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Washington-to-Baltimore exodus slows with economy

Graduate student Nikki Meadows lives in Baltimore and wanted to stay here, but the only place where she could find work in her field was in Washington. Three weeks into the commute, she can't take it any longer. She's subletting her room in a "McMansion of a rowhome" and looking for a place in D.C.

A few years ago, she would have been bucking the trend. Now, she's part of one.

Though Baltimore and its suburbs still attract more people from Washington than the number of people who migrate to that pricier region, our metro area has been rapidly losing ground since the economy soured.

Not only can the commute between the cities be trying, but falling home prices make D.C. a somewhat more affordable place than it was in boom times. Cheaper housing is an argument for residents there to stay put. It also makes moving south less of a financial hit for Baltimore residents working or looking to work in Washington — by some measures the strongest job market in the nation.

The net migration from the Washington metro area to the Baltimore metro area in 2008 was about 5,000 residents, according to the most recent federal figures. That's half as many as in 2006, before the recession hit and the housing market slumped, an analysis by the Maryland Department of Planning shows.

Every part of the Baltimore region, from Baltimore City to Howard County, gained fewer D.C.-area residents — the sort of people handy to have in down times, spending money and paying taxes. Washington workers are among the best paid in the country.

The downshifting in gains doesn't appear to have reversed since then. In fact, at least one sign suggests an increase. Live Baltimore, a nonprofit that encourages people to live in the city, is getting fewer inquiries from D.C.-area residents than it did in 2008. Baltimore residents moving toward D.C. often say it's about work and commute, according to the group.

"I had absolutely no intention of leaving Baltimore, actually," said Meadows, 24, a health policy analyst who will graduate from Johns Hopkins University with a master's degree next month. "I figured if I went to Hopkins, I could make connections in the city and I could just stay forever. But that's just not how it worked out."

Some Washington-area residents, meanwhile, might be staying where they are because they have no choice. Mark Goldstein, an economist with the Maryland Department of Planning, said people have been less mobile in the last few years because it's harder for buyers to qualify for a mortgage and for sellers to get back what they owe.

Baltimore economist Anirban Basu, who runs a consulting firm called Sage Policy Group, expects the Washington-to-Baltimore migration will "re-accelerate" as the economy improves. In the meantime, he said, the lack of Washingtonians coming here is one of the many reasons that homes are going unsold, prices are falling and about 25,000 fewer construction workers have jobs.

For two metro areas that have been steadily merging into one, "the last few years have represented a departure," Basu said.

To be sure, that interconnection is not unraveling. Baltimore and Washington might be separate cities with their own suburbs, identities and sports teams, but in many ways they're already a single economy — with D.C. as the hub. And it's not just because a commute is possible, if not always tolerable, with less than 40 miles separating the city centers.

From the National Security Agency at Fort Meade to the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn, the federal government has an outsized effect on the Baltimore area.

Uncle Sam paid $12 billion here to contractors and employees in 2008, which works out to twice as much per capita as the national average. Johns Hopkins University, a major local employer, gets more federal research-and-development dollars than any other university or college in the country. And the D.C. powers-that-be are relocating thousands of jobs from out-of-state military bases to Harford and Anne Arundel counties this year and next for the "realignment" known as BRAC.

"Baltimore, whether we like it or not, has become an adjunct of the federal government," said Richard P. Clinch, director of economic research at the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute. "When the government sneezes, we catch the flu."

Clinch sees impending contagion. The federal government has spent more than it collected in taxes for the last 18 months in a row — a record-long stretch of budget deficits. The national debt can't keep growing at that rate, he said, and any change in spending will affect communities across Maryland.

What happens in D.C. matters here in other ways, too. Washington workers were part of the rise and fall of the Baltimore-area housing market, in addition to the lax lending and speculation that gripped the nation.

D.C. prices skyrocketed before Baltimore's. As the cost difference between the District and our metro area jumped from $90,000 on average in 2000 to nearly $240,000 in 2005, more priced-out Washingtonians bought in Baltimore and its suburbs, pushing up prices here.

Then the bust hit D.C. and rippled north. Home sales in the Baltimore metro area these days are half as numerous as they were at the peak. Price reductions in Washington that put homes in reach of more people aren't helping the Baltimore market.

But the average difference is still substantial — about $200,000 more for homes there versus here, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems data. It's even greater when comparing D.C. (average price: $470,000) to Baltimore City alone, where the average home is selling for $150,000.

Average monthly rents are cheaper in the Baltimore metro area, too: about $1,080 vs. $1,350 in the Washington area, according to MPF Research.

That gap has continued to attract people northward, even if their numbers are fewer.

"We still see strong interest from Washington," said Anna Custer, executive director of Live Baltimore. "About 10 percent of our customers are coming from that metro D.C. area. … About two years ago, it was maybe 15, 16 percent."

Jesse Holcomb, an analyst for a Washington think tank, bought a "ridiculously cheap" rowhouse in the West Baltimore neighborhood of Hollins Market a year and a half ago. It cost him $135,000 plus $30,000 or so for improvements, including a roof deck.

"I didn't look really seriously at homes in D.C. because the limited searches I did just indicated to me that the gulf was a little too wide … in terms of what I could afford," said Holcomb, 29. He moved to his four-bedroom home from a tiny studio apartment in Silver Spring that was "like living in the hold of a yacht."

He had other reasons to move, too. Baltimore feels more like an "authentic" city to him than D.C., as much as he enjoys being in the country's political epicenter by day. And his wife is a student at the University of Maryland School of Law, on Baltimore's west side. Though, she also works in Washington part-time, Holcomb noted.

Relocating to the city has meant a commute of one hour, 20 minutes — one way. That includes his bike rides between home and the MARC train station in West Baltimore and, once in Washington, to and from his office.

He's not bothered by it. Between the biking and the train ride, "I get all these miles of exercise, and I can get reading done," he said.

Meadows, the East Baltimore resident relocating to D.C., is very bothered by her commute, which takes about as long as Holcomb's and sometimes longer. By the time she gets home, it's 7:30 or 8 p.m. and she's not in the mood to make dinner, have people over or do any of the things she used to in the evenings.

It's a great job she landed, worth moving to keep. But heading south means saying good-bye to her $680-a-month room in a Butcher's Hill rowhouse with a pool table in the basement, granite countertops in the kitchen and a deck on the roof. She's found that she'll probably end up paying twice that amount in D.C. for less space.

Improving her commute also means taking her income, tax payments and volunteer efforts elsewhere. Baltimore's loss. And, she says, hers, too.

"I so much wanted to be a citizen of Baltimore, doing my part, and it's very sad for me to leave that behind," Meadows said.

jamie.smith.hopkins@baltsun.com

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