646,449 – DC’s population continues to grow

Cranes. CC image from Daniel Foster.

Cranes. CC image from Daniel Foster.

The latest state-level population estimates show another year of 2%+ growth for DC, bringing the city’s estimated population to 646,449. Former Mayor Tony Williams set a goal in 2003 of adding 100,000 new residents to the city back when the city’s population growth was essentially nil, following decades of population decline.

Even in the relatively short history of this blog, nearing the symbolic 600k threshold prior to the 2010 Census was a big deal.

Of the growth in the most recent estimates, about 1/3 of the gains are from natural increases in the population (births minus deaths), while 2/3rds are from net migration (more people moving into the city from elsewhere than moving out).

Explanations for DC’s recent growth spurt that focus on Federal government spending are tempting, but misleading. The region’s overall growth rate since World War II is fairly consistent; what’s changing now is how that regional growth is allocating itself within the region. Chris at R.U. Seriousing Me shows how DC’s share of the regional population decreased from 1950 to 2010. The region’s growth trajectory has been upward, while the District’s population declined. However, if you assumed that DC maintained the same regional share of that growth throughout the last half-century, you’d find a DC today with 2.6 million people inside the city limits.

The counterfactual scenario is intriguing: assume a DC population of 2.6 million still governed by the federal height limit, and suddenly the comparisons of DC to Paris (low-rise with high population density) aren’t so absurd. Chris notes that for those opposed to even modest changes to the height limit or the construction of by-right buildings, the kind of development needed to accommodate 2.6 million people “must sound apocalyptic.”

Leaving the apocalypse aside for the moment, the 2.6 million resident scenario illustrates that you must not only have demand for growth, but allow that growth to happen – that is, allow the city’s housing supply to increase. Again, a comparison to Paris is illustrative: the Paris region has continued to grow, while the city’s population has somewhat declined and flattened out. It’s not hard to see why; the city’s legal and regulatory constraints on development do not provide room to grow within the city.

Mayor Gray, like Mayor Williams, set an ambitious goal for growth the District’s population: adding 250,000 new residents by 2032. Unlike in 2003, it’s not hard to see the demand for city living – in fact, we’re on pace to meet that goal right now. If the city were to continue to grow by 13,000 per year (as it has over the past three) over twenty years, DC will hit that mark.

Demand is only half of the equation, however. Michael Niebauer notes that the population gains justify the increased development seen around DC, and more will be needed to accommodate increased demand for living in the city. If city does not add supply, the demand will continue  to put pressure on housing prices.

6 comments to 646,449 – DC’s population continues to grow

  • charlie

    You’re sort of presupposing there is a affordability problem in the District. There isn’t one — lower income people can’t afford to buy in in-demand areas, and the chronically lower income can’t afford to buy period.

    That’s an income (and social stability) problem, not a function of supply and demand.

    In terms of Gray’s proposal vs. Williams, if I rememeber basically Williams wantted to develop 4 or 5 areas (U st, Columbia Heights, Navy Yard, and Bladensburg) of which 3 have been succesful. There are easily 4 or 5 discrete areas (Bladensburg, Brookland, EOTR) which can accomodate those proposed new residents pretty easily.

  • Alex Block

    How would you define an affordability problem, charlie? I would disagree with your assessment, knowing the struggles for the middle class to rent a decent apartment in a decent neighborhood for a decent price.

    Given the impact that has on the overall economy of the city, I think it’s absolutely a problem. And this is people looking for market rate apartments. As Bossi put it once, “I make too much for affordable housing, but not enough for unaffordable housing.” And this absolutely has to do with supply and demand.

  • charlie

    OR, as I keep pointing out, that the universe of apartments for rent under 1500 a month is greatly constrained by Section 8. I’d guess at least 30 to 40K units? Even more when you consider how low density the majority of section 8 housing is constructed.

    Living by yourself in a major city while you’re under 30 is a luxury. That isn’t a crisis. And people are apparently willing to put up with it to have that opportunity to work in the DC area and build up a resume. Is it nice — know. But I know a lot of people who pay somewhere between 350 and 1850 for shared housing.

  • Alex Block

    And I think you’re underestimating the constraint on the overall economy that the apartment pinch represents.

    None of that changes the broader point, either – that a growing population will also require a growing supply of housing stock.

  • charlie

    Yes and no, alex. Does it suck that if you want to live in DC (and you’re under 30) you need a roomate. Delays household formation but that isn’t a local problem.

    And the other end of the affordable “problem” is finding townhouses and/or single family houses for familes. this isn’t Korea and people don’t want to live in condos — even if they were bulding 4 bedroom ones for families. But forcing those people to move out to Arlington/Fairfax/MoCo isn’t a horrible choice for the District either, and I don’t see it killing or constraining the local economy much.
    This is a high cost, high income region.

  • charlie

    alex, a bit late, but a good addition:


    Many many ways to define this, but I like this one:

    Housing bubbles are measured by comparing current prices to a reliable index of housing prices. Fortunately, we have one. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics has been keeping track of the costs of renting a residence since at least 1983; its index shows a steady rise of about 3 percent a year over this 30-year period. This is as it should be; other things being equal, rentals should track the inflation rate. Home prices should do the same. If prices rise much above the rental rate, families theoretically would begin to rent, not buy.

    And again, on condo 1 and 2 BR that isn’t the case in DC. The problem is high rents — some of these new buildings are 3000 a month — but that is what the market will bear.

    Good luck though renting a house.

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