the largest percentage drop in population in the nation in the last year, according to new U.S. Census Bureau data,” Bonk reported, with a whopping 2.9 percent population loss. According to the data, 20,043 people left the District, resulting in the city’s population dropping to 670,050 in 2021, down from 690,093 residents in the city in 2020.
Compared to U.S. states, the District had the “largest percentage [population] decrease in the nation, just ahead of New York [state], which lost 1.6 percent of its population, followed by Illinois, which saw a 0.9 percent decrease,” according to DCist reporter Hector Alejandro Arzate.
So, why the massive shift? Obviously, the pandemic accounts for a significant portion of Washington D.C.’s out-migration as residents with work flexibility and financial means move away from densely populated areas. After all, if you can work virtually in your D.C. “office” from Rehoboth Beach, why not take advantage of the opportunity? Data from the U.S. Postal Service which tracks change-of-address forms indicates that more than 9,000 residents “may have left the District permanently during the pandemic,” according to Arzate. Even within the city, populations appear to be shifting as a result of the pandemic from denser to sparser areas.
But what other hidden factors may be at work in D.C.’s population loss? A rapidly declining national population growth rate is one such trend affecting local population statistics. According to Census Bureau data, the nation grew by just 0.1 percent (or 392,665 people) last year, the lowest rate since the nation’s founding. According to Kristie Wilder, a demographer in the Population Division of the U.S. Census Bureau, factors beyond the pandemic also help account for this slowing growth rate. “Population growth has been slowing for years because of lower birth rates and decreasing net international migration, all while mortality rates are rising due to the aging of the nation’s population,” Wilder told WTOP reporter Valerie Bonk. Pandemic mortality (of approximately 815,000 Americans to date) has only added to such trends.
Nationally, U.S. population growth has been declining markedly due to “decreased net international migration, decreased fertility, and increased mortality as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic,” according to DCist reporter Hector Alejandro Arzate.
Clearly, local economic trends in the District and surrounding metropolitan areas have also affected the District’s rapidly declining population. According to the Census Bureau, overall out-migration from the District last year (23,030 people) offset natural population increase (2,171 people) as well as international in-migration (1,128 people). Obviously, more people were leaving D.C. than arriving.
Prior to the pandemic, however, it was clear that a good portion of D.C.’s population was moving to outlying suburban areas based on both economic and racial factors. As growing commercial and tech hubs began to be better connected to the region’s economy with improved transportation infrastructure and incentivized commercial and real estate tax rates it was predictable that new residents to the D.C metropolitan area might choose to live in the outlying suburbs of the District.
But, socioeconomic factors have played a huge role as well. In 2011, D.C was declared no longer to be “Chocolate City,” with its Black population falling from a high of 71 percent in 1970 to below the majority at 49.2 percent (the current figure is 45.4 percent.)
This shift in D.C.’s Black population was caused by both positive and negative factors. On the positive side, suburban redlining practices (i.e., racial restrictions stemming from the Jim Crow era) began to lift in surrounding suburbs, allowing Black middle class residents to move beyond the city’s limits into surrounding suburbs. On the negative side, however, many Black residents were displaced from their city homes by forces of gentrification and economic dislocation, especially following the Great Recession of 2008. Historic Black D.C. neighborhoods began to see soaring numbers of new White residents.
As D.C.’s economy recovered strongly following the recession, real estate prices began to soar, driving many marginalized and younger residents from the city to the outlying suburbs as well. “Some of the suburbanization is presumably caused by the fact that property values in a lot of the city are rising and rents are rising… so people who previously lived in more urban areas are finding they can’t afford to live there,” said D.W. Rowlands, a human geography graduate student at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, interviewed by Rachel Kurzius of DCist in Jan. 2020. “And as the District has become less Black, the surrounding suburbs have grown significantly less White.”
From 2000-2016, the District was among the “few cities in the country where economic growth” resulted in “displacement of low-income populations,” according to a study from the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity in 2019, Kurzius reported. During this time frame, more than a quarter of low-income people who lived in District neighborhoods experiencing economic expansion were displaced. Surrounding suburbs consequently saw higher percentages of low-income and non-White residents.
What might D.C.’s falling population bode for the city? On the positive side, declining numbers of city residents should precipitate a fall in real estate prices in some “affordable neighborhoods” over time, given the laws of supply and demand and the commitment to racial and class equity of the city’s mayor and a majority of the D.C. Council. On the negative side, as the city’s population drops, so too will its tax base, giving the city less revenue to meet its obligations and goals. In the commercial sector, fewer city workers might also dampen investment and shrink the available workforce. Hopefully, however, the city will look for opportunities to refresh its population in the coming years and create new growth opportunities in such a way as to attract new home buyers and maintain the international city’s distinctly diverse and vibrant cultural mix.