When the pandemic restrictions were put in place last Spring, there was plenty of anecdotal evidence that people were leaving D.C. as white-collar workers became remote, others were laid off, and schools shut down. Data from the United States Postal Service (USPS), which records changes of address, provides a clue as to how many people left D.C. and where they went. This data gives us an insight into peoples’ housing choices when work and school are decoupled from where you live, something important to understand if an increase in remote work extends beyond the pandemic.
The USPS data clearly shows more people moved out than in during 2020 than 2019, with moves accelerating after COVID-19 restrictions began in March 2020. In 2019, USPS recorded 11,480 net moves out of the city, while in 2020 that number increased to 29,362, an increase of 17,882 net moves out (or 2.6 times more).(1) Net moves out is the number of moves out of the city that exceed the number of moves in and is a proxy for population loss. The number of moves reflects change of address forms filed by both individuals and families.(2) While there was some decrease in the number of moves into DC in 2020, about 90% of the increase in net moves out of the city results from additional people moving out of the city.(3)
Not all of the moves in 2020 were permanent. When someone submits a change of address form they mark the move as permanent or temporary(4) and the data clearly shows a higher portion of moves than usual were temporary in 2020. Out of the increase of 17,882 net moves out between 2019 and 2020, we estimate 9,335 were permanent and 8,547 were temporary.(5)
The data shows more people moving out of the city than into it in both 2019 and 2020, despite the decennial Census count showing strong population growth between 2010 and 2020. However, D.C.’s population increase from moves within the United States has steadily decreased the last several years, and 2018 and 2019 IRS data and 2019 and 2020 Census population estimates show D.C. lost more people to other parts of the country than it gained. The last couple years, any population increase in D.C. has been entirely driven by births and international migration, according to these estimates.
The USPS data includes at least some, perhaps even most, moves out of D.C to international locations,(6) but does not include moves in from international locations. While USPS tells us that the number of international moves in the dataset for the nation as a whole, from which we extracted data for D.C., is “insignificant”, international migrants make up a sizeable portion of people moving to and from the District. The absence of incoming international moves in the USPS data likely leads to an overcount of net moves out of D.C. each year, but the increasein net moves out between 2019 and 2020 (roughly 17,000, or 9,000 permanent) will not be overcounted unless international migration into D.C. increased between 2019 and 2020, which seems unlikely due to the pandemic. In our end notes we adjust the USPS data with estimates of the missing international moves and take into account families being counted as only one mover to illustrate how the USPS data might translate into net numbers of people moving out of D.C. in 2019 and 2020.(7)
What parts of the city did people leave?
The zip codes close to the downtown core, especially those close to the west end of downtown, appear to have had the biggest population loss during the COVID-19 period, even when accounting for population differences between zip codes. The map below shows this pattern. Specifically, it shows the increase in net outmigration from March-December 2019 to March-December 2020, per every 1,000 residents in each zip code.
The zip codes with the largest population loss due to COVID-19 were 20036 (south side of Dupont/Golden Triangle), 20009 (Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, 14th/U St NW, Dupont), 20024 (Southwest Waterfront) and 20005 (south side of Logan Circle/Franklin Square). All of these zip codes had at least 60 more net moves out per 1,000 people in Mar-Dec 2020 than Mar-Dec 2019.(8) To put those numbers in perspective, 20009, the largest zip code of the bunch with about 52,000 people, lost about 1,700 people from Mar-Dec 2019, even after accounting for people moving in. That number increased to 5,500 people from Mar-Dec 2020. These zipcodes have relatively high numbers of multifamily buildings, indicating that perhaps apartment dwellers were more likely to relocate during the pandemic than those in single family homes.
Which zip code fared the best during the pandemic? Zip codes 20012 (Shepherd Park, Takoma) and 20015 (Chevy Chase, Friendship Heights, Barnaby Woods) had nearly no change in migration between Mar-Dec 2019 and Mar-Dec 2020. In fact, zip code 20015 was the only one where USPS data showed more residential moves in than out during both time periods.
Where did people go?
The data we received from USPS on the destinations of people moving from D.C. was highly redacted for privacy reasons, limiting the conclusions we can make. (This data was received via Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) request, whereas the data used for the graphs above is publicly available.) Still, with the data we have, we can see that a large portion of movers–at least 31%, but likely many more–moved to another location within the D.C. metro region between March and December 2020. This aligns with other research(9) showing a large majority of moves during COVID-19 were not to far-flung places but instead to locations within the same metro region.
