WASHINGTON – The pandemic helped suppress U.S. population growth across the country, new data released this past week showed – but in the District of Columbia, the decrease was particularly sharp: After steadily growing for a decade and a half, the city shrank this year by around 20,000 residents, or 2.9%.
Most of the loss was due to domestic migration (more people moving out than in), raising questions about whether the exodus is a blip or heralds a flattening out or even a reversal of the city’s long growth spurt.
About 23,000 more people moved out of the city than moved into it between July 1, 2020, and July 1, 2021, according to Census Bureau estimates, a decrease that was offset by a gain of about 2,100 people from natural increase (births over deaths) and about 1,100 from international migration.
In 2020, by comparison, Washington lost just 658 people through domestic migration. Before 2018, the domestic migration numbers had been positive going back to 2008. The city’s population had been growing since 2006.
The pandemic is a large driver of the change, analysts say. A report this summer using U.S. Postal Service data found that the District lost at least 17,000 more people during 2020 than the previous year, with at least 9,000 of the loss appearing to be permanent.
The report, by Ginger Moored, a financial analyst at the city’s Office of Revenue Analysis, showed 29,362 more people moved out of the city than into it during 2020, with moves accelerating after March. The net loss was much higher that year than in 2019, which saw 11,480 net moves out, the report said.
The analysis, which studied change of address forms filed with the USPS by individuals and families, found that while there was some decline in the number of moves into the District in 2020, about 90% of the increase in net moves out were due to additional people leaving the city.
Helen and Josh Folk didn’t expect to be among them last year. They had lived in a Capitol Hill rowhouse for a decade and had planned to stay there with their two small children for a few more years. Then the pandemic hit.
Helen, 34, a customer-facing manager for a national bank, was suddenly using the kitchen table as her office space – right across from her husband, Josh, 39, an executive at IdeaScale, a cloud-based software company. Conference calls and Zoom meetings became an elaborate dance as the couple ducked in and out of bedrooms or out the front door.
The Folks had planned to move to Northern Virginia by the time their girls started elementary school, but the pandemic pushed them to make the move earlier.
“All of the things we loved about living in the city – being able to walk around and go to restaurants, hanging out with friends, the social aspect – none of that was happening,” Helen Folk said. “It made us start to reevaluate what we wanted.”
A year ago, they moved to a house in Great Falls, Va., where each adult has a separate office space and the yard is big enough for the kids to play in and for friends to safely visit. “There are things we miss about D.C., but with the pandemic and having two little kids, we wouldn’t exactly have been able to enjoy those things anyway,” she said.
It’s not clear whether all of those who moved are gone for good.
When filling out the USPS forms, people mark their moves as permanent or temporary; the report estimated that of the increase of 17,882 net moves out, 9,335 were permanent and 8,547 were temporary.
The wave of departures comes even as decennial census data show the city grew by a robust 14.6% between 2010 and 2020. That growth came largely in the first part of the decade, peaking in 2013 before slowing down. Last year was the first time in a decade and a half that the city registered a net population loss. A shrinking population translates to less revenue for the city from income tax, real estate tax and sales tax.
The decline was confirmed by apartment vacancy rates, which shot up from 2.6% in the third quarter of 2019 to 7.7% in the first quarter of 2021, said the city’s interim chief financial officer, Fitzroy Lee.
The sharp drop in the District’s population was no surprise to local real estate professionals, who have for months been seeing residents ditch high-density parts of town in search of more space.
Harrison Beacher, the 2022 president of the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors (GCAAR), said condominium sales have limped along through much of the pandemic, prompting some sellers to take their apartments off the market until spring 2022 in hopes of securing a better offer.
Neighborhoods full of high-density buildings and shared living options have cooled off as buyers looked to parts of the District with detached single-family homes, backyards, and access to nature and walking paths, setting records for sales in neighborhoods that had previously been considered less desirable, Beacher said.
“In moderate and higher income households, you don’t really see as many people leaving the area as you see them looking at slightly different neighborhoods,” Beacher said. “People were unwilling to pay as much for a tiny box.”
There are signs that the past year was an anomaly. As of May 2021, the USPS data show net moves out of the city have returned to 2019 levels. “But for the city to regain the population it lost, we would need to see an influx of residents into the city at levels we have not seen in several years,” it said.
