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You’re a young professional; you’ve got a good job in the District, maybe a young professional spouse, too. But you’re sick of the hourlong commute from Fairfax or Rockville—and you’ve heard about all these sweet condos going up in the city.
Not so long ago, you could surf on over to citylivingdc.com and find out how to embrace the urban lifestyle.
There was an “Interactive Properties Map” showing where all the development was happening. There was a rundown of the District’s hottest neighborhoods so you could figure out whether Penn Quarter, Truxton Circle, or NoMa was your style. There were plenty of links to banks happy to loan you money to move there. And you could register for the latest “city living, dc style!” expo, where you could talk to those bankers, developers, and city officials eager to get you into D.C.
Point your Web browser to citylivingdc.com these days, though, and you’ll find a blank screen.
No “Interactive Properties Map.” No rundown of the District’s hottest neighborhoods. No way to “learn about mortgage options that suit your financial needs.” You sure can’t register for the next “city living, dc style!” expo, ’cause, well, that isn’t happening.
And neither did the last one. In February 2005, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Stanley Jackson informed the Washington Convention Center that the second “city living, dc style!” expo, scheduled for five weeks later, was cancelled. The reason Jackson gave was that the first expo, held in October 2003, was just too successful at luring condo buyers, citing “a stronger than anticipated response of homebuyers and renters to the current real estate market.”
As it happens, the city was also out of money to spend on it. “We hope to bring the EXPO back in the future should additional resources become available,” Jackson wrote in a letter to the Washington Convention Center Authority. “In the meantime, we will still maintain our presence on the web at www.citylivingdc.com.”
The first year of the “city living” campaign cost the District government upward of $600,000. The campaign was aimed at bringing new residents into Washington—and more specifically, selling housing units—but it didn’t seem to capture the imaginations, or the pocketbooks, of the city’s biggest housing enterprises.
“We never could get Fannie Mae to buy in as a major corporate sponsor. We couldn’t get other ones like a Long & Foster or a Weichert, Realtors,” says Michael Stevens, a top architect of “city living, dc style!” and the former president of the Washington, DC Economic Partnership. “We just could never get those $100,000 sponsors. It was even hard to get $20,000 sponsors.”
By the beginning of 2005, Stevens says, the priorities in the mayor’s office went elsewhere—to “brick and mortar” projects like redeveloping the old convention-center site and luring Major League Baseball.
But Stevens remains a believer in “city living”: “I still think it’s a great idea,” he says.
Every year, the U.S. Census Bureau seems to tell Washington it needs “city living, dc style!” more than ever.
For the past several years, the bureau and District officials have engaged in a regular, fiery, and utterly predictable tango. It goes something like this: The Census Bureau reveals numbers that show the District continues to empty; the officials complain like hell.
In 2003—the year “city living, dc style!” was born—the Census Bureau announced that it estimated some 5,800 net residents had packed up and left the District. After the figures were released in December, then–mayoral spokesperson Tony Bullock had this to say to the Washington Post: “Nobody with a functioning brain cell who lives in this city could think that we’re losing people.”
In 2004, the bureau announced, the District held another 4,000 fewer residents than it did the year before. Bullock again gave the administration’s position to the Post: “We still maintain that—in the immortal words of Bob Dylan—you don’t need a weatherman to see which way the wind blows.”
Then, last year, the bureau really lowered the boom. In a round of long-term projections released that April, the Census Bureau foresaw the District losing another 20,000 residents by the end of the decade. The figures have the population down to fewer than 435,000 residents by 2030—uncomfortably close to halving the District’s historical peak, 802,178 in 1950, and even more uncomfortably close to the current population of Mesa, Ariz.
After these figures were released, Mayor Anthony A. Williams himself released a blistering statement: “Despite 7,000 new housing units built in the last four years, despite dropping rental vacancy rates, fewer abandoned homes and an explosion of activity by developers all over the city, the Census Bureau today projected that the city will lose 138,000 people between now and 2030. That projection is laughably wrong….I…completely reject this poorly constructed estimate.”
