DC Population Growth Outpaces Surrounding Inner Suburbs

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After a brief period of COVID-induced flight, more people have been moving into Washington, D.C., than out of it, even as the surrounding inner suburbs have lost population, according to an analysis of recent census data by the D.C. Policy Center.

The District posted a net 1.2 increase in population between 2020 and 2023, slightly higher than the national average of 1 percent, while the inner ring of suburbs surrounding D.C. either lost population or remained relatively flat, per the census data.

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In Northern Virginia, the population dipped 2 percent in Arlington County and 2.5 percent in Alexandria, while Montgomery County in Maryland saw a 1.9 percent decrease. Population remained within 1 percent of baseline in Fairfax, Prince George’s, Howard and Anne Arundel counties across both states.

Meanwhile, the opposite pattern held true not too far away in Richmond, Va., which is displaying a pretty classic case of the “doughnut effect” in which cities get hollowed out in favor of the surrounding suburbs — a term minted and popularized during COVID. While the city of Richmond saw no change in population at all, the entire ring of counties surrounding it each posted population growth of 5 percent or more, with New Kent County topping out with a 13.5 percent influx. 

Only Frederick County came close to that level in the D.C. metro area, with a population increase of 7.6 percent. But many of the further D.C. suburbs also saw increases, though on a smaller scale. Loudoun and Prince William counties grew 3.6 percent and 1.4 percent, respectively, while the three counties south of the District each saw more than 1 percent growth. 

Much of this is due to migration patterns within the region driven by the twin forces of remote work and a largely inaccessible housing market within the Beltway, with households moving deeper into the suburbs in search of available housing at more affordable prices. 

This would suggest that D.C. is displaying the opposite of the doughnut effect, but the truth is that D.C.’s population growth can be largely attributed to international migration, which offset a loss in domestic population between 2022 and 2033. The inner suburbs also saw domestic declines and international increases during that period, but the international migration was not enough to offset the outflow.

And even with accounting for international migration, it remains true that the outer counties are growing at a faster rate than D.C., suggesting that there’s still a gravitational pull into the suburbs.

And while talk of the doughnut effect has waned since its heyday at the height of the pandemic, it’s undeniable that many cities — like Richmond and Austin, Texas — are facing similar pressures. 

Chava Gourarie can be reached at cgourarie@commercialobserver.com.