Baltimore officials hope half-century trend of population decline at end

Arriving in Baltimore for college in 2004 from her native New York City, Vienna DeGiacomo assumed she would quickly head back north after graduating from Goucher College.

But nearly three years after receiving her English degree, DeGiacomo, 24, is still here, in part waiting for her husband to finish law school but also, she said, enjoying the city's job opportunities and relatively low living costs.

After graduating, she received "a great job offer" from the investment firm T. Rowe Price. She started work Sept. 15, 2008, the day the financial giant Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. Watching the industry fall apart around her, DeGiacomo decided to stay put.

"We didn't know if we move, will I be able to get a job somewhere else?" the Hampden resident said. "Probably not at this point."

Her story illustrates a side effect of the economic downturn that has Baltimore officials hopeful as they await the release of 2010 Census figures: What can be frustrating for many Americans — scant job opportunities and few buyers for houses purchased during the boom years — can be a boon for older cities, keeping residents there for longer than they'd intended to stay. Those residents, in turn, prop up tax rolls and help stabilize neighborhoods.

Across town, Trenessa Annibal and her family are staying in Baltimore for very different reasons from DeGiacomo's. She and her husband, Yves, live with their baby BellaGrace in a rehabbed rowhouse near Patterson Park that looks as if it could be featured in an interior decorating magazine. They fell in love with the "quaintness" of Baltimore and bought the home in 2007, Annibal said.

They would like to move to a bigger place and have more children, she said, but because of the housing slump, don't think they can sell their home for its appraised value.

"We'd very much like to be in a nicer, quieter, greener neighborhood," Annibal said.

Census figures released in December contained a glimmer of hope for planners in older urban areas in the Midwest and Northeast, used to seeing their cities hollowed out by an exodus to surrounding suburbs and booming metropolises in the South and West.

For the first time since 1950, the figures showed, Washington's population increased, inching above 600,000. The district hasn't seen population figures in that range since the 1990 Census.

The Washington numbers, coupled with several local trends, have Baltimore officials eager for the full release of the population counts, to be unveiled in February and March. The count in 2000 revealed that Baltimore lost a greater share of its population — about 11.5 percent — in the preceding decade than any of the other 20 largest cities in the country.

But city officials say the 2010 Census figures could show that Baltimore has clung to most of its residents in the past decade, quietly putting an end to a half century of population decline.

"I think we are, let's say optimistic, maybe a little cautiously optimistic, that this official number coming out … will point to a stabilization of our population," said Thomas J. Stosur, the city planning director.

An analysis of census data this month by William H. Frey of the Brookings Institution found that between 2005 and 2007, more college-educated adults over age 25 were leaving the Baltimore area than were moving in. But the Baltimore region — along with other older metropolitan areas such as Pittsburgh and Minnesota's Twin Cities — managed to reverse that trend near the end of the decade, which Frey attributed in part to the poor economy.

"People are not moving as much as before, either locally or in terms of their long-distance movement," he said. "Young people are hanging out, waiting to see where they can buy a house, where they can get a job, where they can start a family."

A Census Bureau estimate pegged the city's population in 2009 at 637,418, a decline of 2.2 percent since the 2000 figure of 651,154. Stosur said he expects the count for 2010 to be above the 2009 estimate.

"I'd be pleasantly surprised if we broke the 650,000 mark," he said.

Stosur points to two trends to back up his expectations. The first is growth in the number of downtown residents, as reported by the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore Inc.

According to data from the partnership, the number of people living downtown — which the group defines as the area within a one-mile radius of the intersection of Pratt and Light streets — stands at more than 41,000, an 8 percent increase since 2007.

And after years of declining enrollments, the number of children in Baltimore's public schools has risen in the past three years to 83,800 in the 2010-2011 school year, according to figures from the school system.

Andrés Alonso, chief executive of Baltimore public schools, said the enrollment jump in 2008 shocked planners, who he said had expected city schools to continue shedding students at the rate of thousands per year as the system had done for decades. Alonso attributed the jump not to the recession but to three years of much-publicized reforms and a better perception of city schools.

Baltimore is not the only city reaping the benefits of decreased migration. In Philadelphia, officials are putting together a comprehensive plan through 2035 that assumes an increase in population, said Jametta Johnson, a city planner.

"Cities have this inflow and outflow of people, but we're not seeing as much outflow because people are sort of staying put," Johnson said.

Recent data from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey showed that the percentage of Baltimore residents over age 25 who are college graduates rose from less than 20 percent of the population in 2000 to nearly 25 percent between 2005 and 2009, the period measured by the survey.That represents a steeper increase than the nation saw in the same period.

"Baltimore, compared to some of the other geographic areas that our students typically go to, has been more stable economically," said Mark Presnell, director of the career center at the Johns Hopkins University. He noted that graduates in the area have several large, steady employers to choose from, including major hospitals and the federal government.

Figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that the Baltimore metro area's unemployment rate was 7.8 percent in November, 2 points lower than the national rate.

While more young graduates have chosen to stay, a second group — homeowners now struggling with mortgages taken out during the housing boom — has also remained in the city longer than they expected.

Shanna Russ, 29, is one of those homeowners. She and her husband bought a house in Pigtown in 2007, only to see it lose tens of thousands of dollars in value in the housing bust. When they bought the house, Russ and her husband worked in Annapolis, but he now makes a longer commute to Washington each day.

Not wanting to send her children to Baltimore's public schools and daunted by lengthy waiting lists at existing charter schools, Russ and other parents banded together to start their own charter school, set to open next fall.

Though her family enjoys some of the perks of living in an urban area and she has made friends through the charter school effort, Russ, now a stay-at-home mother, said her family would move closer to her husband's workplace if they could sell their house without a loss. Friends in Takoma Park, Silver Spring and Alexandria, Va., enjoy better schools and safer neighborhoods, she said.

The real task for Baltimore, said Sandra J. Newman, a professor of urban policy at Hopkins, will be to keep residents like Russ' family once the economy picks up and they have other options.

"This is a chance for the city to sort of show its stuff," said Frey of the Brookings Institution. "I do think that this is an opportunity for cities like Baltimore."

Continued job growth in the city, as well as further reductions in the crime rate, will help persuade people to stay, Stosur said. In 2010, the city saw across-the-board declines in crime, including a 6 percent drop in the number of homicides.

Judy O'Brien, president of the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance, said her group's annual survey of members reveals that education is one of the biggest reasons that families choose to leave Baltimore. City schools often suffer from an unfairly negative reputation, she said, but she has been pleased with her daughter's education at the public Federal Hill Preparatory School.

Asked where she would send BellaGrace if her family remains in the city, Annibal replied, "We'd have to do private or charter schools."

Alonso, for his part, recognizes that the school system must progress further to attract families like the Annibals.

"Perceptions about school climate and safety have an enormous hold on many parents," Alonso wrote in an e-mail. "We will probably have to continue improving for a while longer before we improve sufficiently to attract all parents, and old assumptions go away."

But for Russ and her family, just one of the households the city will have to find a way to court, the decision to stay in Baltimore long term could come down to their dealings with the city bureaucracy. A house next to theirs has been foreclosed upon, and another was abandoned after renovations were under way, she said. Eventually, several homeless people established a camp in the backyard.

After months of complaints to city housing officials, Russ turned to her councilman, William H. Cole, to finally have the camp removed. She said she's also been slapped with fines when overgrown weeds from her neighbor's property extend into her yard.

"I just feel like I can't win," she said. "They must be trying to drive me out of here because they make it very difficult to live."



Recommended on Baltimore Sun