This past December, the Bureau announced that the District’s population, by its calculations, had decreased by 3,718 residents in 2005. This time, the numbers were greeted by frustration more than by raw anger. Joy Phillips of the city Office of Planning, the District’s top-ranking demographer, told the Post, “Something doesn’t seem to be panning out.”
A couple of days later, the city announced that for the first time, it would actually challenge the estimate with the Census Bureau—and prove once and for all that the District isn’t shrinking into oblivion.
In 1994, Jim Maroney moved into a row house in Stanton Park; he’d lived in the District since 1980, but the house seemed like a good spot to raise a family with his new wife, Shelby Myers. And so he did: There, on Acker Street NE, they began raising their two kids, now 8 and 11.
They loved the Fourths of July and Halloweens on the Hill. Everything was a step away. A steady influx of yuppies notwithstanding, the neighborhood had lots of character—not like in those dull, dreadful suburbs.
“Even though we never got our street plowed, we could get our boots on and walk to the store,” Myers says. “The Metro’s right there; there’s a good ethnic mix; you know your neighbors. You meet people walking down the street.”
And let it be known Maroney & Co. have a high tolerance for the foibles of urban life.
On the day they signed their lease in 1994, Maroney remembers, he read a Washington Post story about a senseless killing on their street two years earlier. According to the Post, the murderer, who lived on the street, happened to have a gun when the spirit overcame him: “Let’s go get a white man,” he allegedly said to friends, moments before shooting a Senate-staffer neighbor in the head.
Within a year of the Maroneys’ moving in, somebody climbed up the façade of their house, crawled through the unbarred windows on the second floor, and made off with a stereo. In 1995, a thief broke into their car and stole Myers’ breast pump. The next year, somebody came in through the front door and swiped two purses while Myers and Maroney sat on the back porch with friends.
In 2000, two thugs held up Maroney’s then-17-year-old son (from a previous marriage) at gunpoint, forced him to let them into the basement to steal his stuff, and then had him teach them how to drive a stick shift so they could steal his car.
Move to the suburbs? “Never even gave it a thought,” Maroney, now 51, says.
Big shots at the John A. Wilson Building have sunk a lot of brainpower into the question of whether D.C. can accommodate the long-term needs of the Maroneys and their ilk. From the early days of the Williams administration, it appeared that a certain family-friendliness had settled into the upper reaches of D.C. government. Williams himself elevated education to a central spot in his agenda, along with a range of quality-of-life considerations that had long pushed families to places that offered both better services and voting rights.
In his 2003 second inaugural address, Williams set out his most ambitious goal: to attract 100,000 new residents to the District of Columbia over the next ten years. The number captured imaginations across the city, as much for its ballsiness as anything else. With all these new people flooding into the city, young families would have new partners in lobbying for better school facilities, teachers, and playgrounds.
The 100,000 project was clearly a legacy builder for Williams—it surfaced at least a year before baseball looked anything like reality. The timing of the announcement, and the end-of-the-decade time frame, was hardly happenstance. To the media, he compared the plan to John F. Kennedy’s 1962 goal of getting a man on the moon by 1970.
And the number itself wasn’t happenstance, either. It was first floated in a 2001 paper, “Envisioning a Future Washington,” published by the Brookings Institution. Its authors, former Control Board Chair Alice M. Rivlin and one-time New York City finance chief Carol O’Cleireacain, argued that the city needs to gain population to remain financially and socially healthy. How much more? Well, 100,000 was a nice round number, Rivlin says.
“The 100,000 was just a number we were throwing out there. It didn’t have any particular status. What we were exploring in the paper was what would be the implications for the city financially of having a larger population,” she says. “It was just an intellectual exercise to explore the implications as roughly as we could estimate it for the city.”
But how to get 100,000 more people into a city—rebound or not—that had known nothing but exodus for four decades?
Rivlin and O’Cleireacain threw out a couple of ways the city could go about bringing 100,000 people to town. One they deemed the “Family Strategy,” the other the “Adult Strategy.”
