Real Estate 2016

Face It. Seattle Is Expensive.

Affordability has dominated the narrative for years, with no end in near sight. So how do Seattle renters—from grad students to established professionals—deal with it right now?

By Darren Davis April 22, 2016 Published in the May 2016 issue of Seattle Met

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Image: Dan Woodger

When I first moved to Seattle in 2011, I rented a bona fide dump in Capitol Hill. The wood floor splintered, the radiator sounded like a construction zone, and taking a shower was like standing under a hole-punched plastic bag full of water. I also once found a drowned mouse in my toilet.

But I lived alone, in a desirable neighborhood right off Broadway, and only paid $700 a month.

Recently I checked back in on my charming little hellscape to see if perhaps the building, with its general disrepair and seemingly ambivalent property owners, might be the lone oasis of affordability in an otherwise skyrocketing neighborhood market. I was of course wrong. My unit now rents for $1,200. The property manager explained—with what I believed to be sincere empathy—that with the new light rail stop opening just a block away, things were only going to get more expensive, dead mice and all.

While my experience might be common among twentysomethings looking for a space within walking distance of a supermarket, coffee shop, and bar, the squeeze is on across the city for renters of all means.

The data speaks for itself. Between 2010 and 2013, average rent across the city jumped more than 10 percent—the most significant increase out of the 50 biggest cities in the country. Beyond that, some Seattle neighborhoods have experienced as much as a 35 percent jump in average rent over the last six years—and not just in the more affluent areas.

It’s not difficult to track how we got here. From 2013 to 2014, during the historic rent hike, Seattle also saw its population grow 2.8 percent, making it the fastest-growing city in America at the time. While we’ve since been dethroned by Austin, Texas, for the boomtown title, developers still struggle to build fast enough to keep up with growth. 

Seattle’s soaring home prices—a 31 percent increase since 2013—and historically low inventory have also contributed to filling the market with renters, says Ashley Hayes of Seattle Rental Group, a property management and rental services company that runs the popular When would-be home buyers strike out in their quest to find any home on the market let alone an affordable one, “They still have to live somewhere,” she says. “The market just kind of compounds against itself for the demand.”

“Increase supply” seems like the simple answer to addressing the city’s affordability issues, but that’s not necessarily the case, says city council member and affordable housing advocate Lisa Herbold. “It’s true, we’re building more housing than we’re tearing down,” she explains. “But we’re replacing older buildings with less affordable options.” 

“We’re breaking records in terms of price per square foot,” says Hayes of Seattle’s new rental housing stock. Two dollars per square foot is considered affordable, but rents in all of those high-rises that have been cropping up across the city range anywhere from $4 to $5 per. And out of the more than 3,000 units constructed in 2015, nearly 80 percent are studios and one bedrooms. Meaning people are paying more for smaller spaces. 

Herbold’s strategy for keeping Seattle affordable has three parts: add more units, enact better rent regulations for tenants, and, finally, preserve the older “naturally affordable” housing. Whether that means saving older buildings from demolition or mandating that newer construction provide a certain amount of affordable units in place of older buildings, preservation should be “a site-specific objective,” says Herbold.

So yes, Seattle is expensive. And affordability has dominated the narrative for years now, a narrative that possibly won’t change until Herbold’s trio of efforts are achieved. But how does the Seattle renter—from studio-sleuthing grad student to established professional seeking Elliott Bay views—deal with it now?

It takes compromise. While prices continue to rise across the city, some neighborhoods remain hotter than others. Capitol Hill and Ballard have both seen recent rent hikes above 20 percent, and previously affordable neighborhoods like the Central District and Beacon Hill have experienced a similar jump in rent since 2012. Now might be the time to consider venturing deeper into the Rainier Valley, or areas not known for hot and fast rent competition, like the International District, Leschi, or parts of North Seattle. Not to say these neighborhoods will be cheap. But the chances of finding a deal tend to increase the farther you get from downtown.

What you rent can be just as important as where you rent. Let’s say you want a stately old Seattle property. Well, so do a lot of people. “Competition is steep for the classic buildings, even if they haven’t been preserved,” says Hayes. Larger complexes, either ones built in the 1980s and ’90s, or the newer developments opening up this year, bring similar demand but more inventory. Some even offer perks like free parking or complimentary first month’s rent to fill units. And don’t rule out traditional single-family homes. The average rent for a detached home has risen a comparatively low 16 percent since mid-2013, with prices stabilizing at around $2,500 as of late last year.

Finally, Seattle is a city for cohabitation. If you don’t have a spouse or significant other, consider going steady, or at least calling up some friends. Because while the civic brains of Seattle continue to meet, talk, clash, grandstand, and legislate to tackle the growing problem of housing, there still isn’t an end in sight to the affordability crunch. “The story I think is yet to be written,” says Herbold. So hit the pavement, find those deals, explore new parts of the city you’d never considered before, go in on a place with roommates, save money by ditching the parking spot, write council members, know the different camps fighting for the future of Seattle, get involved. And in the meantime, keep calm and rent on.

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