Baltimore leaders have celebrated signs that the city appeared to have stopped hemorrhaging residents — and might even be gaining people.
But new federal estimates show the city population falling to near a 100-year low.
Baltimore's population fell by more than 6,700 people in the 12 months that ended July 2016, the U.S. Census Bureau reported Thursday, as the number of people leaving the city for other parts of the United States doubled.
The decline wiped out the city's meager gains under Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who sought to draw 10,000 families to the city. And the loss came as the city grapples with rising crime, a homicide spike, a school budget gap and the fallout from the death of Freddie Gray.
Economist Anirban Basu, CEO of the Sage Policy Group, said the numbers were a major blow.
"That's a big loss," he said. "This is deeply problematic."
The figures put Baltimore at about 614,664 people, down more than 1 percent. It's now returned to about the same size it was a century ago.
The decline occurred amid modest growth statewide and regionally.
Maryland added about 21,500 people. The metropolitan statistical area — a Census-designated region that includes Columbia and Towson — gained just 5,000, the smallest increase in years.
William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, said more people are moving to the suburbs and the South, resuming a migration that was put on hold during the recession, although at a slower pace.
Those broader shifts are likely driving some of Baltimore's loss, he said, but they don't explain all of it.
"The very sharp movement ... there may be more going on," he said.
The new estimates largely reinforced existing trends in Maryland.
Montgomery County, near Washington, saw the greatest population gain, adding 7,630 residents. Howard and Anne Arundel counties came in second and third, with gains of more than 4,500 each. (On a percentage basis, Howard County experienced the strongest growth in the state at 1.4 percent.)
Others showed less significant growth. In Carroll County, for example, the population stayed basically the same, hovering around 167,650. Harford County added about 900 people. Baltimore County grew by about 1,800.
Five rural counties — Allegany and Garrett in Western Maryland and Dorchester, Talbot and Kent on the Eastern Shore — saw declines, though not as great as Baltimore's.
Basu said Baltimore faces demographic and economic headwinds compounded by safety challenges both "real and perceived."
Members of the large millennial generation are starting to marry and have children, making them less likely to remain urban dwellers, he said. Homeowners stuck in their properties after the housing crash have seen home values start to return. And nearby suburbs have built up walkable centers, making them more attractive.
"Baltimore City has a major demographic problem over the next 10 years, and we're just beginning to see the tip of that," Basu said. "It could be a really tough decade for the city demographically."
Baltimore's decline was the third-largest of any county in the country, after Cook County, Ill. — home to Chicago — and Wayne County, Mich. — home to Detroit.
Tyrelle Johnson, 23, grew up and lives in Belair-Edison, one of the Baltimore neighborhoods hit by the foreclosure crisis. Johnson said he's committed to the city, but he's seen crime and the constant battle for school resources taking a toll.
"One thing you'll consistently hear in our community right now is, 'I wish I could just leave,'" he said.
Some local analysts said they were surprised by the scale of the decline, which does not match other signs of stability, including job gains and growth in home sales and values.
"There's no other indicator to suggest that kind of loss," said Seema Iyer, associate director of the Jacob France Institute at the University of Baltimore. "That would be a little bit of a collective action to move out like that."
Mayor Catherine Pugh said the city's numbers might have taken a hit after enrollments fell at colleges and universities in the aftermath of the 2015 unrest. But she said she's not worried they point to a bigger problem.
"I'm not sure where those numbers came from," she said. "When I'm looking at home sales and I'm looking at apartment buildings that are filling up ... I see a very positive influx of people in Baltimore that I think bodes well for the future of our city."
The Census Bureau counts the population once a decade by sending mailings and sometimes going door to door. It bases estimates in the intervening years on records such as taxes and health statistics.
Baltimore leaders have routinely appealed to the federal counts, charging that the numbers overestimate losses.
The Census has sometimes revised Baltimore's estimates as it factors in additional data, but the changes are typically modest.
Baltimore Planning Director Thomas J. Stosur said it's too soon to know if the city will seek an appeal this year.
Stosur said the Census has long had difficulty accurately counting big cities with large low-income and immigrant populations.
"It's something we'll need to grapple with as we get ready for the 2020 census and making sure we're doing good outreach ... so we can get as complete a count as possible," he said.
Steven Gondol, the executive director of the city-promoting nonprofit Live Baltimore, said he thinks the Census overstated the decline. He said the number might have been skewed by the closure of the Baltimore City Detention Center in 2015.
"We will dig in further," Gondol said.
Baltimore's population peaked after World War II, reaching almost 950,000 in 1950. Highways and school integration in the following decades prompted many white residents to flee, and the population plummeted in the 1970s. Escalating drug violence in the 1990s caused more losses.
But the declines slowed in the 2000s and had appeared to be leveling off in recent years and even reversing. Between 2010 and 2014, the city's population increased by about 2,200 to top 623,000.
Melissa Schober, 37, was part of that movement, settling in Baltimore about a decade ago. But she is thinking of adding her family to the number who are leaving.
She and her husband are self-described "city people" — a one-car family that owns a home in Harwood, sends their 8-year-old daughter to camp at the Walters Art Museum and attends plays at Center Stage.
But Schober said she's been worn down by the constant fight for resources, and other challenges: fights on the bus, an attempted theft at the library, graffiti on her house, the empty syringe on the sidewalk that greeted her when she returned from vacation.
"I'm really reaching the point of being exhausted," she said.
Black flight, not white, has been the engine of Baltimore's population loss over the past 15 years.
Between 2010 and 2015, estimates show the city's white, Hispanic and Asian populations actually growing, making up for a continued loss of African-American residents.
The trends vary from neighborhood to neighborhood, said Iyer, who drills into the figures each year for the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance annual report. She said churn is to be expected — the losses come when neighborhoods don't attract new families to move in.
Downtown is one of the areas that have grown, as new apartment buildings have drawn people in from out of state.
Kirby Fowler, executive director of the Downtown Partnership, said the city's overall population trends remain more resilient than in earlier decades, and the success in some neighborhoods shows there's an opportunity for more.
But Fowler said the city needs to do more for families with children. It also still faces an uphill battle competing for people from out of the region, especially after the riots of 2015 drew unflattering national media attention to the city.
"To be frank, it hasn't been a strong couple of years for promoting the city, despite the fact that good things are happening," he said.
Edith Gilliard-Canty, 69, is president of the Franklin Square Community Association. Her neighborhood has remained stable in recent years, she said, with no obvious movement in or out. But the long-term trend is clear.
"I have seen a lot of people move out and a lot of homes become abandoned," she said. "It's changed a lot."
Gilliard-Canty said she thinks better schools and more effort fixing up vacant buildings would help stanch the city's losses, but she said the way back to the vibrant community full of bustling shopping districts that she remembers from her youth isn't clear.
"I would like to see that again," she said. "How we can get there — I'm going to be honest with you. Right now, I have no idea."
Baltimore loses residents; area gains
Population estimates as of July 1, 2016
Baltimore / -6,738 / 614,664
Anne Arundel County / +4,509 / 568,346
Baltimore County / +1,817 / 831,026
Carroll County / +5 / 167,656
Harford County / +894 / 251,032
Howard / +4,522 / 317,233
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division