We need to stop calling D.C. a “transient city”

David Meni, a graduate student studying urban policy in the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration, is a Hatchet opinions writer.

It’s time we retire the phrase, “D.C. is a transient city.” I’m sure you’ve heard it said around the District and on campus, or have even said it yourself. This city’s “transience” – the notion that people come here to work for a few years and then move on to where they’ll spend the rest of their lives – is a common stereotype.

Some people may be simply peeved by the repetition of the phrase, but there are bigger problems. Calling all of D.C. ephemeral is not only wrong, but it also ignores communities that have been here for generations and the people who have chosen to make this city their home. As students who live here for a least a few years, it’s important that we not simply dismiss D.C. with one sweeping statement – a statement, it turns out, that is largely false.

It might be easy to label D.C. as a transient place based on our own experience as college students, or given how many interns pour into the District each summer. There’s also the running joke that nobody is really “from D.C.” However, proving the level of transience in a city turns out to be a difficult task. Since the D.C. metropolitan area includes Maryland, Virginia, D.C., and even West Virginia, someone moving from Foggy Bottom to Silver Spring would technically be moving out of state, even though they are staying in the same area. Most other cities don’t have this measurement problem.

A WAMU report about a study of D.C. tax data released last year seemed to confirm that most new residents don’t stay in the city for long. It also showed that most of the people who stayed here were married and had high incomes. However, by only using data from tax filings from D.C. and not the rest of the region, they failed to capture nuances of regional migration.

When looking at U.S. census housing data, which tracks how long people have lived in a state, the numbers show that people in D.C. are hardly more or less transient than people in similar cities. About 60 percent of people currently living in the D.C. metro area have lived here for six years or more. Based on census measures, the District is actually less transient than cities like Boston or San Francisco, which both have higher mobility rates.

On top of being untrue, calling this city a temporary home to people who actually live elsewhere and will move elsewhere is both unfair and belittling to people across D.C. Many of the city’s more permanent residents live in black, Hispanic and other minority communities. Repeating, “D.C. is a transient city,” actively labels those communities as somehow less important.

It’s interesting that the notion of transience seems to be so commonly held by students in the D.C. area. To me, it seems widely accepted that college students in the District tend to stick around more often than students in other places – whether that means living here during summers or settling here for at least a few years post-graduation.

Some colleges and universities actually have a major problem with having their students leave in haste. Consider the typical college town, or even a group of colleges in northeastern Pennsylvania that commissioned a study of how to prevent this “brain drain.”

As students and current residents of this city, it’s important to discuss why this idea of transience seems to persist. Many of us will only experience D.C. as students. But describing this city as just a temporary pit stop demeans people from Foxhall to Congress Heights who either have lived here for much of their lives or who have recently chosen to plant their roots.

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