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.