July 30, 2019 at 6:00 am
By Gene Balk
Seattle Times Columnist
Seattle rents are on the rise again, after a brief respite. And that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, because that’s what rents do around here — they go up, and they go up fast.
At the start of the decade, Seattle ranked just outside the Top 10 among big U.S. cities for the cost of rent and utilities. Now, we’re fourth. In fact, Seattle has become the nation’s most expensive big city for renters outside of California.
According to survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the median rent and utilities paid in the city of Seattle hit $1,555 in 2017, across all sizes and types of rental units. Among the 50 most populous U.S. cities, the only three where renters pay more are San Jose, San Francisco and San Diego.
The median rent is the midway point — half of all renters pay more, and half pay less.
The last time I wrote about this date, which was in 2014,, it was to report that Seattle had broken onto the list of Top 10 most expensive big cities for renters for the first time. That seemed like a big deal at the time, but it turns out, that was only the beginning of our ascent up the rankings.
Since then, we’ve knocked off a bunch of high-price cities, climbing past Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and even New York. Then, last year, we leapfrogged Boston to hit fourth place behind those three absurdly expensive Golden State locales. Can you imagine how high rents would be here if it didn’t drizzle for nine straight months a year?
And Seattle actually ranks ahead of San Diego as the third most-expensive city for renters if you only look at the costs for one-bedroom units, with a median of $1,455.
There are a lot of ways to measure rental costs, and the census data is very different from those reports that just look at market-rate apartments. The census data is based on surveys, and it presents a current snapshot of renters across the spectrum — from tenants in luxury units to those in older-stock housing, who are paying significantly less than market rate. It includes people in affordable and subsidized housing, and even people who get a break in their rent in exchange for doing work around the building.
In some cities, it also includes people living in rent-controlled and rent-stabilized apartments — not in Seattle, of course, since we don’t have any of those. But New York, for example, has more than 1 million such units, and San Francisco also has a substantial number. That’s part of the reason the census data for those two city’s median rents is lower than you might think.
Bringing rent control to Seattle is one of the signature issues for City Councilmember Kshama Sawant.
The census data represents what’s called “gross rent.” That means that the cost of utilities, if they are not covered by the landlord, are included in the dollar amount. This allows for a better comparison of the rental costs between units where the tenants have to pay the utilities separately and those where the utilities are folded into the rent.
In Seattle, at the start of the decade, the median rent and utilities was just $990. The increase of $565 by 2017 ranks second among the 50 largest cities, only behind San Jose, where the costs went up by $738.
Seattle also ranks second if you look at the increase in rents as a percent change — our 57% jump in rental costs since 2010 ranks just behind Denver’s 59%.
Rent and utilities have gone up in every big city, which isn’t surprising. But there are places it’s been much gentler for renters than in Seattle. In both Detroit and New Orleans, the increases have been less than 10% since the start of the decade. Virginia Beach, Memphis and Milwaukee are only a bit above 10%.
Many Seattle tenants have certainly been slapped with severe rent hikes, which has contributed to the city’s fast-rising median. But there’s another factor that’s probably more significant: We’ve had an unprecedented apartment construction boom that’s added thousands of high-priced new luxury units to our housing stock. Seattle has a higher precentage of new-construction apartments than any other big U.S. city.
Of course, rents wouldn’t be going up so fast in Seattle if incomes weren’t leading the way. The new class of renters in Seattle are higher income, and they can afford to pay more.
The Census Bureau also produces data that compares median rents and utilities with income, and it illustrates how the two have kept pace with each other. In 2017, the median rent in Seattle ate up 29% of household income. That’s basically unchanged from where it was in 2010.
And while rents are a lot lower in Miami or Detroit, for example, so are incomes. The median rent in those cities is nearly 40% of household income.
But that’s small consolation if you’re among the folks who don’t work in tech or some other high-paying industry, and you’re trying to make ends meet in Seattle. Census data shows that in nearly one out of five rental units in the city, at least half of the household income goes just to paying the rent and utilities.