Seattle Renters on Skyrocketing Housing Costs: "You May Love Seattle, But It May Not Love You"

Rents keep going up and up. What are stressed-out Seattleites doing about it?
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May Nguyen and Jon Lee, who rent an apartment in Othello, are finding that wage increases aren’t keeping pace with rent increases

On a recent evening in a Columbia City coffee shop situated a stone’s throw from $800,000 condos, the conversation of May Nguyen and her husband, Jon Lee, turned toward something a lot of Seattle residents are talking about now: the skyrocketing cost of rent.    

“When I first moved here in 2007, I could rent a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment in Fremont for $1,225,” says Nguyen. “Things have changed.” 

Last summer, Seattle-based Zillow—the real estate database giant—released a statistical report that stunned Seattle’s renters, who slightly outnumber Seattle homeowners. The average monthly rent in the Seattle metropolitan area inched past $2,000 per month for the first time, an increase of more than $450 per month from five years ago, and more than $170 per month from just two years ago. What’s more, the average cost of rent was up 9.7 percent between spring 2015 and spring 2016—a percentage increase four times the national average. If you are a renter, here’s some cold comfort: At least Seattle is less expensive than the Bay Area, Los Angeles, New York City, San Diego, Boston and the nation’s capital.

That rising rent buys less and less: In August, the real estate blog Curbed Seattle reported that $2,000 per month bought 529 square feet in South Lake Union; 618 square feet in Belltown; 696 square feet on First Hill; 575 square feet in Ballard; and 694 square feet on Capitol Hill.  

Rent inflation may not be a big issue for workers coming here for high-salaried jobs in the tech industry. But it’s taking a toll on many others like Nguyen and Lee, a well-educated couple with steady jobs who want to stay in Seattle. 

Many economists say housing expense should account for no more than one-third of your overall income. If the average Seattle rent is $2,000 per month, that means an income of $72,000 is needed to afford an apartment in Seattle. Who earns that much? Not social workers, administrative assistants, teachers, waiters, cooks, sales reps or maintenance workers (or many others)—who earn average salaries between $28,000 and $45,000, according to figures from King County. All of them are at serious risk of being priced out of the city.

Nguyen, 35, and Lee, 34, live in a 700-square-foot apartment at The Station at Othello Park, a six-story, 351-unit building that opened in 2011 across the street from a Sound Transit Link light rail station—one stop south of Columbia City, and like it, undergoing inexorable gentrification. Nguyen, who has a degree in marine biology, is programs manager at the Rainier Arts Center. Lee, who attended the film school at a community college, works in an administrative job at a downtown Seattle law firm. 

They’ve both received small wage increases over the past couple of years, but not enough to keep pace with increases in rent and cost of living. While they consider themselves fortunate to be well educated with full-time jobs, they spend about 40 percent of their income on rent, live paycheck to paycheck, are uncertain about starting a family and have no room in their budget for savings.

“It’s not a dire situation, but it is discouraging,” says Lee. “The thought of trying to improve or move up in any way seems a lot more difficult. There aren’t a lot of easy solutions at hand.” 

Instead of rent control (or crossing her fingers that prices plateau, or hoping she wins the lottery), Nguyen would like to see wage increases. “I think that what will help renters is a living wage that meets the cost of living in Seattle,” she says. “I think that would help everybody.” 

The reasons for seattle’s high rental prices might seem obvious. A booming economy and not enough inventory, right? Zillow chief economist Svenja Gudell, who has tracked the local market for a long time, notes that it’s a little more complicated than that. 

The 2007 national housing crash meant homeowners faced record foreclosures; those former homeowners were suddenly renters again, taking up an already limited inventory of rental housing. Similarly, renters were reluctant to buy homes in the midst of the crash. “It was a sketchy situation, things were in flux, and they said, ‘OK, I’m going to rent. I’m not going to own,’” says Gudell. “We have more renters than we usually do simply because of that.”

Multifamily rental housing construction also slowed between 2009 and 2011. That’s changing as new construction is underway. Gudell disagrees with those who think too much is being built. “I think what we are seeing is supply-and-demand driven.”

Newcomers to the city—and our healthy economy is attracting a lot of them, an estimated 120,000 by 2035—are choosing to rent rather than buy as they get to know the area. And overall, Seattle residents are relatively young and untethered. “The need to actually be a homeowner comes later on in life, and that contributes to a bunch of people in the rental pool,” says Gudell.

