Reason for optimism on population trends

Urban Chronicle

Washington: Expert Alice Rivlin believes the District of Columbia, which has similarities to Baltimore, could add 100,000 people by 2010.

October 18, 2001|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

BALTIMORE and Washington are often thought of as being many worlds - if not many miles - apart. But in terms of their recent urban history and challenges, they are more alike than different.

To begin with, both cities lost roughly a quarter of their populations in the past 30 years, with most of the losses coming among middle-class families, black and white. And both suffered from a vicious downward spiral: a declining tax base, deteriorating services and then more flight and erosion of the tax base.

Now, after decades of decline, both are showing signs of an upturn in redevelopment downtown and in selected neighborhoods.

Such similarities are what makes Alice M. Rivlin's optimistic vision for the future of Washington - anchored by a population increase of 100,000, or about 15 percent, by the year 2010 - of more than academic interest to Baltimoreans.

Rivlin's vision springs from a well of financial and management experience. She's a former director of both the White House Office of Management and Budget (under Bill Clinton) and the Congressional Budget Office, and a former vice chairwoman of the Federal Reserve's board of governors.

She was also the last person to serve as head of the District of Columbia's financial control board, the oversight panel created by Congress six years ago, when D.C. was on the verge of financial collapse. The board closed up shop in April, having completed its mandate of restoring fiscal order.

A senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Rivlin is co-author, with Carol O'Cleireacain, of a recent paper, "Envisioning a Future Washington." That paper formed the basis of a talk she gave this month at the Johns Hopkins University in the opening of a series of seminars sponsored by the school's Institute for Policy Studies, Department of Economics, and Department of Health Policy & Management.

For all their similarities, Rivlin pointed out a key difference between the cities: Never having had an industrial base, Washington didn't have one to lose. Although both cities lost substantial numbers of residents in the past 30 years, Baltimore lost 16.5 percent of its jobs during that period, while Washington saw a 7 percent increase in jobs."[Washington] is not a declining industrial city," she said. "It has more jobs than people."

Even in the district, she argued, job creation should not be ignored, particularly service jobs that could be filled by low-income city residents.

In her paper, Rivlin acknowledged that the vision of 100,000 new residents for the district, which has a population of 572,059, compared with 651,154 for Baltimore, in a decade is "an extremely ambitious goal."

But she noted that in the 1990s, several cities about the size of Washington gained 80,000 or more residents without expanding their boundaries.

Rivlin told her Hopkins audience - a mix of students, faculty and community leaders - that as important as the number of people is "who these people are."

Financially, she said, Washington and other distressed cities would be better off building on current trends that show young singles and couples and empty-nesters being attracted by the amenities and convenience of urban life. That's because they pay more taxes and require fewer services.

But she added: "If you think of the kind of city that's vibrant for the long run, you don't want to see it become childless and devoted to middle- and upper-income people."

So she envisions a city where the increase in population would be spread equally among households with and without children. That mix, she calculates, would result in a net gain to city coffers of roughly $100 million a year. By contrast, having 60 percent of the added people in households without children would lead to a net gain of $188 million.

For her vision to become reality, Rivlin says the district will have to accelerate efforts to encourage the building of middle- and upper-income housing, though she figures that one in four units will need to be subsidized in order to be kept affordable.

She also says the city must guard against spreading its resources too thinly and must target its resources to particular neighborhoods - and, most significantly, put a priority on bolstering schools in neighborhoods that are coming back.

"Part of it is physical, part of it is class offerings," she said.

One example she noted was the redevelopment of the residential neighborhoods around Howard University, where she said the university and Fannie Mae were working to provide more refurbished housing to revitalize the area. But she said the effort would not achieve "full success" without improved neighborhood schools to complement it.

At the same time, she said the district, like Baltimore a city with a majority-black population, must counter fears that efforts to increase population are efforts to dilute African-American influence and force older, poorer residents out of their homes.

"The most difficult thing is to improve communications so everybody feels a part of the planning," she said.

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