Here’s the Family Strategy: “More Middle-Income Families with Children…This group would include both one- and two-parent families, typically with at least one earner who works in the District.” You know, like the Maroneys.
And the Adult Strategy: “More Middle- and Upper-Income Singles and Couples…This strategy would focus on young professionals in their 20s and 30s, as well as some older adults, including empty-nesters and retirees.” You know, yuppies.
The two options, however, weren’t equally viable paths to a Washington flush with new citizens and their new tax dollars. Going the “family” route would require massive public investment. And the homeowners attracted by such policies might not bring in huge incomes. The “adult” road, on the other hand, would be relatively easy: Build condos as fast as you can, and figure out where you can build even more. The result would be lots of new one- and two-person households with big taxable incomes and plenty of cash to spend on District restaurants, shops, and theaters.
And the two paths didn’t lead to equally happy Washingtons. “We took the point of view that you wouldn’t want to have just a bunch of rich yuppies,” Rivlin says. “You would want to have a balance, and certainly the long-run future of the city depends on having more children and more families.”
The report put it a little more strongly:
[B]y itself, the adult strategy poses a serious risk of exacerbating racial and class tensions and widening the gulf between rich and poor in the city. Some lower-income residents would benefit from additional employment and more profitable neighborhood businesses, and find themselves owners of more valuable houses. But higher property taxes on those more valuable houses and rising rents might drive low-income people, particularly those without subsidized housing, out of the city unless strenuous efforts were made to enable them to stay. While some ethnically diverse neighborhoods would prosper, gentrification of lower-income neighborhoods could increase tension and resentment.
Within weeks of Williams’ 100,000 address, the “Adult Strategy” became official policy of the District of Columbia.
And just who inspired the policy choice? That gem of urban vitality 40 miles up the road.
A memo written by Stevens in January 2003 to top city economic-development officials proposed a campaign aimed at attracting residents to the city based on the effort all too familiar to skeptical Washingtonians confronted with “It’s Better in Baltimore” ads on the Metro.
The reason, Stevens wrote, was that “[w]ith several thousand units of housing in production and scheduled to reach the market over the next 18 months to three (3) years, the District could face a slow absorption of product until demand catches up with supply. This could be especially true in the market rate arena of multi-family housing.”
In other words: So many condos, so little time. But who to sell them to?
More to the point, who not to sell them to? Wrote Stevens: “While the campaign can target middle class families, this is not a realistic audience due to the quality and continuing issues of the District’s public school system.”
Over the following months, city officials, marketing gurus, and a team from event planner the TCI Companies formulated the basics of “city living, dc style!” In June, the campaign kicked off with a press junket at a Columbia Heights condo building. In late October 2003, the first “city living, dc style!” expo—intended to be the first of many—opened at the Washington Convention Center.
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Flush with booths from insurance and mortgage companies, home-buying seminars, and live musical acts, the expo attracted more than 6,000 people—but more than a few left disappointed. Attendees interviewed by Washington City Paper at the time (“city living, corporate style!” 10/31/2003) had a common complaint: I’m not rich enough for this stuff. And not poor enough, either.
Northwest renter Roslyn Stevens had lived in the city for more than 15 years, and nothing at the “city living” expo did much to make her want to stick around. “I’m not poor, but I’m one of those people who’s stuck right in the middle,” she said. “I want to live in D.C., but there’s nowhere for me to go.”
A memo circulated a couple of months later outlining talking points and answers to frequently asked questions laid out the campaign’s “Target Audience” more specifically:
A) Empty Nesters: no longer…feel the need to be in the suburbs to raise a family. They now have more free time on their hands and taking care of large backyards isn’t what they want to spend their time on each weekend. They’ve raised their families and now have some additional disposable income and are more inclined to spending it on entertainment such as the theater and restaurants.
B) Professionals that commute: free time is very limited and the Washington metropolitan area is over crowded. People are looking for a way to cut back on their commute time in order to get their work done and leave them with more recreational time.