Moves to the D.C. suburbs
For moves within the D.C. metro region, we had a complete dataset for 10 zip codes located in the close-in suburbs of Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Oxon Hill, Silver Spring, Alexandria, and Arlington. This data shows that in a typical year (Mar-Dec 2019), D.C. lost more people to these zip codes than it gained from them. In 2020 this trend accelerated. From Mar-Dec 2020 these suburban zip codes gained, on net, 3 times as many people from D.C. than during the same period in the prior year. (Net moves is the difference between moves in and out).
We can expand the suburban zip codes for which we have complete data if we look only at moves out of D.C. to the suburbs without accounting for people moving from the suburbs to D.C. Looking at only moves out from D.C., we see that suburbs to the north and west of the city seemed to have had the largest increases in moves from D.C. during the pandemic (Mar-Dec 2020) compared to a year prior (Mar-Dec 2019). The Bethesda zip code of 20817 recorded the highest percent increase in moves from D.C. (63%). That zip code received 246 movers from D.C. between March and December 2019 and 400 between March and December of 2020.
The other zip codes to have an increase in movers from D.C. of 50% or higher during the pandemic were 22203 and 22206, both in Arlington.
Moves out of the D.C. region
The redacted USPS data only shows moves from D.C. to places outside the D.C. region for destination zip codes that received more than 10 people from D.C. in a single month. Because this data only shows a relatively large number of people moving from D.C. to a particular place at a particular time, we refer to these moves as “high volume moves.” The USPS data shows 1,608 high volume moves from D.C. to places outside the region between March and December 2020 and 673 of these moves during the same period in 2019.
One distinctive feature of high volume moves in the data we reviewed is that there were simply more high volume move destinations in 2020 than 2019 for locations outside the D.C. region. The map below shows the high volume move destinations outside the region in Mar-Dec 2020 that were not high volume destinations in Mar-Dec 2019. The big surprise from the data is the Delaware beaches were in the top destinations in 2020.
Columbia, MD, and Charlottesville, VA, were the next most common destinations outside the region after Rehoboth Beach and Lewes, DE, that had high volume moves in Mar-Dec 2020 but not Mar-Dec 2019. Notably, these are both small to mid-sized cities not too far outside the boundaries of the D.C. metro region. Annapolis and Baltimore were the top high volume move destinations in both 2020 and 2019.
Moves within the District
In addition to capturing moves in and out of the city, the USPS data shows moves within D.C. The number of moves within the city is close to the number of moves out of the city. From Mar-Dec 2019 USPS data shows 43,074 intracity moves. During the same period in 2020 there were 49,632 intracity moves.
As the map below shows, the general pattern of intracity moves is for people to move from neighborhoods close to downtown, especially those to the north and west of downtown, to outer neighborhoods. Areas east of the Anacostia River also lose residents to other parts of the city. The pattern of people moving from downtown to outer neighborhoods strengthened during the pandemic.
From Mar-Dec 2019 the neighborhoods that lost the most residents to other parts of the city were 20005 (south side of Logan Circle/Franklin Square), 20036 (south side of Dupont/Golden Triangle), 20037 (West End, Foggy Bottom), and 20001 (LeDroit Park, Shaw, Mt Vernon Triangle), all of which had a net population loss of more than 10 movers per 1,000 residents to other parts of the city. Zip codes 20005 and 20036 had the highest loss at 33 and 32 movers per 1,000, respectively. The zipcodes that gained the most population from intracity moves during this time were 20018 (Brentwood, Langdon, Woodridge, Fort Lincoln), 20017 (Brookland), 20015 (Chevy Chase, Friendship Heights, Barnaby Woods), and 20003 (Navy Yard, south side of Capitol Hill). These zip codes had net gains ranging from 11 to 17 movers per 1,000 residents, with 20018 gaining the most people.
Migration patterns within the city looked much the same during the height of the pandemic (Mar-Dec 2020). The differences that stand out are that during the pandemic several of the zip codes that had gained people in 2019 gained even more people, especially 20003 (Navy Yard, south side of Capitol Hill) and 20015 (Chevy Chase, Friendship Heights, Barnaby Woods), which saw the largest increases. Likewise, many of the zipcodes that lost people in 2019 lost even more during the pandemic. Zip codes 20036 (south side of Dupont/Golden Triangle) and 20009 (Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, 14th/U St NW, Dupont) had the biggest jumps in movers lost per 1,000 residents. Notably, zip code 20008 (Connecticut Ave. corridor) went from losing people pre-pandemic to gaining people during the pandemic.
It may come as a surprise that zip code 20003, which includes Navy Yard, a neighborhood with many multifamily buildings, had the largest influx of people from other parts of the city during the pandemic, since other areas with a lot of multifamily housing had some of the largest population losses. New apartments coming online and offering incentives for moving in may be why Navy Yard and adjacent areas were able to attract so many residents from other parts of the city.
