New figures confirm Seattle's housing affordability woes

The pattern is very strong: In Seattle you have affluent, largely single people chasing a small supply of urban housing. The result is small household size, an exodus of families to the suburbs, and very high housing prices in the city.
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The pattern is very strong: In Seattle you have affluent, largely single people chasing a small supply of urban housing. The result is small household size, an exodus of families to the suburbs, and very high housing prices in the city.

The census long form, which one in seven Americans used to fill out, is gone. In its place, the American Community Survey (ACS) is the source of much of the information about people and places. The 2006 ACS was recently released, so here are some highlights, focusing on the city of Seattle, the rest of the metropolitan region, and the nation. As you will see, Seattle really is an unusual city, and we really do have a housing affordability crisis.

Seattle's population, at 562,000, is substantial but is now only 16 percent of the metropolitan population of 3.5 million. Even suburban King has more than twice as many folks as Seattle. How can this be, one may ask, with the vast amount of redevelopment and construction? The answer is simple. Seattle's average household size is small, 2.17, as many families move to the slightly more affordable suburbs, or opt for houses instead of apartments, and affluent couples and singles outbid middle-class families for those houses and condos.

To learn more about our small household size, let's look at kinds of households, in Seattle versus suburbia. Seattle is off the chart! Here, like the U.S. as a whole, two-thirds of suburban households are families, 25 percent to 30 percent are singles, and 5 percent to 7 percent are unmarried partners or roommates. But in the city of Seattle, an astounding 44 percent of households are single persons. (Along with San Francisco, Seattle's singles percentage is the highest in the nation for a major city.) A very high 12 percent are unmarried partners (often de-facto families), only a little behind San Francisco. Only one-third of households are traditional husband-wife families.

Given the low household size and high share of singles, it is no surprise that Seattle has an extraordinarily low share of population under 18, only 15 percent, compared to 25 percent in the suburbs and in the nation. Conversely, it has a super-share (30 percent) of young adults 18-34, compared to 20 percent to 24 percent in the suburbs. And again, it is no surprise that Seattle's share of never-married persons (43 percent) is higher than the share of married persons (40 percent), similar to San Francisco's share. In our suburbs and the nation, the shares are 25 percent to 30 percent never-married and 50 percent to 55 percent married.

We often hear about high levels of educational attainment in greater Seattle, but this isn't true of Pierce, Kitsap, or Snohomish counties, where 23 percent to 27 percent of adults have a bachelor's degree or more, close to the U.S. rate of 27 percent. But high educational levels definitely describe King County (suburban King 40 percent, Seattle an out-of-sight 53 percent). A significant share of these well-educated folks are migrants from other states and countries. A remarkably low 37 percent of Seattleites are native to Washington: 44 percent are from other states and 19 percent are from abroad (half from Asia).

The last and perhaps most unusual statistic is about housing. See the tables below, with housing values and incomes for the Seattle area.

Households Median house priceMedian household incomeRatio of house to incomeSeattle$447,800$58,3007.7Suburban King County$365,120$65,9005.5Pierce County$255,600$53,9204.7Snohomish County$320,900$60,0005.3Kitsap County$275,900$55,2505.0U.S.$185,200$48,4503.8 Families Median house priceMedian family incomeRatio of house to incomeSeattle$447,800$82,8705.4Suburban King County$365,120$80,0654.6Pierce County$255,600$63,2254.0Snohomish County$320,900$71,2254.5Kitsap County$275,900$67,2254.1U.S.$185,200$58,5253.2

Conventional wisdom would predict that suburbs are richer and have higher housing values. But Seattle defies the pattern, having far higher median house values and household incomes than the rest of the metropolis. The reason is that the supply of owned units (and this includes all those condos) is lower than the demand from relatively affluent professionals who want to live in an appealing and vibrant city, even if many work in the suburbs.

But note that the rest of the metropolis also has home values and incomes well above the national averages. The bottom line: Housing in and around Seattle is much less affordable than in most of the nation.

I guess this qualifies as a housing affordability crisis. I'm sorry folks, but despite promises and rhetoric, this is not going to change. And it does help to explain why so many Seattle families have moved to south King County, to Pierce County, and beyond.


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