C) Students: just getting out of college and beginning their first jobs in the city. The city offers them excitement, close proximity to the job market and lots of extra curricular activities.
D) Gay Men: typically professional, dual income households with discretionary income to enjoy the culture of what city life has to offer.
E) Renters to Owners: The folks already enjoy everything the District has to offer. However they may not know all it has to offer as far as home ownership programs.
F) Investors: With the stockmarket floundering, consumers are looking for different ways to increase their return on investments as well. The one sure thing is in real estate.
Maroney and Myers were indeed “Renters to Owners.” But, as it turned out, there wasn’t anything “city living, dc style!” could tell them to keep them in the District.
What finally forced this family out was something even more horrible than two-bit drug dealers, repeated robberies, and gentrification put together. The departure of the Maroney/Myers household bespoke the wisdom of Stevens’ contention about D.C.’s unsuitability for the middle class.
By 2003, the family had two kids of school age, one of whom needed some extra attention. And that was it for the Maroneys of Stanton Park.
“The public school system sucks,” Maroney says. The prospect of dealing with D.C. schools through the adolescences of their two children, one of whom has special needs, motivated a “no-brainer” move to Rockville. “We would’ve had to be extremely rich to stay. We had absolutely no choice.”
If there’s a city in this country whose population doesn’t really matter, it’s Washington.
D.C.’s influence has outclassed its population for its entire history—but never more so than today. Whereas in 1950, Washington was the nation’s 9th largest city, it is now estimated by the Census Bureau to be the nation’s 24th largest, outsized by such rapidly growing burgs as El Paso and Fort Worth. Washington has less than 8 percent of New York’s population, but when it comes to media, culture, power, and people’s imaginations, D.C.’s still in the ballpark. When’s the last time you heard someone debate DFW vs. NY?
But there are a few reasons that population really does matter. First off: money. Many federal grants and funding programs allocate money to the District based on the latest Census Bureau estimates. An undercount in the tens of thousands means millions of dollars less for the District. Second off: money. More people means more customers for a retail base. And just having a few rich folks doesn’t help that much, Rivlin says—especially when it comes to retail.
“If you have a densely populated area of moderate-income people, you have a more successful store than if you have a few rich people who live very far apart but there aren’t enough of them,” she says.
And third off: money. More residents means more taxpayers and a healthier bottom line for the District. The District’s recent budget surpluses have been fueled by property tax revenues jolted by skyrocketing real-estate prices—which, any reader of the Post Business section knows, aren’t the most reliable thing to base a city’s financial future on. A broader tax base means having more residents paying income taxes, sales taxes, excise taxes—and parking tickets.
But for nearly half a century, D.C. and other U.S. cities have found it nearly impossible to maintain their populations, let alone attract new residents. It’s a trend that shows no sign of stopping: Census Bureau figures released last month show that from 2000 to 2004, 18 of the nation’s 25 largest metro areas had more people move out than move in. And a dropping population starts all sorts of downward spirals. Abandoned houses lead to crime, which leads to more abandoned houses. When children leave a school system, the buildings that held them remain, leaving surplus property that still needs to be maintained, sucking funds away from students who do stay. And it’s a failing school system that starts the most destructive downward spiral of them all, the one that kills the middle class.
New York, Chicago, and a few other cities have had some success rehabbing their failing public schools by taking decisions out of the hands of ponderous school boards and into the hands of schools “czars” tasked with fixing what needs fixing and firing who needs firing, damn the political consequences. And those cities that have had success fixing their schools have done better than most in keeping the middle class in their cities.
But that hasn’t happened in Washington. Williams’ 2004 schools-takeover plan foundered, and for the balance of his administration, the Williams education strategy has been largely to push charter schools and vouchers as alternatives to dysfunctional public-school classrooms.
Surviving the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) is especially tough when your child needs special attention, as Maroney and Myers found out. “We clearly had a situation where one of our kids could not function in a classroom from pre-K on,” Maroney says. “There was no support for anything outside typical behavior. They didn’t have enough money for mainstream, let alone special needs.”
