Why sky-rocketing rents are pushing those living at the margins into homelessness

By Janinne Brunyee

Increasing homelessness is an unintended consequence of Seattle’s economic boom. More and more people find themselves priced out of the rental market. This topic has been particularly on my mind recently as my step-daughter, who moved in with us a year ago when she relocated from Bellingham to start her first job in Seattle, has been looking for an affordable apartment. While she is fortunate enough to have a secure safety net, we have found her struggle to find an apartment she and a roommate could afford in a highly competitive rental market illuminating. Thankfully, due to luck and ingenuity, they have managed for find a place in West Seattle. But they are now at the mercy of their landlord. What if the landlord raises rent beyond their reach or sells the building in the next few years?

According to the Washington State Department of Commerce, growing rents are the overwhelming cause for the increase in homelessness since 2013. The 2017 “Count Us In” report revealed that of Seattle’s homeless population, 41 percent said they became homeless after being evicted or losing a job.

Photo: The Seattle Times

In July, The Seattle Times reported that from June 2015 to June 2016, rents in Seattle grew four times faster than the national average. And according to a recent Zillow report, the typical monthly rent in the Seattle metro area exceeded $2,000 for the first time this spring and is up 9.7 percent in the past year. Seattle’s rent was $300 more than the U.S. average in 2011; now, it’s $620 more.

Two years ago, city officials noted that it would take two wage earners, both working full-time at $15/hour, to rent the average one-bedroom apartment and be able to afford other basic living expenses. Today, those same workers need to each earn $19.84/hour to afford the same apartment.

Source: 2017 Count Us In Report

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s revised income limits for 2017 provides sobering news. A family of four making $72,000 or less in King and Snohomish County is now considered low income. Moreover, to qualify for Section 8 housing, residents must make 50 percent of the median income. In Snohomish and King counties, that means you would have to earn no more than $48,000 to get help with housing. In Pierce County, that number is $37,250.

FoxNews reports, however, that so many people earn less than $48,000 that the Snohomish and King County Housing Authorities take that number even lower. They target families with an income of 30 percent of the median income. That means the majority of Section 8 housing then goes to families bringing in $28,800 or less. And even then, they have a long wait list.

Rising Costs Across the Region

Many who cannot find affordable housing look to moving out of King County as a viable option. While some have made the move to Tacoma, this may not be the best solution either. Pierce County has the least number of affordable rental units in the state for really low-income people. For every 100 households earning up to 30 percent Area Median Income [AMI] there are only 50 housing units that they can afford.

According to the Tacoma/Pierce County Affordable Housing Consortium’s Affordable Housing Guidebook, a household, regardless of size, must earn $21.65 an hour, 40 hours every week of the year to afford a two-bedroom rental apartment in Pierce County without paying more than 30 percent of income on housing.

My step-daughter has the option of returning to our home if she loses her job or can no longer afford to pay the rent. More than 4,500 people in Seattle did not have this option. When faced with this situation, they had to pack their bags and move into their car or a tent.