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The road to 10,000 families

The fact that the Census Bureau estimates a slight decline in Baltimore's population in the year that ended July 1, 2014, isn't the death knell of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's ambitious goal to attract 10,000 families to the city in a decade. The yearly estimates are just that — they are based on surveys, not the kind of actual counting conducted in the decennial census, and they have a margin of error far larger than the purported 611 person decline. Baltimore has several times in the past successfully petitioned for upward revisions of these annual numbers, and it may seek to do so again. The big picture, though, is that even with this estimate of 622,793 people, Baltimore's population is larger than it was nine years ago. That has never been the case since the Census Bureau started making annual population estimates in 1971 and most likely not since sometime in the 1950s. Whatever minor annual fluctuations we've seen recently, we can now definitively say that Baltimore's decades of chronic population loss have stopped.

But it also now appears clear that stopping the city's population decline isn't the same thing as setting it on a path of rapid growth. The new data from the Census Bureau, along with a variety of other indicators, give us some clues about what can be done to attract more people to Baltimore and to retain those who are here — but also reason to worry that Baltimore's resurgence isn't inevitable.

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The biggest explanation of the city's long slide was what the Census Bureau calls "net domestic out-migration," that is, the number of people who move out of one jurisdiction and into another one somewhere else in the United States. The city is still losing a substantial number of residents who move out every year — a net decline of 5,317 in this latest report — but the same is true of Maryland as a whole, including almost every suburban jurisdiction in the state.

The largest driver of Maryland's population growth is international immigration. It's a trend that's concentrated in the Washington suburbs, but one that Mayor Rawlings-Blake has sought to capitalize on through outreach efforts and strong public support for immigration-friendly policies on the state and federal level. That's important, but it's evident that the city has room for improvement. Montgomery and Prince George's are, as they long have been, the state's biggest magnets for immigrants. But Baltimore County is — and has been — a bigger draw than the city. Immigrants often choose a destination based on the presence of family but also the availability of work. Baltimore could be more successful in attracting them with a focus on making its tax and regulatory environment more conducive to small businesses. It can also do more to steer immigrants toward the opportunities provided by the city's large stock of vacant housing.

Another area of potential for Baltimore — but also risk — is the recent growth in its population of young adults downtown and in neighborhoods fanning out from the waterfront. A separate Census survey shows a growth in the number of households in the city even as its population has held steady or dipped — a sign of more empty nesters and young, childless adults. The question is what will happen when those young adults get married and have kids. Will they stay in the city, or will they head for the suburbs?

The city has employed some strategies to try to retain them. The $1.1 billion capital improvement plan for Baltimore's schools could be a big attraction, and recent legislation sponsored by Del. Maggie McIntosh to allow some transfer of the Homestead Property Tax Credit from one house in the city to another could make it easier for young families to stay in Baltimore when their rowhouses start to feel cramped. The mayor's gradual reduction of the property tax rate helps as well, and even though the progress is not nearly enough, it's undeniable that crime has declined. But news like the city schools' recent budget troubles and the constant threat to eliminate enrichment activities — most recently, some summer school programs — make those who can choose where to live start to look elsewhere, whether that's the suburbs or a different part of the country altogether.

Perhaps the most important strategy may have been setting the goal of 10,000 new families in the first place. Hardly any debate about city policy or discussion of city life fails to make reference to it. Progress may not be as rapid or linear as we would like, but the mayor's goal has galvanized the city around a common purpose, and that is the first and most important step in reversing Baltimore's long decline.

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