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Young migrants flow in, out of region as immigrants settle in suburbs

The District grew to 632,323 residents last year, thanks largely to the scores of young people moving in for jobs in one of the nation's hottest employment centers.

As young professionals eschew the suburbs for the city, an immigrant-driven population surge outside the District is masking the thousands of residents leaving the region.

The District grew to 632,323 residents last year, thanks largely to the scores of young people moving in for jobs in one of the nation's hottest employment centers. The median age of new arrivals in the Washington region from a different state was 27.6, according to the census average from 2007 to 2011.

"Places that fit this kind of dynamic of exciting urban living -- those places are attracting this kind of population," said Peter Tatian, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute's Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center.

Age is just a number
Median age of D.C.-area migrants, 2007-2011
Total residents Moved in from another county Moved in from another state Moved out to another county Moved out to another state Moved in from abroad
D.C. 34.9 N/A 26.1 N/A 28 28.6
Montgomery 38.7 28.1 29.6 28.3 27.6 30.6
Prince George's 35.3 26.2 26.6 27.3 26.9 27.9
Fairfax 37.9 28.9 28.1 27.1 29 30.4
Arlington 34.1 27.5 27.5 31.2 29 30.9
Alexandria 36 30.7 29.9 29.5 31.7 32.5
Source: U.S. Census Bureau

The median age of departing residents over that period, however, is almost identical at 27.9, according to census data. Young professionals may be filling up the region, but they don't stay for long.

"They're not tied down by owning a home, they don't have children or families they need to think about," Tatian said. "They have more flexibility."

Chrissy Anderson, 23, said she was planning to leave her contractor job to move back to Seattle with her boyfriend. She will have spent only about two years in the area, a trend she said is common among her friends.

"The people I know who come from out of the area only stay for a couple of years," she said. "I think part of it has to do with the fluid nature of employment around here -- my friends have political jobs or jobs at nonprofits, and there's not a lot of room for career growth."

Anderson's brief hometown of Alexandria lost 1,238 residents to migration last year, according to census data. It's not alone -- 4,919 residents moved out of Fairfax, 3,134 moved out of Montgomery, and 5,034 moved out of Prince George's over that time span.

Part of the equation is that D.C., which brought in 6,050 residents from elsewhere in the country last year, could be drawing potential migrants away from the suburbs.

"We have this net domestic migration gain to D.C. -- people have decided to move there and make it their home," said William Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program. "It's not so much a merry-go-round movement."

All of the suburban counties grew in population, though, thanks to increased immigration. Montgomery County alone brought in more than twice as many immigrants as residents it lost, while Fairfax attracted 9,500 and Prince George's gained 6,077.

Job opportunities -- especially in technology, science and government contracting -- bring in immigrants, creating communities that make immigrants even more likely to come, according to Michel Zajur, CEO of the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

"You have a very influential Hispanic business community," said Zajur, who moved to Virginia from Mexico City in 1960. "A lot of people who come have friends and family in the area."

The influx of young people to the District helps bring businesses and other development to neighborhoods, though not without an increase in the price of housing and city services, Tatian said.

"Particularly for people who are low income, that can be a serious problem -- their incomes aren't rising as quickly as the costs are," he said. "That's pretty much the classic gentrification picture."

Immigration to the suburbs, meanwhile, can put pressure on local schools while county infrastructure and transportation struggle to keep up with the growth.

"Immigrants generally help boost the economy -- they tend to be employed, they tend to start businesses," Tatian said. "But there are definitely challenges in the short term."