Graduate student Nikki Meadows lives in Baltimore and wanted to stay here, but the only place where she could find work in her field was in Washington. Three weeks into the commute, she can't take it any longer. She's subletting her room in a "McMansion of a rowhome" and looking for a place in D.C.
A few years ago, she would have been bucking the trend. Now, she's part of one.
Though Baltimore and its suburbs still attract more people from Washington than the number of people who migrate to that pricier region, our metro area has been rapidly losing ground since the economy soured.
Not only can the commute between the cities be trying, but falling home prices make D.C. a somewhat more affordable place than it was in boom times. Cheaper housing is an argument for residents there to stay put. It also makes moving south less of a financial hit for Baltimore residents working or looking to work in Washington — by some measures the strongest job market in the nation.
The net migration from the Washington metro area to the Baltimore metro area in 2008 was about 5,000 residents, according to the most recent federal figures. That's half as many as in 2006, before the recession hit and the housing market slumped, an analysis by the Maryland Department of Planning shows.
Every part of the Baltimore region, from Baltimore City to Howard County, gained fewer D.C.-area residents — the sort of people handy to have in down times, spending money and paying taxes. Washington workers are among the best paid in the country.
The downshifting in gains doesn't appear to have reversed since then. In fact, at least one sign suggests an increase. Live Baltimore, a nonprofit that encourages people to live in the city, is getting fewer inquiries from D.C.-area residents than it did in 2008. Baltimore residents moving toward D.C. often say it's about work and commute, according to the group.
"I had absolutely no intention of leaving Baltimore, actually," said Meadows, 24, a health policy analyst who will graduate from Johns Hopkins University with a master's degree next month. "I figured if I went to Hopkins, I could make connections in the city and I could just stay forever. But that's just not how it worked out."
Some Washington-area residents, meanwhile, might be staying where they are because they have no choice. Mark Goldstein, an economist with the Maryland Department of Planning, said people have been less mobile in the last few years because it's harder for buyers to qualify for a mortgage and for sellers to get back what they owe.
Baltimore economist Anirban Basu, who runs a consulting firm called Sage Policy Group, expects the Washington-to-Baltimore migration will "re-accelerate" as the economy improves. In the meantime, he said, the lack of Washingtonians coming here is one of the many reasons that homes are going unsold, prices are falling and about 25,000 fewer construction workers have jobs.
For two metro areas that have been steadily merging into one, "the last few years have represented a departure," Basu said.
To be sure, that interconnection is not unraveling. Baltimore and Washington might be separate cities with their own suburbs, identities and sports teams, but in many ways they're already a single economy — with D.C. as the hub. And it's not just because a commute is possible, if not always tolerable, with less than 40 miles separating the city centers.
From the National Security Agency at Fort Meade to the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn, the federal government has an outsized effect on the Baltimore area.
Uncle Sam paid $12 billion here to contractors and employees in 2008, which works out to twice as much per capita as the national average. Johns Hopkins University, a major local employer, gets more federal research-and-development dollars than any other university or college in the country. And the D.C. powers-that-be are relocating thousands of jobs from out-of-state military bases to Harford and Anne Arundel counties this year and next for the "realignment" known as BRAC.
"Baltimore, whether we like it or not, has become an adjunct of the federal government," said Richard P. Clinch, director of economic research at the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute. "When the government sneezes, we catch the flu."
Clinch sees impending contagion. The federal government has spent more than it collected in taxes for the last 18 months in a row — a record-long stretch of budget deficits. The national debt can't keep growing at that rate, he said, and any change in spending will affect communities across Maryland.
What happens in D.C. matters here in other ways, too. Washington workers were part of the rise and fall of the Baltimore-area housing market, in addition to the lax lending and speculation that gripped the nation.