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Millennials consider leaving Washington as the city becomes more costly

The young couple had mastered the morning choreography of their tiny Columbia Heights kitchen. John Van Zandt squeezed into one corner and toasted an English muffin. In another, his wife, Florencia Fuensalida, brewed coffee.

For years, renting a one-bedroom near bars and bus routes was a suitable trade-off for the wonders of the new Washington. But Van Zandt is 35 now; Fuensalida is 31. And kitchen space seemed a little tighter each day Fuensalida’s baby bump grew.

Maneuvering past the fridge, Fuensalida repeated a tired refrain: “We’re going to need a bigger place.” But where?

They were once a part of the free-spending group of young people who jolted Washington’s economy. Now older and with more financial strains, they are trying to find a new place in it.

Amid the talk of young newcomers and their fondness for social leagues andartisanal-coffee shops, another reality exists: Many are struggling to keep pace with the city’s rising cost of housing. And as new millennials move into the District, older members of that generation — loosely defined as ranging from 18 to 34 years old — are heading out.

(Related: How to keep millennials in the District )

The churn adds another layer to the District’s affordable-housing debate as rents skyrocket and thousands of low-income residents struggle to find places to live. Young transients are feeling that squeeze in another way, residents and experts say, cramming into apartments and forgoing cars to be able to make rent. But those conditions can wear thin.

“I hate to say it, but the facts show that the D.C. market is for people who are single and relatively affluent,” said Grant Montgomery, senior vice president and director of apartment practice at Delta Associates, a real estate research group. “But looking at prices, you [still] have to wonder how do they make it work? . . . It’s a sacrifice.”

The most recent city data show that while the median age of those moving into the District is about 26, the median age of those migrating out is 29. Of the 59,000 people who left the District in 2012, about 44 percent ranged from 20 to 34 years old. Those leaving were likely to be college-educated and have an income above $50,000.

Meanwhile, in a recent survey from Virginia Tech of nearly 500 college-educated D.C. residents younger than 34, about 70 percent reported some desire to stay in the city in the next five years. But most of them had some concern that they wouldn’t be able to find an affordable home in a location they desired.

Those numbers represent a new challenge for the District, which has relied on the unprecedented influx of young adults to bring creative energy. Ellen McCarthy, director of the District’s planning office, said the city is trying to entice millennials to stay by focusing on reducing crime to make some neighborhoods more desirable and by preserving more rowhouses as one-family homes to provide more affordable housing options.

“The truth is, population growth in the District is new, and so we don’t know if these young newcomers are all going to stay,” McCarthy said. “But we don’t want to be a city for the young and rich, and the old and poor. We need to keep them.”