Those renters who do want to buy a home are finding the market expensive and competitive. “It’s a situation where you have five available homes and 20 people wanting to buy those homes,” says Gudell. “It turns out that, literally, people take years to find a house.” The result? The normal rotation from renter to homebuyer slows down, the number of renters increases, and the demand for rental housing soars.

The increase in rental prices is also making it more difficult for middle-income renters who want to enter the housing market to put money aside for a down payment. 

“That piggy bank that you have in the corner of your living room that’s supposed to collect money for your down payment is slowly but surely being emptied every month because you have to pay more in rent,” says Gudell.

For those who just want to continue renting and stay in the city, Gudell offers a few strategies: Look in older apartment buildings with fewer amenities, at apartments that are farther out from the city center, and consider signing a longer lease to keep your rental price fixed. “I do think we are getting more rental inventory online, so rental increases will ease. I don’t think Seattle is anywhere near seeing declines, but we are seeing some easing in some areas—especially in downtown Seattle, where we are seeing growth slow a whole bunch, somewhere around 1 percent.”

Some Seattle renters may also be coming to terms with paying more money for smaller apartments just to keep a foot in the city. It’s a strategy adopted by renters in other high-demand cities. San Francisco’s median studio rent is $2,908—two bedrooms will cost you $6,033; artist Peter Berkowitz became famous last spring when he rented a plywood box in a friend’s apartment for $400 a month. In Manhattan (median rent, $3,339), a few lucky renters snapped up 265-square-foot micro apartments for $2,570 a month. Seattle renters have also turned to microhousing: 100- to 200-square-foot single rooms with kitchenettes that rent from $500 to $1,000 per month. 

Alison Driver, 31, is one of the Seattleites who may soon consider one of Gudell’s strategies for more affordable rent: moving farther from the city center. Much farther.

Since the summer of 2015, she and her boyfriend, James, have lived with their two dogs in a 650-square-foot apartment within walking distance to the heart of Fremont. She works at a nonprofit in downtown Seattle. James is a scientist. Both work full-time. They paid just under $2,000 per month in rent. That changed in August when they e-mailed their landlord to see about renewing their lease.

“We debated whether we should ask if the rent is going up,” says Driver, during an interview at a coffee shop in downtown Seattle. Across the street, building contractors in bright safety vests were busy working on a construction site while cranes slowly pivoted overhead; construction was underway on a 40-story, 398-unit luxury apartment building. “Our landlord wrote back and said, ‘Yeah, you can sign a new lease. Here’s your new rent.” The increase? Nearly 10 percent. 

“We would have been ecstatic to see that it was 5 percent. I don’t think we had any thoughts that it would stay the same. That would have been a miracle. I mean, it makes sense. There’s a lot of people looking for housing.”

Driver considers herself a true Seattleite. She grew up in the View Ridge neighborhood, attended Seattle public schools and returned to the city in 2011 after college and a stint in the Peace Corps. She recently earned a master’s degree in public administration at the University of Washington. She enjoys biking, rock-climbing, swimming and being close to her family. She’s also built a strong professional network in the city.

But she’s considered moving to Tacoma, where housing is more affordable and the city less congested. A lot has changed in the five years since she returned to Seattle. Then, she and a roommate split a two-bedroom Phinney Ridge apartment for $1,175. “At one point, they raised the rent $100 after we had been there two years. We were incensed!” she recalls, laughing.

She adds, “I don’t know why anyone moves here who doesn’t have a very high income. I think if you’re making a lot of money, Seattle is a great place to be these days. If you’re not, I think it’s probably not a great place to be.”

Driver knows that many others in the city are in a more challenging income situation. But it doesn’t make it any easier to contemplate leaving the city she loves. “There are other options,” says Driver. “I think that if you are being realistic and living in Seattle, you might have to embrace the fact that you may love Seattle, but it may not love you.” 

Seattle Neighborhood Director Kathy Nyland, Accidental Activist

Seattle Neighborhood Director Kathy Nyland, Accidental Activist

Neighborhood councils may abhor her, but Seattle’s new neighborhood director Kathy Nyland is determined to make more voices heard as Seattle reshapes itself for the future
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 
Department of Neighborhoods director Kathy Nyland (pictured in SoDo) began as an activist who kept strip clubs from overrunning her Georgetown neighborhood

One hot August night in 2015 at the Leif Erikson Lodge in Ballard, Kathy Nyland, the city’s new Department of Neighborhoods (DON) director, struggled to be heard above the shouts from people who showed up to oppose a new, sanctioned homeless encampment in the neighborhood. Over boos, catcalls and cries of “How about we put it in the mayor’s neighborhood?” Nyland struggled to explain that, like those in the room, she had been through her own battles with the city as a neighborhood activist in Georgetown. “We want this to be a successful operation,” she said, her voice shaking slightly. “We’re trying to make it work.” Then she hustled off to the sidelines of the hall.

