A survey reveals cautious optimism in the DC region and a road map to inclusive prosperity


Pedestrians brave the rain in the Chinatown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Thursday evening September 29, 2016. Photo by Robert Miller/The Washington Post via Getty Images.

The Washington, DC, region is constantly evolving, but that change affects residents in different ways. As the population rises and housing costs swell, some people don’t share the overall area’s prosperity.

VoicesDMV, a recent community engagement project by the Greater Washington Community Foundation, found that people in the national capital region (DC, Maryland, and northern Virginia) have generally positive perceptions about quality of life. The survey, designed by Urban Institute researchers, generated answers from over 3,000 of the region’s residents on many issues, including civic engagement, community conditions, perceptions of government, well-being, inclusion and discrimination, and economic mobility.

Two in three respondents expressed strong overall satisfaction with their lives, and 81 percent rated the DC region as a “good” or “excellent” place to live. If given a choice of where to live, 76 percent would remain in the area.

But the survey also found that life satisfaction varied by income levels and racial and ethnic makeup. Shared prosperity is a mere aspiration, as the survey’s responses show segregation and inequity across the DC region. To improve these disparities, local leaders must focus on inclusive approaches and collaboration among stakeholders.

Why residents are optimistic

The Greater Washington area continues to experience population growth, rich cultural diversity, and strong economic vitality. Population growth in the District alone is among the strongest in the country, and the metropolitan area surpassed 6 million residents in 2015.

The pace of growth has declined because of losses in net domestic migration, but foreign migration and natural births continue to fuel overall growth. Urban estimates the DC region’s population will grow nearly 38 percent over the next two decades, compared with less than 8 percent in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.

The region is also diverse. In 2015, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians combined accounted for over half the population in the Washington metropolitan area.

The region is home to a highly educated workforce—73 percent of adults have at least some college education—and renowned universities and federal research facilities. Productivity and employment are equally vibrant. The DMV region ranks in the top 10 metropolitan areas in the country for gross domestic product and had a 3.6 unemployment rate in September 2017, below the national average of 4.2 percent.

Including an expanded region from Richmond to Baltimore, this area accounts for the third-largest regional economy in the US and the seventh-largest in the world.

How inequity plagues the region

The survey revealed shortcomings in the region’s economic security and social inclusion.

Regarding financial security, 22 percent of respondents reported they were “just getting by,” and 12 percent found it “difficult” or “very difficult” to manage financially. The disparities in this area by education level and race were staggering. Whites were more than twice as likely as all other groups to say they were living comfortably. Urban research from 2016 identified structural barriers to wealth building in the DC region, such as the fact that white households’ net worth is 81 times greater than black households’ net worth.

In addition to inequities by education level, race, ethnicity, and place of residence, the survey also shows that cost of living is a significant threat in preserving the region’s degree of prosperity, with 18 percent of respondents saying they did not have enough money to pay for food or housing. Latinos, blacks, DC residents, and Prince George’s County, Maryland, residents reported the highest levels of food and housing insecurity.

Nearly one in three respondents said they knew of someone in the past two years who had to move from their jurisdiction for a reason other than their own choice, pointing to the DMV’s high degree of housing displacement. Many reports have cited housing costs as a major driver of gentrification in and around DC. Shortages of affordable housing units and declining subsidies for rental assistance have made the situation worse.

Why solutions need a collaborative approach

The survey responses signal that solutions to these problems must focus on economic and social inclusion. Local leaders must ensure—through an equity lens—that all communities share the prosperity the overall region enjoys.

Solutions should involve local government, philanthropy, and the nonprofit and business sectors working together, with facts and evidence as the foundation for policy decisionmaking. Most importantly, solutions must have a higher degree of engagement with and participation from the communities and neighborhoods most affected by the region’s problems.

During the presentation of the findings from VoicesDMV, government officials from the District; Takoma Park, Maryland; Hyattsville, Maryland; and Fairfax County, Virginia, commented on efforts under way in their jurisdictions. DC’s inclusive economic development plan, the One Fairfax resolution and plan, and the Takoma Park efforts to close the equity gap are steps in the right direction.

Businesses should also recognize that economic growth and vitality depend on closing inequities at the neighborhood, city, and regional levels. Some concerned businesses have launched efforts and dedicated resources to support strategies validated by research and evidence. Local philanthropic groups are also working with nonprofits to preserve safety net programs as the federal government reduces its support.

Solving the DMV region’s problems and ensuring equitable prosperity depends on unifying these local efforts into a regional strategy.