By Lisa A. Sturtevant, PhD
President, Lisa Sturtevant & Associates
The District of Columbia has attracted thousands of new residents since the end of the recession. In 2009 and 2010, the Washington DC metro area was one of very few places around the country that was adding jobs, and therefore the city was a big draw for young workers in the first few years of the economic recovery.
In 2014, there was concern that after four years of dramatic increases the city’s population growth had begun to slow. The main reason seemed to be a slowdown in domestic migration—that is, people moving into DC from other places in the U.S. According to Census Bureau population estimates based on IRS data, in-migration to the District did, indeed, slow in 2014. After years talking about what it meant for the city when all of the Millennials moved in, people started wondering what it meant if the Millennials stopped coming.
However, the worries about population slowdown in the District might be premature. New population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that net migration is up between 2014 and 2015 and population growth, which has been slowing for several years, actually increased this past year. We know now that the heady post-recession population growth years were fueled by thousands of young, well-educated, mostly white people moving into the city. But what do we know about more recent migrants to DC? Do they look the same as the earlier newcomers or is there a shift in the types of people who want to call DC home?
Notwithstanding the most recent population trends in the District of Columbia, young people have always been more likely to move to cities than older people. And young people—particularly between the ages of 18 and 24—have been the primary driver of DC’s population growth, both in 2010 and more recently. What’s different is that young people might be staying in the city longer than they used to. In 2010, 40 percent of people who moved out of DC were between the ages of 25 and 34. This is a relatively mobile age cohort, and these moves are often precipitated by life-cycle events, such as marriage and children, which are historically often associated with a move to the suburbs. In 2014, however, the share of out-migrants that was 25 to 34 years old declined slightly, to 37 percent. (The share of out-migrants age 35 to 44 increased between 2010 and 2014.) Not a big change, and it could reflect a more complicated demographic pattern in the city. However, it could also be early evidence of young people staying in the city, at least while their children are very young (i.e. pre-school age) instead of bee-lining to the suburbs.
So, people moving into DC are much younger than the overall population. Nearly 40 percent of people who moved into DC in 2014 were between the ages of 18 and 24, compared to just 12 percent of all residents. But they differ from existing residents in many other ways, as well. Continuing post-recession trends, new residents to the District are much more likely to be white than existing residents. In 2014, nearly 60 percent of the people who moved into the city were white, compared to 40 percent of the overall population. Only 29 percent of in-migrants were black, while the city’s overall African-American population was just under 50 percent in 2014. DC has a very highly educated population but new residents are much more likely than existing residents to have a bachelor’s degree or higher—72 percent versus 55 percent. And not surprising, given their age, the vast majority of new residents are renters (82 percent) compared to about 57 percent of the overall population.
These demographic patterns may not be terribly surprising. They match what we’ve heard for years about the city’s new residents. But the income data may be a little surprising. Even though about 15 percent of new residents had individual incomes of $75,000 or more (compared to 24.5 percent of existing residents), most were more likely to have lower incomes. In fact, nearly 40 percent of the city’s in-migrants in 2014 had individual incomes of less than $25,000. Many of these lower-income newcomers likely included young workers and college students. By comparison, 32 percent of the city’s overall population had incomes below that level.
So, if DC is still the place to be, is the city ready to accommodate its new residents? These data on recent movers to the District suggest the following:
- The income distribution of the city’s newest residents suggests that while some are able to afford the rents at new luxury buildings, many are probably doubling—or tripling—up or paying much more than 30 or even 50 percent of their income on rent. While it’s possible for someone to stretch a housing budget for a while, it can eventually be a strain… and the effort of staying in the city can often become too much. In addition, when people spend a disproportionate share of their income on housing, they have less to spend on other things. Living in the city can allow people to spend less on some necessities, particularly transportation; however, there are other essentials and non-essentials that people often cut back on to afford high rents. And when more of residents’ income goes to rent and less to other things that help support the DC economy, there can be a broader economic impact.
- In order to keep new residents in the city, it is important that housing is affordable and appropriate for changing families’ needs. A recent study by the DC Office of the Chief Financial Officer found that new parents in DC are likely to leave the city. School quality is obviously a key factor in whether or not parents decide to stay in DC. Also important is the availability of affordable housing that is big enough to accommodate families with children. Whether small single-family homes, townhouses /condos or apartments in multi-family buildings, it is essential that there are family-sized units to accommodate growing families. Otherwise, even young families that want to stay in the city may find themselves looking for a place in the suburbs.
- Data on recent movers into DC shines a light on what most of us probably already know: newcomers are different in many ways from long-time residents. Population growth in the District has led to the revitalization of long-neglected parts of the city. But the changes new residents have engendered across the city have also created tensions. Redevelopment has led to the displacement of hundreds—perhaps thousands—of existing DC residents. As with any city experiencing rapid change, it is difficult to help ensure that all of the city’s residents benefit from neighborhood improvements. In addition, new residents have different expectations for city amenities, which can often pit newcomers against long-time residents. Figuring out how to balance priorities of both the city’s newest and its established residents is a key mission for ensuring that the District continues to thrive.
Did you miss last month’s Matters@HAND? Read Should We Put a Dollar Value on the Benefits of Affordable Housing today.