A year and a half later, Nyland isn’t on the sidelines anymore. But as the person on Mayor Ed Murray’s leadership team charged with upending the traditional balance of power in neighborhood planning, she’s still in the hot seat.

Last July, Murray had Nyland at his side when he cut formal and financial ties with 13 neighborhood district councils, which had served as informal advisory bodies since the 1990s. The homeowner-dominated councils typically argue against allowing more density (for example, townhouses and apartment buildings) in and near Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods.

Murray has charged Nyland with bringing underrepresented communities into the inner circle of neighborhood planning, including people of color, immigrants, newcomers and renters (with tenants making up about half the city). 

District council leaders feel blindsided by the move, and see downgrading the councils as an effort to cut them out of neighborhood planning. Many blame Nyland. 

“It was a surprise attack,” says Dan Sanchez, chair of the Central Area Neighborhood District Council. “Nobody knew about the mayor’s decision until [less than] 24 hours before his press conference.” Sanchez also criticizes Nyland for canceling her appearance at a City Neighborhood Council meeting. “How could she say, ‘No, I can’t answer your questions about this dramatic thing that’s going to affect your lives?’”

Nyland has come a long way since the night she stood nervously in front of angry Ballard residents, afraid to speak. A diminutive woman who is partial to simple, crisp collars, black-and-white patterns and Toms flats, she is gregarious and prone to sudden laughter. And although she’s no fan of confrontation, she’s getting used to it. “My voice doesn’t quiver as much. I haven’t passed out. I just have to remind myself that I know this stuff. I’ve been part of it. I’ve got some credibility,” she says.

Nyland started finding her voice as a neighborhood activist after she and her partner, Holly Krejci (now the mayor’s operations manager), moved into their new house in 2003. A neighbor showed up at their door and asked, “Hey, did your Realtor tell you there’s 20 level-3 sex offenders who live down the street?”

The county had just put neighboring SoDo on the list of potential locations for transitional sex offender housing—and just like that, Nyland and Krejci were sucked into the world of neighborhood activism.

After that first effort—when she learned, among other things, to put all neighborhood representatives in matching T-shirts for maximum visual effect—Nyland went on to organize the opposition to a “red light district” for strip clubs, a new trash transfer station and a proposed expansion of Boeing Field. “I’ve worked with this department for 10-plus years, so it’s dear to me,” Nyland says.

An overachieving middle child raised in the San Francisco Bay Area by a single mom, Nyland graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, and quickly became disenchanted with her onetime dream of becoming a designer at a high-powered New York City ad firm. Adrift after a year of travel to Europe, Nyland illustrated a few greeting cards for a friend who owned a San Francisco card shop. Within a day, all her cards had sold. Soon, she had national clients, including Nordstrom and Papyrus. “I truly was self-employed—I would work three months at a time. In September, October, I’d be painting hearts for Valentine’s Day, and then take six weeks off.” 

Eventually, San Francisco got too expensive, and she relocated to Seattle, ending up in a two-bedroom apartment on Capitol Hill, doing marketing and communications for Pacific Science Center and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. In 2003, she and Krejci opened a gift shop and gallery called George, where they sold work by local artists, jewelry and T-shirts that read, “Georgetown: It’s not just for hookers anymore.” George closed in 2009 when Nyland took a job as a legislative aide to Seattle City Council member Sally Bagshaw. Murray snapped her up to work in his Office of Policy and Innovation in 2014.

Nyland doesn’t draw much anymore—“I don’t even recognize that part of my life,” she says, laughing—but she does channel her creative spirit. She recently suggested doing a Shark Tank–style challenge for the neighborhood matching fund—small grants for neighborhood projects such as park benches. But on tough days, she says, she still seeks out nice paper. “That’s one of my coping mechanisms—I go into Paper Source.”

Nyland’s focus these days is on rebuilding the Department of Neighborhoods. Her signature line is “New Day, New DON!” That means figuring out ways to connect with residents who can’t be reached through the channels developed 30 years ago. 

