Sunrise over Federal Hill Park in Baltimore. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Baltimore suffered another loss in population last year as more than 5,300 people left the city, continuing a downward trend that accelerated after the 2015 unrest and ensuing spike in crime.
Baltimore’s population stood at 611,648 as of July 1, 2017, according to new estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. The decline represents a drop of less than 1 percent from the previous year.
The figures follow a decline of 6,000 people from 2015 to 2016, when the city was garnering international attention for a riot, police brutality and surging violent crime.
Last year, the city experienced a record number of homicides, and numerous police officers were charged in a massive corruption scheme.
City Council member John Bullock, who represents West Baltimore, said he knows people who had left the city over fears about their safety.
“It’s clearly not the direction we want to be going in,” Bullock said of the population decline. “I don’t think it’s fatal. But it’s something we need to keep our eyes on.”
Mayor Catherine E. Pugh said last year that she doubted the accuracy of the estimates — a response several observers have expressed this year because the census data often fluctuates after revisions.
For example, the new Census report revised the 2016 population loss, lowering it from nearly 6,700 to 6,000. And the data also showed that the city’s population growth between 2010 and 2014 was better than the Census originally estimated. The newly revised figures showed Baltimore’s population stood at 624,062 in 2014 — 1,000 more than the original estimate.
But that glimmer of good news makes the current downward trend more pronounced.
The city is now estimated to have lost more than 9,000 people since 2010, the last census that involved actually counting people rather than making estimates. The next such comprehensive analysis comes in 2020.
And while the city is declining in population, Baltimore’s closest county neighbors and the state are going in the opposite direction.
Maryland’s population continued to grow last year as 27,425 people moved to the state, increasing its estimated population to just over 6 million.
Among counties in the Baltimore region, Howard County’s 1.3 percent population growth was the fastest, adding 4,100 residents. Baltimore County recorded an increase of a tenth of a percent, about 1,000 residents.
Census estimates are important because they help determine how much federal funding jurisdictions receive.
But Seema Iyer, a University of Baltimore professor who studies the city’s neighborhoods, questioned the accuracy of the figures. Housing-market data and indicators of how many homes are vacant don’t suggest that the city is rapidly losing population, she said.
“I don’t love the estimates,” Iyer said. “I don’t think they get a good handle on urban areas.”
What’s more, she added, the revised 2016 figures represent a manageable decline rather than a worrying drop.
“A little bit of loss is very different to a lot of loss,” she said. “None of the other data sets are showing us there’s that huge of a problem.”
Iyer said the findings of the 2020 Census could change the dire portrait painted by annual estimates.
Annie Milli, director of Live Baltimore, an agency that works to get people to move to the city, said she’s not concerned by the figures. Other numbers suggest the city’s housing market remains healthy: Home sales are up, new apartments are coming on the market, and the number of vacant homes remains stable.
“It’s an unexpected result from our perspective,” Milli said.
The numbers don’t mean that entire families are picking up and moving out of Baltimore, Milli said. The data could show that a few members of families might be leaving while others remain, she added.
Still, Milli is optimistic because other data indicates young people are moving into the city.
“Those are people who have the opportunity to fall in love with city life and be converted into city dwellers,” she said.
Baltimore’s decline last year represents the second biggest decrease of any county-level jurisdiction in the nation. Only Cook County, Ill., home to Chicago, lost more people, as 20,093 left a region that now has a little more than 5.2 million residents.
The census estimates also showed that 1,600 more people were born than died in Baltimore last year. And almost 2,300 people moved to the city from overseas.
Those gains were offset by more than 9,200 people who are estimated to have left the city for other places in the United States.
Baltimore’s population peaked after World War II, reaching almost 950,000 in 1950. Highways and school integration in the following decades prompted many white residents to flee, and the population plummeted in the 1970s. Escalating drug violence in the 1990s caused more losses.
Former mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake had set a target of bringing 10,000 new families to the city, a goal she was unable to achieve before she left office in 2016.
Pugh has abandoned that target but talked in her annual State of the City speech last week about the challenge Baltimore faces in attracting 35- to 54-year-olds.
“By this age group, cities are judged by crime levels and the quality of their school choices,” Pugh said.
Bullock agreed with that assessment and said many city residents in that group are making choices about whether to educate their children in Baltimore or somewhere else.
“That is a very important age bracket,” he said. “That’s the age bracket I fall into myself, so I recognize some of the decisions those folks are making.”