Their kid wound up at the Rose School, a DCPS special-education center near Howard University. It was a place where the staff meant well but “they had absolutely no money,” says Maroney. He recalls walking into the boys’ bathroom and being overwhelmed by the filth. “It was a disgrace,” Maroney says.
The school moved to a new facility on Howard Road SE in 2002, but nicer digs didn’t necessarily mean a nicer learning environment for its students. “The bathrooms were nice, but the fucking place was a prison,” says Maroney, a former prison guard himself.
It was time to take a look at Montgomery County, whose special-education programs are some of the best in the nation.
The family set a budget and had a real estate agent help pick an area based on the quality of school districts. They wound up living in a spacious house right on the corner of a highway intersection, way out in Rockville.
Maroney hated it. “It’s too sterile; it’s too car-driven; it’s ugly,” he says.
And he often telecommutes. Myers’ trip to work went from five to 50 minutes. “The commute is so awful,” she says.
If they had more money, Myers believes they could have stayed in D.C. and worked the system. “If you can hire a lawyer who can advocate that D.C. schools don’t pass muster, you can get the District to pay for transportation and tuition to a school in the suburbs.”
Maroney and Myers didn’t have the dough for that. “We had to fight just to get him into a substandard program,” Myers says.
In Rockville, she says, “I have more faith that we can make it work.”
It’s a leap of faith not much different from the one that hundreds of thousands have already taken over the past 50 years. And it’s what’s behind the District’s population problem: the declining size of the average District household.
In 1970, the average household size in the District was 2.72. By 2000, it was down to 2.16. Those numbers correspond to the increasing whiteness of the city and a flat birth rate. And don’t go wild about all those strollers up at 2 Amys, as the Post did in a January 2005 article. According to figures in the piece, births west of Rock Creek Park went up 33 percent from 1994 to 2002, but combined with the rest of the city, births dropped almost 25 percent citywide over the same period.
Race comes into play, too. White flight may have been the story during the ’60s and early ’70s, but it’s black flight that’s done the most to decimate D.C.’s population. At its ’70s peak, D.C.’s black population constituted nearly three-quarters of the District total. By 2000, blacks made up only 60 percent of the city population.
According to data from the 2000 census, the average black household consists of 2.34 persons; the average non-Hispanic white household is only 1.75.
You don’t have to be a demographer to figure out the math: Are enough one- and two-person white households coming in to replace the bigger black families that continue to leave?
Current OP projections assume the District’s average household size will remain at 2.11 for the rest of the decade, with slight increases after that. That means if family-flight trends continue—and with rising housing costs and a slowly improving school system, it’s likely—it will take thousands of new households just to keep up.
Even that figure might be generous. Asked why the city assumes a stable household size when it’s been dropping for three decades, Phillips, the city demographer, says: “Of course, we don’t expect the public schools to remain [low-performing]. It has to change. It has to. It cannot go down any lower….That turnaround must occur some point down the road.”
Sometime in the next month, the District will send a package to the Census Bureau full of stats detailing the city’s impressive housing boom. That data, city officials hope, will convince the bureau to revise the city’s 2005 population estimate upward.
When the Census Bureau does population estimates, it bases its calculations on three components: birth rate, death rate, and net migration. Birth and death rates are pretty much foolproof—babies are born, people die; they get counted. Much trickier is determining how many people are flowing in and out of an area. It’s an especially large part of the problem for D.C.; a 1997 Census report calculated that nearly 1 in every 10 D.C. residents leaves the District every year. Only Alaska even comes close to that rate of transience.
How does the Census Bureau figure out who’s moving in and who’s moving out? Part of the migration figure is immigration, which comes from visa applications. But the much bigger part is domestic migration, and that comes from tax returns. The IRS prepares an aggregate report of taxpayers’ movements and hands it over to the Census Bureau. (Minus any personal data, Census employees are quick to mention.)