Will people return?
The question policymakers across the country are asking is will people return to cities they left during the pandemic. Presumably those who filed a temporary change of address request will return, as well as some who left temporarily but filed a permanent move, such as apartment dwellers returning to a different unit. For those who truly moved permanently, it remains to be seen if the city can attract people to replace them, something that could depend on telework policies post pandemic. The good news is that as of May 2021 the USPS data shows net moves out of the city have returned to 2019 levels. But for the city to regain the population it lost, we would need to see an influx of residents into the city at levels we have not seen in several years.
-Ginger Moored, Fiscal Analyst
Thank you to Susan Steward for sharing her knowledge of the FOIA process and to Norton Francis, Lori Metcalf, Daniel Mohammed, and Steve Swaim for their edits and feedback.
(1) USPS redacted data for zip codes with 10 or fewer moves of individuals or families in a given month. While the vast majority of data was left intact, a few smaller zip codes had data redacted for a few months. To test the accuracy of our conclusion that moves in 2020 were 2.6 times those in 2019, we redid the analysis excluding all data for zip codes where some data was missing. That analysis shows 2020 moves were 2.5 times higher than those in 2019.
(2) Families can file a single change of address form for multiple people if all of those people have the same last name and have the same origin and destination. Most change of address forms filed in D.C. are for individuals.
(3) The table below shows the data behind our net move calculations.
(4) A temporary move is valid for up to six months and can be renewed for up to another six months; USPS confirms that renewals are not counted in the data and temporary moves converted to permanent moves are not counted twice.
(5) The USPS dataset gives the percentage of all moves, including business moves, that were temporary and permanent. To estimate the number of permanent residential moves, we applied this percentage to residential moves only. Residential moves greatly outnumber businesses moves in the data. It is possible that some people who filed a permanent move do have plans to return to the city; for instance, a renter who left temporarily might have filed a permanent move since they would be moving back to a different apartment unit upon return.
(6) While domestic movers can file a change of address online, international movers must print out a paper form and bring it to their local post office, which could have an effect on the number of forms filed by international movers. USPS accepts change of address forms for people moving from the U.S. to another country, but not for people moving from another country to the U.S.
(7) Census PUMS data shows an estimated 10,606 people moving from an international location to D.C. in 2019. If we add these people to the USPS data for both 2019 and 2020 and assume all families counted in the USPS data have two family members, the net number of people moving out of D.C., or population loss due to moves, would be 2,881 in 2019 and 23,555 in 2020, meaning D.C. lost an additional 20,674 people in 2020. Adjusting for redacted data in the USPS dataset (see End Note #1) would bring that loss down to approximately 19,443 people (12,898 permanent). The actual loss will be higher if the average USPS “family” has more than 2 people and if international migration to DC in 2020 were less than in 2019.
(8) Downtown zip codes 20004, 20005, and 20036 had insufficient data on moves of families due to the low number of these types of moves. Therefore, data for these zip codes in the map “DC Zip Codes that Lost the Most People” reflects only moves of individuals. Data for all other zip codes reflects moves for both individuals and families. Limiting the data in this way did not change the ranking of the top four zip codes with the largest increase in moves out mentioned in our narrative, nor did it change the conclusion that they all had an increase of at least 60 net moves out between Mar-Dec 2019 and Mar-Dec 2020.
(9) See “More Americans Are Leaving Cities, But Don’t Call It an Urban Exodus”, published by Bloomberg CityLab (Patino, Kessler, Holder, Gu, and Rojanasakul) on April 26, 2021, available here: https://bloom.bg/2TLvvDC
What exactly is this data?
The number of net moves out of D.C., including the number of net moves by D.C. zip code, comes from a publicly available dataset on the USPS FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) website. You can access that data here. This dataset separates moves into three categories: business, family, and individual. This analysis looks only at residential moves, which is the sum of family and individual moves. A move is counted as a family move if one form is submitted for multiple people with the same last name. Individual moves are filed for just one person. The data also separates moves into those that are temporary and permanent. A temporary move is valid for up to six months and can be renewed for up to another six months; USPS confirms that renewals are not counted in the data and temporary moves converted to permanent moves are not counted twice.
D.C movers’ destinations and intracity moves by zip code come from a dataset the Office of Revenue Analysis obtained through a FOIA request for USPS data. You can access that data here. This dataset includes residential moves only but does not separate out moves into individual and family or temporary and permanent.
The “D.C. metro region” refers to the Core-Based Statistical Area (CBSA). We matched zip codes to the D.C. CBSA using a crosswalk available on the website of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The crosswalk is available here.
Zip code populations come from the 2019 5-year American Community Survey data published by the Census Bureau. That data can be accessed here.