City rise in population hailed as turnabout

Small gain reverses a half-century slide

October 02, 2007|By Kelly Brewington and John Fritze | Kelly Brewington and John Fritze,Sun reporters

Elated city leaders were fast to spread the news: For the first time in decades, Baltimore's population has increased, reversing a half-century of decline, according to revised estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Mayor Sheila Dixon announced the revised estimate yesterday, calling the nearly 900-person gain between 2005 and 2006 a "reversal of fortune."

The new figures come after Baltimore officials challenged the city's 2006 estimate, released in June. The adjusted figure puts Baltimore's population as of July 1, 2006, at 640,961, up 897 from the 2005 Charm City count of 640,064. The initial 2006 estimate had been 631,366.

In most places, such a blip would hardly merit mention, let alone stir applause. But Baltimore officials pin their hopes for the future on the annual count, viewing it as an indicator of the city's economic health, progress and its ability to attract and keep residents.

Baltimore's population peaked at nearly 950,000 in 1950 and has declined - at times drastically - ever since. Between 1950 and 2000, Baltimore's population fell by 298,554, nearly one-third of the population.

"This news is extremely encouraging," Dixon said in a statement. "It signals a reversal of fortune for our great city and is a sign of real hope for residents, businesses and future investors. Going from population losses to a gain in population, however small, is a turnaround that many American cities, particularly our neighbors in the Northeast have been praying for, and it is happening here ... in Baltimore."

Nevertheless, demographers cautioned against putting too much emphasis on a single-year jump, especially in a city of Baltimore's size.

"We can't say for sure if 897 is the number," said Mark Goldstein, an economist at the Maryland Department of Planning, referring to the population growth from 2005 to 2006. "I would take it more as an indication of how things are turning around in the city. It very well could be the actual increase, but it is very hard to say."

That's because the estimates are not the same as the once-a-decade census and likely are not as accurate. The bureau bases its annual population estimate on the census - last taken in 2000 -then adjusts the figure using birth and death rates, immigration and other factors.

"I wouldn't really put any significance in that increase at all," said Greg Harper, a demographer with the Census Bureau who reviews challenges by local governments.

There is no "margin of error" for estimates, but a 1993 study for the bureau found that estimates in 1980 and 1990 were roughly 4 percent off actual counts for cities over 50,000 in population. The increase announced yesterday would fall well within that percentage.

Still, the revision announced yesterday confirms a trend that emerged in the first half of this decade - the city appears headed for a turnaround when it comes to population.

For the past several years, city leaders have routinely challenged the annual estimates as being too low. In turn, census officials have revised the numbers upward. In 2004, the census altered its estimate upward by about 15,000, a change that showed the city's population loss dropped to the slowest pace in decades.

"By and large, this says things are improving in the city," Goldstein said of yesterday's announcement. "It seems the large declines that were evident earlier in this decade have subsided."

Development in certain neighborhoods appears to be attracting new residents, and projections show that young people find Baltimore desirable, Goldstein said. Expensive downtown condos have also attracted interest from empty-nesters looking to give up high-maintenance suburban homes.

Baltimore is not the only city to dispute census figures. Officials in Washington and New York have challenged the census, saying it has undercounted their populations.

In making its case, Baltimore officials provided housing data to demonstrate that the number of people living in the city is greater than the Census Bureau's count. City officials offered data on building permit applications and certificates of occupancy, which document that a structure meets building code and is ready to be occupied.

Baltimore also provided the bureau with data showing the number of housing units being demolished or condemned.

Seema Iyer, division chief of research and strategic planning with the city's planning department, said it is encouraging that - even with demolitions and housing units being vacated - the net number is an increase.

"The data that we sent to the Census Bureau show that we have activities in all phases of redevelopment," Iyer said. "And that, I think, is the best news for the city."

kelly.brewington@baltsun.com

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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