Capitol Hill aerial view

Apartment hunting was less daunting this year in Seattle.

In 2019, The Seattle Times reported that median rent in Seattle was the highest in the nation outside California. That wasn’t a huge surprise, given that the city had witnessed rents climbing fairly steadily for the previous few years (a trend made visible by an influx of highly paid tech workers and new luxury apartments). But this year Seattle landed near the top of a different list: The median apartment rent in the city declined by 22 percent since the beginning of the pandemic. That's the second-largest drop in the nation, trailing only San Francisco.

This downward trend in rental prices was, in part, precipitated by rising vacancies—a dip in the number of people looking to rent in the Emerald City and a bump in the number of people heading out. Whether for a lack of finances, or a desire to have more space in a suburban or rural home, the number of people moving into Seattle fell by about 24 percent compared to 2019, according to RentCafe. The site also reported a 15 percent increase in folks leaving the city. The number of applications for rentals went down by 11 percent in Seattle; among the 30 largest cities in the U.S., only two other hubs had steeper declines than ours.

When lower rents weren’t enough to lure people back into the city, landlords turned to concessions—free parking or free rent for a month or two. It was a great time to be hunting for an apartment within city limits (but not so great in surrounding areas). And folks locked into longer leases secured greater stability through the city's eviction moratorium, which was recently extended through March 31st.

The rental market in the Puget Sound region is a microcosm of the national flip-flop underway: As pricey cities get cheaper, rents in formerly inexpensive cities are beginning to climb.

So what will 2021 look like?

On the national level, analysts at Zillow expect rental prices to bounce back to pre-pandemic levels. They predict optimism about the availability of a Covid-19 vaccine and a potential influx of Gen-Z college grads into the market will drive up rental demand. If this happens in Seattle, apartment values could revert to soul-crushing levels. But nothing is certain.

As of December 8th, around 18 percent of apartment hunters living in Seattle were looking to move elsewhere—that’s up about 3 percent from last year, according to Apartment List. But the site reports that many of those looking to leave the city are exploring short-term (six month or less) leases. If you’re working from home for a while, why not ride out the pandemic in some beachside digs on the Big Island and return to Seattle later?

If the sun-seekers do come back, if the vaccine creates real optimism for city-living, if the pandemic hasn’t made downtown offices obsolete… then perhaps vacancy rates will go back down and rental prices will go back up. Or maybe the debate about rent control will spur change across Washington. After this year, upheaval should never be discounted.

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