“My mantra is, people would like to participate on their own timeline and from their own location,” she says. So instead of relying on community council mailing lists, postcards and leisurely neighborhood meetings, she looks into town hall meetings via phone and Skype, and sending DON staffers with interpreters to meetings of immigrants and refugees. “It’s broadening those access points,” she says.

Traditional neighborhood meetings, which tend to take place in the early evening and are not widely advertised, exclude people who aren’t on neighborhood mailing lists: renters, night-shift workers or people who don’t speak English fluently. Those people, Nyland says, “are not making a choice not to come—they can’t come! I want to turn those obstacles into opportunities.” 

Some have resisted Nyland’s changes at DON, which hasn’t had a major shakeup since founding director Jim Diers retired in 2002. 

“There are so many programs at DON that were kind of parked there over the years,” says Tom Van Bronkhorst, a strategic adviser helping to revamp the department’s community outreach process. Besides neighborhood planning, Nyland’s 50-plus employees administer grants for neighborhood improvement projects, P-Patch and historic preservation programs, outreach and engagement services for other city departments, and the popular “Find It, Fix It” program. “They’ve been successful individually, but I think what Kathy wants to do, and what the department needs, is a bigger sense of what the overall mission is. Maybe DON has had more issues with change because it’s so program-focused,” says Van Bronkhorst.

“I remember the first meeting after I was selected, saying, ‘I don’t know if you guys are ready for me,’” Nyland says. “DON has been in existence for almost 30 years, and it has a lot of really important programs, but I think the mission and its purpose has gotten lost. We haven’t kept up with change.”

Van Bronkhorst first met Nyland during the battle over the proposed Georgetown transfer station back in 2005, when he was a staffer for then City Council member Jean Godden. He says Nyland immediately “struck me differently because she was very, very strategic and politically savvy from the beginning. That came up again later when [then council member] Peter Steinbrueck was talking about strip clubs,” and whether they should be dispersed or concentrated in one area, in 2007. 

“I think one of the reasons we bonded so quickly is because we both tend to think that way—she’s constantly three or four steps ahead,” Van Bronkhorst says. Plus, “She knows more about politics, about legislation, more about just getting things done than most anyone else that I’ve ever met.”

Another thing that sets Nyland apart from a stereotypical activist: She isn’t reflexively opposed to development—or, for that matter, to strip clubs. “I had no problem with strip clubs. I live in a city. That’s part of urban life,” she says. “I just thought it was bad policy to have them all concentrated in one area.” Ultimately, in no small part due to Nyland’s willingness to lead her neighborhood toward a compromise, the “red light district” proposal fizzled, and the city dispersed the clubs throughout the city.

Van Bronkhorst and council member Bagshaw describe Nyland as a borderline workaholic who puts in longer hours than anyone—the consummate straight-A student. “She would have been your nightmare in school, because you’d be thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll go out tonight,’ but you’d know that Kathy would be home on Friday night getting her homework done,” Bagshaw says. “I don’t think the girl ever sleeps. She’s the kind of person who loves to give people credit—she never wants to be out front.” Bagshaw adds, “From the time when I first saw her speaking [as DON director] to today, I have seen her become more settled and more confident.”

Nyland says there’s only one thing she absolutely cannot abide: People speaking ill of her dogs. Earlier this year, after she single-handedly overturned the decision of a city preservation board and approved the construction of an 11-story building in Pioneer Square, someone called her to say he was glad her dog had died. 

“That crushed me,” says Nyland, whose office features a large black-and-white photo of her late border collie/Lab/terrier mix, Fannie Mae. “You can say whatever you want about me, but don’t wish death on my dogs, because those are untouchable.”

Nyland, like all department directors, serves at the pleasure of the mayor—in this case, a mayor given to firing and reassigning staff with little notice, and one who seems unusually sensitive to criticism. Ask Deputy Mayor Kate Joncas, who reportedly got the silent treatment from Murray for a few weeks, then suddenly was reassigned to a lesser role. By all accounts, though, Murray is fond of Nyland, and trusts her political instincts and efforts to shake up DON. 

“Since his first day in office, he’s been very clear that the status quo was not an option,” Nyland says. “DON has great programs, but the department has not evolved with the changing demographics of the city.” Nyland claims she has never seen Murray lose his temper or lash out unreasonably at high-level staffers. “I think the mayor’s really passionate and he wants to get things done, and my job is to help that agenda,” she says. So, does she think she’s above the fray? “I don’t even know if there is a fray,” Nyland says. “I think I’m in the mix.”