In the most recent estimates, figures showed the birth rate outpacing the death rate by more than 2,800, and immigrants adding another 3,435 people to the city. But that was all wiped out by the nearly 10,000 D.C. residents in 2004 who filed their taxes someplace else in 2005. It’s that number—10,000 D.C. residents up and gone in one year—that has city demographers screaming.
But in recent years, the city hasn’t done much to dispute it. The Census Bureau has an oft-used challenge process for estimates; last year, for example, 38 jurisdictions—including Baltimore, Arlington, and Charlottesville—had their 2004 estimates revised upward. Some cities—Baltimore and St. Louis among them—have made a yearly routine of challenging their Census estimates; St. Louis has already had its 2005 estimate revised. Still, despite the bluster from city officials, D.C. has not used the system in recent memory.
Last April, after the long-term projections were released, city officials began yet another round of bickering in the press. Dr. Myoung-ouk Kim, a Census Bureau statistician in the projections branch, wanted to have a look at the city’s data to check for possible problems in the federal numbers. “We asked them, ‘Can you send us your data? We want to look at it.’ We requested their data, and we requested their methodology. They never replied to us,” she says.
That June, she met an Office of Planning employee at a meeting; he also mentioned sharing data with the feds, but it never happened. “As professionals, we wanted to know. We formally requested through e-mail to their demographer…what data they used. They didn’t provide us with anything.”
Phillips blames the lack of appeals on turnover. She had just started her job as the District’s chief demographer in February 2005 and was unable to collect the data required to challenge in time; her job had been vacant for several years before that.
When the latest estimate figures were released last December, Phillips says she had already been formulating how to challenge the federal figures. “In terms of, in your mind, what is needed, what is going on in the city, it had begun mentally.”
“What’s been happening since then is that we’ve been…collecting the information that is necessary for the challenge and analyzing the information. I’m not sure that at this point I want to get into the details of it because, you know, we don’t want to let it out as to what we are doing in terms of actual data items that we are putting into the challenge,” Phillips says. “It’s been very tedious. People have probably been saying, ‘Why is it taking so long?’ But it’s a tedious job, and we want to get it right.”
If the city gets the Census Bureau estimate bumped up to its own number—577,500, an approximately 5,400-person increase over the Census 2000 number and more than 25,000 more than the 2005 Census Bureau estimate—it would represent an almost 5 percent increase in population. Among jurisdictions of at least 200,000 people that have successfully challenged estimates in the past five years, only two have claimed so large a mistake.
And it will still leave the District with a long road to 100,000 new residents by 2013—even the Office of Planning doesn’t anticipate that many residents until 2020. Not that that number was “written in steel” in the first place, says mayoral spokesperson Vincent Morris. “All [Williams has] been saying is that we need to go in the other direction,” he says. “He’s trying to get people not to fixate on the number.”
When the Census issue is brought up, city officials talk about all the data points to support their claims that the population is growing—everything from housing starts to driver’s-license issuances to a stabilizing school population. But there are only three figures that the Census Bureau is interested in when considering a challenge. Jurisdictions can submit statistics on the numbers of housing permits, certificates of occupancy, or utility hookups, and those figures will be looked over—and likely approved—by bureau administrators, says Jonathan Takeuchi, a statistician in the bureau’s population division. “Generally, we tend to take the data at face value,” he says.
There’s another bit of optimism that often gets mentioned by District officials: In the late ’90s, when the city was first beginning to snap out of its long economic funk, Census Bureau estimates had the city’s population at less than 520,000. But when the actual count was done in 2000, it revealed that the estimate had lowballed D.C.’s population by more than 50,000.
Whatever the 2010 count turns up, there will be at least four would-be Washingtonians that won’t help boost the District’s bottom line.
Committed urbanist Maroney says he’s actually getting used to the ’burbs: “This is like gentrification all over again. It’s too big, it’s disgusting—but I love it. We got a nice big yard.”
Not that he wanted to get used to it.
“Of all the people that Mayor Williams should’ve been able to keep in the city,” he says, “it was us.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustrations by Gus D’Angelo.