Return flight: City life luring some back in from the 'burbs

Singles, childless pairs primarily take liking to homes, short commutes

May 27, 2001|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Karen Rodriguez's parents grew up in Baltimore, but like so many members of their generation they left the city years ago, raising Karen and her two brothers in the suburbs.

Last summer, the 29-year-old proofreader re-established her family's urban roots. She and her husband, Ben, 32, moved from a rented townhouse in Bel Air in Harford County into a home they bought a half-block from the Senator Theatre in the Elsinore Village section of North Baltimore.

The Rodriguezes haven't found time to see a movie. But they've enjoyed having several carry-out restaurants within walking distance, taking Saturday morning trips to the Waverly Farmers' Market and making long-term plans for their 90-year-old three-bedroom frame house - which, given the $105,000 sales price, they consider a bargain as well as a dream.

"I plan on being here for at least 30 years," said Karen Rodriguez, who works in the corporate communications department of Constellation Energy Group. "If I never have to move again, I'll be happy."

For Baltimore, whose population declined by 84,860 in the past decade, a move like that of the Rodriguezes from suburbs to city may seem highly unusual.

In fact, it is more common than is generally believed.

During the 1990s, about a quarter-million people moved into Baltimore, according to migration data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Internal Revenue Service. And although the number that moved out was nearly 100,000 larger, there are signs that the gap may be closing slightly.

In 1999, the last year for which figures are available, 32,352 people left Baltimore, mostly for the city's suburbs, while 22,878 moved in. Compared with the previous year, those numbers represent a small but perhaps significant change: Nearly 500 more people moved into the city, and nearly 1,000 fewer moved out.

Planners and demographers say Baltimore and other cities - abandoned for decades by families with children concerned with the quality of urban public education - could benefit by the growth in households headed by single people and couples without children.

To capitalize on the trend, Mayor Martin O'Malley is creating a Council on City Living. It will evaluate existing programs to encourage people to move to the city and remain there, and possibly come up with new incentives.

Reasons for leaving the city have been well-chronicled: high crime, poorly performing schools, stagnating property values.

Those who have made the choice to move into the city have heard those complaints, frequently from friends and relatives, but many have their own positive experiences. And they are equally pragmatic, if no less passionate, about the basis of their decision: proximity to work, ready availability of arts and nightlife, the value of housing.

Eyeing his house, with its deck, parking pad and one-sixth acre of land, Ben Rodriguez, a teacher's aide at Kennedy Krieger High School, said: "For the money we paid for this, we'd be lucky to get a condo in the suburbs."

Singlesand empty-nesters

The migration data indicate that those moving out of the city are from larger households and that their per capita income is only about 5 percent greater than that of those moving in.

To city planners, that is further confirmation of a trend.

"We're tending to lose families with school-age children," said Charles C. Graves III, city planning director. "What we continue to see is empty-nesters and young professionals moving in."

That trend may no longer be as cataclysmic for the city as it was in previous decades.

In a recent paper for the Brookings Institution in Washington, Martha Farnsworth Riche notes that married couples without children and single people are now more common than traditional families, which account for about a fourth of the country's households and are projected to decline even further.

As of two years ago, however, all household types preferred the suburbs over cities, added Riche, a former director of the Census Bureau who heads a consulting firm.

At the same time, minority households, which make up an increasing proportion of city dwellers, tend to be younger and have more children than non-Hispanic white households and might have different housing needs, she said.

"You're swimming upstream if you're trying to bring in homeowners who raise children in the city," Riche said in an interview.

The key for cities, she said, is to determine what kind of housing those likely to live in cities want and encourage its development. "Cities have to be hard-eyed marketers," she said.

Baltimore is beginning to do just that.

The Council on City Living, to be announced soon, is to be chaired by James Piper III, executive vice president of O'Conor, Piper & Flynn ERA. "We again have a mayor who understands PR and selling a city," Piper said.

The council will operate out of the offices of the Live Baltimore Marketing Center, a 3-year-old organization funded by city, foundation and corporate money to promote city living.

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