In Seattle, a housing crisis that never ends

In the last decade, the city of Seattle, on the northern part of the American West Coast, has been mired in housing and homelessness crises from which it is struggling to extricate itself. It is a question of rapid growth and slow adaptation, but also a case study for a city like Montreal. The first of two aspects under the microscope of the Homework : Housing.

Rachel Smith, 25, lives alone in a 300-square-foot studio in Seattle’s University District. “The building is over 100 years old, and the company that owns it refuses to renovate anything, supposedly to preserve its historic value,she says. She likes the location of her home, but not the incessant theft from her building’s storage compartments, the passive-aggressive behavior of her landlords, and the hundreds of dollars taken out of her account without notice for basic repairs. The quality of maintenance is so bad that I would give the building a 3 out of 10, she says.

Her rent is US$1030 a month a bargain in this northern U.S. West Coast city.

She recently put her nursing studies on hold to reflect on her educational path. In the meantime, she is working full-time as a librarian for an hourly wage of $21 US. The young woman wants to go back to school, but the idea of combining that desire with work and the high cost of living in Seattle seems impossible. There is no way to find a part-time job that would pay me enough to continue living here while studying.

In Seattle, stories like Rachel Smith’s are common. For the past decade, the Washington state metropolis has faced a housing crisis that is testing buyers and renters.

Supply and Demand

As of July 2022, the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment was US$1970 in Seattle, well above the U.S. national average of US$1450. Homebuyers in the city could also expect to pay around US$960,000, nearly three times the national median.

The result: the rate of homelessness has skyrocketed. 1.59% of the Seattlian population was homeless in 2021.

To understand how we got to this situation, you have to look at it from an economic perspective, which is supply and demand, says Gregg Colburn, a professor of social economics at the University of Washington. The demand for housing in a city depends on its population growth, its job market and the income of its population, he says. In Seattle, we have all of those factors: a robust job market, high-paid people and a growing population.

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Between 2010 and 2020, Seattle saw its population grow by 23.8 percent thanks in part to the many high-tech companies, including giants Microsoft and Amazon, that chose to centralize their operations there. This fertile job market has pushed many high-income workers to settle in the Emerald City.

But not every fast-growing city is facing a housing crisis, Colburn points out, citing Phoenix, Arizona, and Charlotte, North Carolina, as examples, which have had very rapid growth and have built a lot of housing as a result.

It is not a city’s growth that causes such a crisis, the researcher notes, but rather too little housing supply in response to that growth. So you end up with a huge imbalance: a lot of high-paying people are coming to live here, and our housing supply response is lacking, he concludes.

This imbalance is evident in Seattle: in the past 10 years, the median home value there has jumped 80 percent, while the median income of its residents has increased only 55 percent. The same phenomenon can be seen in several other Pacific Coast metropolises, such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, which are also experiencing a housing crisis.

Many critics held high-tech companies responsible for the situation, but many industry workers were at the forefront of the struggle for housing. Such is the case for Suresh Chanmugam, a software engineer at Amazon, who moved to Seattle in 1999. At the time, my rent was $250 a month for a shared house. In my 23 years here, I’ve seen Seattle become significantly more expensive, he laments.

In search of a solution

Faced with the plight of the homeless population and the City’s inadequate response, he wanted to get involved. It was the humanitarian impact of this crisis that really started to worry me, says the engineer.

So in 2017, Chanmugam joined Tech4Housing, an organization made up of high-tech workers fighting for housing access in Seattle. The group provides direct assistance to the homeless population and advocates for them at various levels of government. We’ve sent our members to testify at the Washington State Legislature, various committees and the City Council in support of policies that would help make Seattle more affordable, says the engineer.

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Among the projects Tech 4 Housing is advocating for is the I-135 initiative, which, if supported by a majority of the public, would create public housing modeled on that found in Vienna and Singapore, where more than half of the housing market is publicly administered. For Suresh Chanmugam, such an initiative has become essential: The city is unaffordable for almost everyone. Even our children’s teachers can no longer afford to live here!

According to Professor Gregg Colburn, providing a public alternative to the private market is one avenue of solution. “The mistake we’ve made in the United States is that we haven’t given the public sector a big enough role in housing distribution,” he says.

About 11 percent of U.S. households live below the poverty line, but only a tiny minority of them receive federal housing assistance. “So the rest are left to fend for themselves in an unaffordable market,” he laments.

The Canary in the Mine

Until Tech4Housing’s efforts bear fruit, Seattle’s housing crisis shows no signs of abating. It has even spread to the surrounding King County area, where the average renter there saw their rent increase by US$273.40 between 2020 and 2021, a 20% jump.

Meanwhile, in 2021, Seattle landed third place on the list of cities with the highest rate of homelessness in the United States.

“You have to look at Seattle like the canary in the mine,” says Professor Colburn. The Emerald City’s fate, he says, is only a glimpse of what awaits cities like Montreal if they don’t adapt to their own growth beforehand. “What I would say to Montreal is to be pragmatic and make sure we build enough housing to accommodate everyone who needs it,” he says.

While he waits for the housing crisis on the West Coast to be resolved, he hopes the situation will serve as a warning: “Use our crisis as motivation to act as soon as possible.”