Survival of the richest: priced out of Seattle

Crosscut archive image.

How much longer can people who aren't programmers, bankers or public employees with fat pensions survive in the city?

An old colleague and friend recently sent out an appeal for help. Due to health and financial problems, he and his partner were struggling to make ends meet, and just before Christmas, they became homeless. He set up a PayPal account to receive donations.

At the same time, my extended family was working to make low-rent shelter possible for a homeless, working single mother and her children in North Seattle.

Another family member recently lost his job when the cafe cooperative where he worked was forced out of its space on Capitol Hill because of rising rents in the booming Pike/Pine corridor. They have not yet been able to find another location to set up shop.

This issue of affordability in Seattle hits home.

We are booming economically, but lots of us don’t feel it in our paychecks. We might feel it in our rent checks, however. The Seattle Times reported that we’ve been hit by “runaway rent growth” in King and Snohomish counties, a “surge” with newly leased apartment rents rising 8 percent — four times the rate of inflation — in 2014. Some relief could be in the offing with new rental housing coming online in 2015 (the result of all those cranes), but how much more affordable rents will be — if at all — is unknown.

A city report by former City Council member Peter Steinbrueck checked on the health and progress of 10 of the city’s designated urban villages, a representative sample. Released in January, the report found that the housing cost burden — when residents have to pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing — was moderate to high, and affected between 37 percent and 62 percent of all households in the neighborhoods studied. Especially hard hit were Rainier Beach, the University District and downtown, neighborhoods with a large share of low-income residents. Rents and home prices are rising, and incomes aren’t keeping up.

Interestingly, another recent study on gentrification by a Portland think tank called City Observatory found that Seattle has turned very few poor neighborhoods into rich ones and concluded that gentrification in that sense was not an issue here, despite what we’ve seen, say, in the Central District.

But City Observatory did spotlight a trend that should be of real concern. Seattle had six areas of high poverty in 1970, and four of those neighborhoods are still poor 45 years later. Worse yet, we’ve added eight new poverty pockets in that time. In other words, from the depths of the Boeing “Turn the Lights Out” recession of the early ’70s until now, we’ve actually doubled the number of high-poverty areas in the city from six to 12. The good times are not rolling for everyone.

The picture that emerges is of a city where housing is becoming less affordable to the middle class and where poorer areas are being squeezed the hardest by high housing costs. Downtown rent for a one-bedroom was coming in at $1,785 per month recently, and you won’t pay much less in Bellevue. You can save $1,000 a month by moving to Burien, if you don’t mind the commute and can find a vacancy.

I feel these changes keenly as a family man, wondering how my grown children will ever be able to afford a home in this city, let alone my grandkids. I can sense a generational sag in expectations: renting instead of owning, “apodments” instead of apartments, rich or poor instead of the Goldilocks spot of being “just right.” Seattle was once a more egalitarian city, a city of bungalows and inconspicuous consumption among its elite.

It’s a harsher city today as tent encampments flourish, even amid Amazon’s hiring boom. Those encampments for the homeless take on poignancy, even a mild sense of menace, not only because they serve as a measure of the intractability of the housing problem, but because, with the slow grind on the middle class, they no longer seem rare and exceptional, but like a permanent feature and a future that could happen to anyone, and does. Are we all a PayPal appeal away from Nickelsville?

I wonder about my family’s survival in Seattle for the long term. Five generations have lived in the shadow of the Space Needle. That residential longevity has not made us rich — we didn’t buy Microsoft stock when we should have — but we didn’t have to be rich to live well here. Now, the housing burden and rising cost of living make me question our resilience: Will we be able to stay and thrive without being programmers, bankers or public employees with generous pensions?

Making the city more livable and affordable will involve public policy — perhaps controlling rents and scaling up subsidies for truly affordable housing. It will involve charity and putting social good ahead of maximizing profit (thank goodness this city has some very benevolent landlords). And it will involve reversing trends that are expanding poverty in the face of prosperity. Bertha has an easier job.

If nothing else, the toll that some are paying makes me aware of the importance of family, of finding our way collectively through the challenges of life in modern Seattle.

This article originally appeared in Seattle Magazine.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.