The vacancy rate has recently returned to below the pre-pandemic level, registering at 1.8% in the third quarter of this year, Lee said, adding that this offered hope that the slowdown would be temporary.
“Frankly, I was worried until I started seeing the later data from USPS and the vacancy rate,” he said. “There is evidence that people are coming back.”
The Zip codes registering the largest declines in 2020 were areas with relatively high numbers of multifamily buildings, including Dupont and Logan circles, Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, 14th and U Street NW, and Southwest Waterfront.
Zip codes with the fewest losses tended to be toward the edges of the city and have more single-family homes such as Shepherd Park, Takoma, Chevy Chase, Friendship Heights and Barnaby Woods. At least 31% of people leaving D.C. are believed to have moved to places in the Washington metro area, with Bethesda and Arlington gaining some of the highest percentages of people moving from the District, according to the report.
Zip code 20003, which includes Navy Yard, a neighborhood with many multifamily buildings, had the largest influx from other parts of the city. “New apartments coming online and offering incentives for moving in may be why Navy Yard and adjacent areas were able to attract so many residents from other parts of the city,” the report said.
William Frey, a senior demographer at the Brookings Institution, said the patterns suggest the city’s population may bounce back after the pandemic.
“I think it says that D.C., with its exceptionally large young population of students, interns and others who moved from out of state – many of them renters – who are more primed to make a covid-related move, will have lost a higher share of residents than many other cities,” he said. “The fact that a good portion of the D.C. out movers were labeled temporary, or destined to D.C. suburbs, suggests that there is a good chance the District can see a population rebound once the pandemic has subsided.”
Even before the pandemic, the city’s meteoric growth had slowed considerably, which Lee attributed to rising housing prices and scarce availability.
The prices of homes in the District have remained high through the pandemic. Even with a population drop, a housing shortage – and limited supply of single-family homes – has continued an imbalance of supply and demand that favors sellers and pushes home prices up and up, Beacher said.
In D.C., the median sale price for homes in November was $725,000 – a nearly 3% increase from the previous month and a more than 6.5% increase from the same time period in 2020, according to the GCAAR.
For this reason, several real estate agents said, some families have opted to leave the District, looking at homes in the suburbs and exurbs of Maryland and Virginia. In Montgomery County, just over the D.C. border, the median sale price for homes was $525,000, up more than 7% from November 2020, according to GCAAR data.
“When people were in their house in 2020 and realized they needed more space to do more things inside, they realized there are limited options to do that in the city unless you have a million dollar budget,” Beacher said.
Bic DeCaro, a real estate agent in Northern Virginia, said the transition to remote work pushed many to begin looking beyond D.C. borders.
Prince William County, Loudoun County and even parts of Warren County have become pandemic destinations, DeCaro said.
“When people feel they can leave and work remotely from anywhere, permanently, they start thinking about quality of life,” DeCaro said. “If they can get paid the same amount they’re getting paid to live in a city, but live in a cheaper area, then all of a sudden they can save more money, they can move to a better school district, they can get a head start on living in the place they want to retire to.”
But Steven Martin, a senior demographer at the Urban Institute, said the latest numbers don’t necessarily signify a radical shift, saying in a city where upward of 100,000 people move in and out each year, the current numbers are not out of line.
“Movement in is happening, just at a lower rate than before, so people are still being attracted into the area,” he said. “I’m not ready to decree that a new age has dawned in D.C.”
The D.C. government has cast doubt on the accuracy of the 2020 Census count, which helps inform the latest estimates. The District is conducting its own analysis of the count to determine if or by how much its population may have been undercounted.
Deputy Mayor John Falcicchio cautioned against drawing long-term conclusions on the viability of urban living or high-density housing based on one year of population data, noting the strong home sales throughout the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the city is doing what it can to lure people back: Mayor Muriel E. Bowser this past week said coronavirus vaccines would be required for patrons to enter restaurants, gyms and other businesses starting in mid-January, and a mask mandate was reinstated amid rising coronavirus case counts.
These measures, Falcicchio said, are part of a long-term strategy to make D.C. visitors and residents feel secure.
“We want to make sure when people come back and enjoy the vibrancy the city has to offer that they know we’ll put in more steps to make the city safe,” he said. “We’re on our way to a comeback.”